Taking it to the Streets: A young woman joins a protest in 1953 Iran. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)
WOMEN WITHOUT MEN
Directed by Shirin Neshat
Screening Tues., March 30 and Wed., March 31
C-Monster: Reinforcing what we already know
When it comes to the Middle East, the issue of gender — and gender inequity — is one of endless fascination to the West. We regularly read, comment and discuss disquieting stories about honor killings and burqas and the ways in which some women are treated little better than farm animals. (Less fascinating to us: the West’s role in propping up corrupt, exploitative oligarchies for the sake of cheap oil.) It is in this space that Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat has most frequently operated, creating lush, cinematic photographs and videos that show Middle Eastern women in a decidedly non-traditional light (singing, holding weapons).
With her first full-length feature film, Neshat is once again exploring the lives of women, this time the intersecting lives of four women in the tumultuous days of early 1950s Iran: a trapped wife, a politically-minded young woman, a love-stricken girl and a prostitute. Like her video art, the film offers some lovely moments. A stark, white adobe building is framed by a luminous sky. Female figures clad in fluttering black chadors disappear into a bright desert horizon. A few rays of light slip through a set of archways to gently illuminate a traditional Persian bath. But there’s little else to sink your teeth into. The narrative is wan (men bad, women good) and the principal characters are opaque to the point of inducing narcolepsy. In her art, Neshat has illustrated what we already know about gender relations in the Middle East. Women Without Men — which clocks in at an hour and 40 minutes — was an opportunity to address all the complexities and ambiguities that lie beneath the surface. Sadly, it does not.
Yvonne Connasse: Pretty to look at…
We couldn’t agree more. Being unfamiliar with Neshat’s art, but aware that she had copped the Best Director prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival for her debut, we were anxious to see what all the fuss was about. Post viewing, we must agree completely with C-Monster’s take on this superficial attempt to combine human drama with political intrigue. Unlike her fellow Iranian filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, who excel at balancing intimate portraits set against a greater social landscape, Neshat is incapable of making us care for her characters despite her ability to compose beautiful images. (To be certain, visual artists can be solid filmmakers, British artist-cum-director Steve McQueen proved this with his haunting 2008 flick, Hunger, about an IRA volunteer’s fatal hunger strike in a Belfast prison.)
Moreover, while the use of four disparate female archetypes may have a proven track record for American sit-coms, this film fails to make them come alive. On the whole we’d rather watch Dorothy, Blanche and the gals gather in their kitchen to eat cheesecake and discuss Fidel Castro, than lumber through this lackluster attempt at socio-political film making. Having seen Women, we can honestly say we have little interest in viewing Neshat’s art. Instead, to help clear our minds, we’re going to rent some classics in the same genre: The Battle of Algiers, Z, The Lives of Others. Now, that’s good movie making!