WOMEN WITHOUT MEN directed by Shirin Neshat, written by Neshat with Shoja Azari, from the book by Shahrnush Parsipur. 95 minutes. Subtitled. A Mongrel release. Opens Friday (April 2). For venues, trailers and times, see Listings.
Shirin Neshat may be a celebrated visual artist - her work, mostly about gender relations, has been seen in museums all over the world - but that doesn't mean that her transition to feature filmmaker was easy.[rssbreak]
"Those of us who work in video installation underestimate the difference between that language and the language of film," says the super-articulate artist on the line from her studio in New York City.
"The degree of enigma that's allowed in galleries and museums isn't possible in a film, unless you want a minor audience."
Women Without Men is her adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur's book. Set in 1953, it weaves the story of four women, each in different circumstances on the eve of the military coup that was aided and abetted by the U.S.
"My work has always navigated the personal and social and magic realism, so the style of the book lent itself very well," she recalls of her decision to adapt it. "The novel has a foot in reality and in political issues, and it also takes on the situation of women - the spiritual and emotional world they inhabit - and mystical elements that come in conflict with the politics."
Neshat also appreciates the way the story evokes Iran's democratic rule in the 50s and the way the Americans interfered.
"As an Iranian American living in the post-9/11 era, I'm listening to the debate and am aware of the antagonism between the two countries. But there's no reference to the fact that Iran had a democracy that was overthrown by the American government. There's an amnesia about the role of the Americans. We wouldn't be where we are today of it hadn't been for that event. It paved the way for the Islamic revolution."
As a filmmaker, Neshat hasn't yet conquered the art of the seamless narrative. Occasionally, the images themselves eclipse the flow of the story. But those images are spectacular, reason enough to see the movie and uncannily reflecting Neshat's own aesthetic. She credits her cinematographer, Martin Gschlacht.
"Martin knew my past work. He was the brain of the project. Every single frame was carefully calculated. I interviewed other cinematographers, and they kept saying everything was impossible. For example, I'd take someone to the bathhouse with the high ceilings, and he'd say, ‘I can't light this place.' Martin thought everything was possible, and worked around my crazy ideas."
Neshat isn't worried that a movie set in the 50s won't have contemporary resonance. In fact, she's quick to see the connection to current events in her home country.
"It's ironic," she says, "that when the film was first screened last summer there were demonstrations in the streets of Tehran, and women were at the forefront of that action."
Feminists will doubtless embrace Women Without Men as an indictment of Iran's patriarchal culture. But Neshat feels the film's treatment of men and women is more nuanced than that.
"Ernest Hemingway wrote a book called Men Without Women, and Shahrnush's book is a response to him. His book isn't about men hating women, but about men who couldn't cope with women. Shahrnush says she wrote her book not about the conflict between men and women but about women who could not cope with their men."
Since she still can't work in Iran and can't even visit, she chose to shoot Women Without Men in Marrakesh.
"It's a mixed blessing being nomadic as we are, without a choice," she says. "Those of us who've left have learned how to function by going to other places and making them look like Iran. But then the Moroccan flavour peeks through.
"It's like when Eisenstein left Russia and went to Mexico to make great films. You can see his signature as a Russian artist, but you can see Mexican faces, and that becomes representative of the time Russia was so oppressive.
"So the nomadic approach to our work reflects our truth - that we're not able to speak with the sense of purity and authority.
"And therefore the world becomes our studio."
But Neshat sees hope in the current political movement in her homeland.
"The last few months' chain of events gave us a glimpse of possibility," she says. "There's so much resistance against this government that it is almost unstoppable. We're hopeful change will come and that the government will bend.
"Then again, as long as this government is in power, none of us can even dream of such a thing."
Neshat is the kind of artist who craves new challenges, but she's nowhere near finished with feature filmmaking.
"I'm afraid of repetition, which is why I moved so quickly from photography to film. But I'm still a student in this field," she says. "It's like a new beginning, and I love that I can feel energized, the way I did when I started making photographs."
Additional Interview Clips
On the current political situation in Iran
On the Ernest Hemingway connection