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?

Shirin Neshat

– 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.

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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.

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