“Women Without Men”, One More Must See Film from Iran.

Women Without Men.

Women Without Men.

Women Without Men sounds like it could be one of those dull, educational chores. When in fact, it’s a sumptuous, richly evocative film that calls to mind the heady days of Italian cinema in the1960s and early 70s.

Think late Visconti, De Sica’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis (reviewed earlier here) and the Taviani brothers. Imagine if Bertolucci had ever managed to use his technical bravura to actually say something.

Shirin Neshat, whose first film this was, has said that she was influenced by Kiarostami when she decided to make the move from conceptual art into the world of feature films. And she is very much part of that new wave of Iranian film makers that also includes Ashgar Farhadi, whose A Separation and About Elly I reviewed here and here, and poor Jafar Panahi, reviewed here who, outrageously, remains under house arrest in Iran.

This Is Not A Film

Panahi’s This Is Not A Film.

Interestingly and unlike them, she is looking at Iran from the outside, having lived most of her life as an exile in the US.

Neshat has taken Shahrnush Parisipur’s famous novella, which charts the lives of four women, and has posited their stories against the backdrop of the events of 1953. It was then that the British and the US joined forces to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mosaddegh, and supplant him with a military dictatorship under the Shah, so the former could regain its control of Iran’s oil supply.

I can’t for the life of me imagine why a film maker would waste her time on historical events like this that clearly have so little relevance to the world we live in today.

Inevitably, indeed necessarily, revolution followed 25 years later. Immediately after which, the same crowd armed and funded Iraq in its war against Iran. And the they invaded Iraq, and then Afganistan, again, over yet more oil. And on its foes ad patently infinitum. Little wonder then that Iran looks at the West with such jaundiced eyes.

Women Without Men.

Women Without Men.

All of which could have resulted in a painfully dull film, part historical lecture, part feminist tract. But what Neshat has made instead is a marriage of magic realism and exquisite, formal precision. The result is ravishingly beautiful and quietly moving. Four female archetypes set against the backdrop of political turmoil, in the face of which, resistance appears futile. And yet, resist they must.

It won the Silver Lion at Venice in 2009 – in fairness, the Golden Lion went to the brilliant Lebanon. You should see them both, and you can see the trailer for Women Without Men here.

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Jafar Panahi’s “This Is Not A Film”, Yet Another Iranian Triumph, Not.

This Is Not A FilmIn late 2010 the gifted Iranian film maker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail and forbidden from make films for 20 years.

Films of his such as The Circle from 2000 and Offside from 2006 had suggested that here was yet another Iranian film maker who seemed to have successfully found a way to gently critique the land of his birth, especially its attitude to women, but to do so in such a way that the authorities were begrudgingly prepared to put up with. Not any more, alas.

Under house arrest, and forbidden from in any way being seen to make films, he invited a film maker friend of his around to record a day in his life. Lightheartedly at first, he begins to act out the film that he’d hoped to be making. It’s a story of a girl imprisoned in her own home, forbidden by her traditional parents from leaving to pursue her studies at university.

But as he tries to tell the film, all levity suddenly evaporates, and the hopelessness of his situation finally dawns on him. You can’t tell a film, that’s not what a film is. And suddenly, the title’s no longer funny or mischievous, but quietly tragic. He might never make a film ever again. And he’s probably on his way to gaol, for years.

Something quite remarkable happened to Iranian cinema about 20 years ago. Its natural mode had always been that of neorealism. So when we see the boy impatiently asking an elder for directions in Kiarostami’s Where Is The Friend’s Home from 1987, the old man continues preparing his pipe before stirring himself to reply.

His face seems to say, empires rise and empires fall, but nothing ever really changes, so I might as well enjoy my smoke before eventually addressing your question – which by the way, and unsurprisingly, I’ll not be able to help you with.

But in 1990 Kiarostami made a completely different kind of film, with the brilliant if uncharacteristic Close Up. It follows a man who impersonates another major Iranian film maker, Mohsan Makhmalbaf. But as you watch what appears to be a documentary, you realize that a lot of what you’re seeing must in fact have been re-enacted. And the film’s subject, truth and lies, is mirrored by the form it takes to tell its story, as it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle fact from fiction.

The following year, in ’91, he made a documentary cum feature film about the actors from Where Is The Friend’s Home called Life And Nothing More. And in ’94 he made Through The Olive Trees, which was a film about the actors in that film, and the tension between how they treated one another on and off set. In other words, he made a film, about a film, about a film.

Then in ’96, Makhmalbaf, he of Close Up, made a remarkable film about a film maker making a film about an incident in his youth, when he’d stabbed a policeman. But the film, provocatively titled A Moment of Innocence, starred the actual policeman playing his older self, advising the actor who was cast as his younger self!

Most remarkably of all, Makhmalbaf’s 18 year old daughter Samira then made a stunning film called The Apple, in ’98, about which I’ll say nothing other than I defy anyone to unpick which scenes were fictionalized and which one that actually happened.

So when we see the forlorn Panahi pointing his iPhone at his friend, as his friend films him in his apartment in This Is Not A Film, it’s a particularly poignant image. Here are two Iranian film makers engaged in a yet another fascinating exploration of artifice and the film making process, and how it can impinge on the every day lives of ordinary people. It’s an artistic conversation that we in the rest of the world have been hypnotized by and have watched and listened to in awe and wonder.

What an amazing country, to have produced so many serous film makers producing such an extraordinary variety of films. A Separation for instance, is a completely different kind of film (reviewed here). And yet here is yet another major film maker quietly questioning the country he loves and lives in.

But what was once a source of domestic pride has been transformed into one of national shame. The authorities in Iran appear to be incapable of seeing the wood from the trees. And instead of celebrating one of their many, brilliant film makers, they’re sending one of them to gaol. Shame on you.

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