For an artist who has stated in interviews that she is not political but rather posits her art as something to open up dialogue - Shirin Neshat's comments were very political during her conversation and partial screening of her film Women Without Men at LACMA on June 15. Neshat thanked the audience and made it clear that she was emotional and glad to be among Iranians during this time of turmoil in Iran. "My country's image...which is viewed as barbaric and inferior...and one that likes violence." As a counterpoint Neshat gave a look at an Iran on the verge of social and political change in 1953 and this comes at a time when we are again witnessing change in Iranian society.
Neshat's film Women Without Men which is based on Sharnush Parispur's book of the same has been six years in the making and the Los Angeles audience was the first to be viewing it in a partial cut. There was a segment in which the main characters were introduced and they have been reduced to four in the film from five in the book. The character of Mahdokht was left out since she would have been difficult to portray due to the mythical or magical realist manner in which she is portrayed by Parsipur in the book. Parsipur even appears in the film as the madame of the bordello where Zarin works.
Operation Ajax or the coup d'état instigated by the British and the U.S. to topple the democratically elected Mossadegh takes a prominent role in the film while in the book it is more a point of departure and is more of a background story. For Neshat this change was necessary to demonstrate that Iran had shifted to democracy in 1953 and that democracy was erased by the West who profess to having democracies by their coup. Much research was conducted by Neshat through interviews of ex-political activists who are now in their 80s. "I learned much about Iran in doing this research and interviews for the film," stated Neshat. Also, Neshat became aware of the highly developed artistic and social culture and the politics of Iran in the 50s.
The film's cinematography is stunning and its palette is muted in the manner of a fading postcard of a distant land. The aesthetic was created by shooting the film in Super 35 and the cinematographer is Austrian Martin Gschlacht. Neshat stated her film influences range from Tarkovsky, Buñuel and Kiarostami but the film and its aesthetic are all Neshat. This is a departure for Neshat who typically works with a group of Iranian artists, musicians and cineastes.
In this same vein the music which contains Iranian and Middle Eastern tones and melodies by the inclusion of instruments such as the santour is composed by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who has done work on many international films such as Babel.
Neshat decided to work on a feature length film in order to reach a wider audience and become accessible to others besides the gallery and museum crowd. Though the project was something new Neshat believes that one has one life and one should take a chance at re-invention and an opportunity to renew and grow.
For Neshat the film represents, "...courage and the notion of courage to do something by one's own hand." Also it is indicative of the spirit of Iranians and how they have had the courage to change in 1953 and throughout the history of Persia and Iran.
Neshat did not know if she would be successful but wanted to take a chance at learning how to make a film and acquiring a new audience while keeping her old audience enraptured with how she continues to grow. Women Without Men has been invited to premiere at several European film festivals in fall 2009.
Teresa Camacho is a writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America. Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.
[This was originally published on PersianMirror.com and is the copyrighted intellectual property of Teresa Camacho.]