Sunday, January 23, 2011

Masterpieces that are not nominated for Oscar: Women Without Men.

Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat, 2009) deserves a place amongst those cinematic masterpieces that will have remained obscure, perhaps for ever.

Despite winning the Silver Lion of the Venice Film Festival in 2009 (for best director), and despite generating a lot of paparazzi and revolutionary buzz around Shirin Neshat's "green" and "feminist" appearance on the red carpet, the film received little cinematic attention. In fact, it did not make it to many art house cinemas around the world before it was released on DVD.

With my little expertise in how media and film interact, I would have advised Neshat to not publicize this fantastic piece of visual art in the narrow tunes of feminist-Iranist-activist horn. This may be why the film has not reached the greater art and politics audience it deserves. The danger with linking a film to a contemporary 'revolution' (the Green one at this time) is that both the art houses and the big-buck distributors and promoters become hesitant to pick it as a favorite. I think this film deserved an oscar nomination (but I understand the politics that have kept it away, as well.)

And of course, there is the fallacy of the teasers. None of the teasers I saw of the film encouraged me to expect from the film what it actually contained: visual poetry; each frame freezing an instance where pain and beauty intersected. "I don't make pictures to be beautiful, I only make pictures where beauty conveys a pain or a struggle", says Shirin Neshat in the Special Feature chapter of the DVD I just received from Amazon.UK (~ 10$). (I confess that I was so disgruntled by the whole green symbolism around this film that I did not want to see it for a long time; I just dislike artists engaging in explicit propaganda--but this film is NOT propaganda at all, even if the artist says it is, don't believe her.)

The Guardian and the NYT have given it a nod, highlighting the women and the 1953 coup aspect of the film; the LA Times focused on the green on the red carpet part; although there were some LA writers who focused on the poetics of the film; the Variety acknowledge the visual beauty only to bash the narrative difficulties; The London Times was the one to correctly suggest the name misled the audience to expect a feminist rant instead of a human story; although the Feminist review insists on the feminist rant. Perhaps the most justice was delivered by the New York Review of Books, where Sarah Kerr acknowledged and contextualizes this work in relation to Neshat's previous monumentally turbulent [PLEASE WATCH] creations. Kerr talks about the caustic wit of Shahrnoush Parsipour, whose novel Neshat free-adapted; talks about the history of the American coup and the role of women in Iran's 1953 society; but also draws attention to elements of set design; and the details of this wonderful (and rare) period film:

"Neshat’s beautiful images, and also her sounds, remain a clear strength over her plotting. As in Turbulent, she casts a spell portraying musicians at weddings and salons. In another short but fierce scene, women in black sitting cross-legged in a courtyard are swaying as they wail, their voices fused into a buzzing sound like a medieval shawm. The film keeps returning to the image of a walled garden outside Tehran that is also key to the novel, a temporary place of refuge for the women and a thematically loaded idea. The first time we glimpse the garden, it looks like little more than a scrawny ribbon of stream water. But soon enough tall trees come into view, and fog cut by stripes of sunlight. There is an orchard nearby and there are plants, not overly tended by perfecting human hands and gone to seed. Visually the scene has magic in it—a quiet dense with the work of nature, a paradise saturated with the energy of life, cycling toward death and back again."
The troubled production history of the film is remarkable: Neshat's brother dies a day after shooting (although his family keeps it a secret from her); one of her Iranian actresses that cannot get a Visa to the US, gets banned from leaving Iran for Morocco (where the film was shot); the film was produced internationally: The Iranian-American director had to secure funding from German, Austrian and French producers, produce the set in different countries, edit the film by different editors in each country, coordinate different sorts of characters, with the baggages of pain and mental illness and eating disorder, speaking 100 various languages on the set [anecdotes from Shirin Neshat, in the special feature of the DVD] and deal with funding issues.

The set design, the mise en scene cannot be overlooked. Keep in mind that the film is presenting an era of the Iranian history that has suffered censorship both during the Pahlavi regime (because the film revolves around the American coup that overthrew Iran's democraticaly elected prime minister and reinstated the Shah) and during the Mullah regime (because the IRI has propagated its own version of history in those years, highlighting the role of Kashani and obscuring the nationalists and lumping them together with communists as far as the nationalization of Oil concerned. To get the details of set right, Neshat had to read many books and travel to speak to many people: her sets are reconstructed from the collective memory of those who have lived those times.

This is not a realist film; it is an expressionist one where form overwhelms the narrative. While watching, I was compelled to take a picture of each scene, and to write about each frame, about the composition of colors and frame, the camera choreography, about the acting, about the social space compacted in each mise en scene, and about the fact that this is the first feature film of this outstanding artist. Neshat is deliberates her political arguments in beautiful Tableaux. And not only does she show that Iran was not a barbaric land unfamiliar with democracy and modernism, but that it was the British and the Americans who helped ruining it. It so happens that the lives of four women (prostitute, socialite, intellectual and traditional) unfolds in that time told by Parsipour; but the creation of space and light is Neshat's. A marvelous one too.


Pedestrian said...

Thanks for this Naj! I never bothered seeing the movie b/c it was trying to sell itself as too much of a "feminist-Iranist-activist-greenist" promotional video ... You've inspired me to see it!

Naj said...

This is not only an "expressionist" film, in a lot of shots, but also expressive. Watch it as if you are watching Ta'ziyeh; watch it with consideration for Oriental forms (Indian, Japanese cinema) ...

it was a contender for Oscar nomination, I learned yesterday. But I don't think they were nominated. This was one of the most beautiful films since Kurusawa's Dreams. (keep in mind, I am a sucker for visual arts; meaning is always secondary for me in Cinema)

I'd love to hear what you find in it.

Pedestrian said...

I will let you know how it goes!
I met Neshat in New York @ Alwan (an Arab but mainly Palestinian arts house, it's AWESOME!!) at a reading by Julian Schnabel and Rula Jebreal for their film "Miral". She was the moderator of the event, but two things:

first of all, I didn't know that she was involved with Palestinian/middle easterner arts circles (which doesn't say a lot, I didn't know anything about her at all :-P) which made me really happy. I hope there's more collaboration between middle easterner artists outside the region, as there is so much they can do together and so little room for it inside the middle east.

.... She came off sounding really, really stupid however. I'm not just saying that, like I said, I don't know much about her, but there were folks there who knew her really well and who got really excited when they first saw her, but they were all really disappointed. She was the moderator, and there were so many fascinating things she could have asked given how captivating the story was and the circumstances ... but she resigned to asking one or two tabloid-ish questions, and then she shut up completely for the duration of the 2 hours.

........ now I'm babbling, none of that has to do with her film. Maybe she just has no moderating ability. I pre-ordered it on the website. Can't wait! :D

Naj said...


no she is not very intelligent in parole; that is why her art is so much more magnificent :)

Anonymous said...

Naj, Here is the most recent Q & A regarding doubts related to historical accuracy of Shirin Neshat's rewriting of Shahrnoush Parsipour

Anonymous said...

Naj, Here is the most recent Q & A regarding doubts related to historical accuracy of Shirin Neshat's rewriting of Shahrnoush Parsipour