At the Venice Film Festival, the Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat won the prize for best director for her first feature film Women Without Men. Her film is about reality, though it is not pure documentary.
It is about the Shah’s Western-supported coup d’état in 1953 – the British and the CIA were afraid that Prime Minister Mossadegh would nationalise the oil fields, and of the danger of a too close Soviet Union. Iran was at that time delivering 60 percent of the world oil supplies. Neshat’s film has two parallel story lines: Four women find their “exile” in a house surrounded by a garden of orchids. Together they are self-sufficient, and feel comfort and fellowship. But it is only a question of time before the world outside breaks through – the coup also interferes with them. The other storyline is the turning point of Iran’s history. This coup was the motivation behind the Islamic revolution and the country as we know it today. And the demonstrations after the coup in 1953 are not so different from the new “coup” of today. Iran has not had a real democracy since 1953.
For a long time artists in Iran could make subversive art – in the same way as suppressed citizens in dictatorships might turn to magic realism, or develop a metaphorical language to express what is otherwise forbidden. But in today’s Iran the government of Ahmadinejad knows all too well what subversive art and literature is. For example Shahrnush Parsipurs book Women Without Men, which is the basis of Neshat’s film, is not accepted by the present regime because of its religious and sexual content. Parsipur now has to live in Canada. And Shiurin Neshat has chosen – almost ever since she first came as a student – to live in New York, US.
DOX met Neshat just after the screening of the film in Venice. She was dressed in saturated green. All Iranians at the festival were demonstrating like this, a reaction to the false election and selection of Ahmadinejad as president last summer.
– Your works of art, and now the film, are consistantly about oppression. Do you see yourself as basically political in your work?
– As you know from my previous art of photographs and video works, I have never done anything that is really outside the political reality of my country. It is almost inescapable. I have never had the luxury to distance myself. The same was natural for me with this film. I am trying to be political, but also very artistic and philosophical. Just like my past work. I am trying to navigate between the socio-political reality of my country, and yet trying to make a work of art that is truly universal.
– I have observed that compared to Parsipur’s book, you and your scriptwriter have turned the content much more politically. Why?
– Absolutely. Because I think thit is important. The period of summer 1953 was a very significant historical moment of Iranian history that has been neglected and almost forgotten by so many people both inside and outside of Iran. With my colleague Sergio we really tried to see if we could include it in our story, as a natural part of our storytelling instead of being imposed. For that reason we made the character “Munis” a political activist, and through her we were able to experience the political turmoil in Iran. We really had a democratic government before the West represented by Brits and CIA took a militant grip on Iran. When people call the Iranians barbarians, they should remember who the real barbarians are.
– Also, poetically speaking, this connection between the women who were looking for freedom from men, and the country of Iran looking for democracy and freedom, was a beautiful connection. In my works I have always worked with the tension between individuals and a world that is somehow trying to control their destiny.
Woman Without Men navigates in the socio-political, religious and historical reality of Iran. I agree with Neshat that her characters not only grasp both the deeply personal and emotional, but also more philosophical topics independent of time and place. For example the orchid garden is a metaphor for exile – as Neshat knows from the skyscraper world of New York. The garden, isolated by the surrounding wall, is expressive particularly when one of the women lies between the flowers observing the light rays, which get through the trees as stripes from above. Neshat colours the women’s world – the offcer’s wife, the prostitute, the pious and the political activist – with a green-grey tint. The colour of the oppressed? The political demonstrations with men dressed in white shirts running down the streets, are coloured with more yellowish shades. The personal and political worlds have a different mood of form and content.:
– By bringing the film here to Venice you have moved away from the world of video art. What was your motivation?
– For a long time I have been making videos – often with a beginning, middle and an end. I have been drawn to making stories. I started to think how I could leave behind the world that belongs to galleries and museums. I was feeling very much a resistance against the idea of collections, and that the work of art you produce ultimately ends up at somebody’s house, or a place that is exclusively available to a certain type of people. The field of cinema is a very democratic medium. Women Without Men will be a film that my own mother and my people would see. I am somehow closer to popular culture. But I was not aware of how challenging the transition from art to cinema would be.
– What is specifically different between video art and film really? Anything to do with the characters or play?
– Yes, in my art I treated the people more like iconic figures, symbolic representations of society as opposed to them as individual human beings. Within cinema I had to go to the inner minds of the people – the characters, and convey what was going on in their hearts and minds. The other difference was the pacing by telling a story that has a true development – not only beautiful shots one after another, but with a clear narrative. The scriptwriter Shoja Azari and I tried to make a script that was also true to my own visual vocabulary.
– You have earlier mentioned Ingmar Bergman as inspiration, how come?
– I am especially inspired by Persona (1966) and Shame (1968). My scriptwriter really encouraged me to see many of his films. It’s interesting how Bergman sometimes lets a character remain in a room for a long time, letting you be engaged in the psychological state of the character. But other directors like Andrej Tarkovskij and Michelangelo Antonioni fascinate by the way in which they employ space, the poetics they brought visually in their use of space and just their camera works. Every director brought new light into my way of thinking on cinema.
The summer 1953 was a very signi cant historical moment of Iranian history that has been neglected and almost forgotten.
– Regarding space: What about Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point where the building and its rooms explode?
– Yes, oh my God. I am really a student of cinema, for me it is a great revelation at my age to really be educated in these great masters. I never been more excited in my life by seeing retrospective these different directors, and understanding the power of cinema. Each one of them has done photography, painting, theatre – and in cinema all these elements I thought belonged to visual art are brought together!
– The other artist who made her feature debut in Venice is the artist Pippilotti Rist. Can those of you coming from the visual arts bring forth a new understanding of film and documentaries?
– Each visual artist that comes to cinema has very different questions and reasons. I felt that Rist really wanted to remain in the video art installation, by her narrative in the conventional sense, but extending it to 80 minutes. On the other side artists like Julian Schnabel and Steve McQueen went after cinema in a truer sense. I am trying to bring together both of the two, also by taking a big risk but not being afraid. I really admire Schnabel and McQueen who dived into a medium they never had studied or experienced.
– In your film you have a focus on the body – which reminds me a little of McQueen’s Hunger about the IRA prisoners. The prostitute is likewise washing her skin till it bleeds, and later dies. Why are you concentrating on such sensitive close-ups of skin and faces?
– Yes, I am influenced by his earlier works. Remember, this is my visual vocabulary, not only the aesthetics, but the way the vision of the artist works. Steve, Pippilotti and I have been video artists, but Julian was a painter – we have been working with moving pictures, a sensibility that automatically travels into the film. But it is still a huge leap.
Not long time ago Iranian filmmakers boycotted the International Iranian Film Festival – 50 directors signed a manifesto blaming the government for major restrictions on their freedom of speech. Would Neshat and her scriptwriter Azari living in exile also have joined such a boycott?
– We would have done just the same, had we been inside. Absolutely. I think it is a question of protest. Every one of us feels that the art work we do is a protest. And tonight by being here in Venice, with the work we have done and put so much energy into. We are all wearing green clothes. We show solidarity with our people who are struggling by bringing so much attention to the Iranian history. And we voted, and demonstrated in the West. We did everything we could do basically support the movements inside Iran, and we continue to do so. Iran is like a time bomb. The atrocities and brutality are beyond imagination. Unfortunately fewer dramatic images get out of Iran, so the sensationalist western media lose interest now.
– Would you try to distribute the film directly in Iran – is it by any chance possible?
– Copies of the film definitely get to the Iranian underground and other media. It is urgent that our people can see this film about oppression and what for many is a forgotten previous history of Iran.