Women without Men is the first feature film directed by graphic artist and photographer Shirin Neshat. This multinational co-production (Germany, France, Austria) tells the story of four women, each of a different social status, whose lives connect to one another at the time of the 1953 coup d’état in Iran.
The four women are Fakhri, a well-to-do housewife married to a newly promoted military general, who is fed up with her husband’s abusive behaviour and leaves her house to live in a country-side orchard; Zarin, a prostitute who runs away from the brothel and takes shelter in Fakhri’s orchard; Faezeh, a religious introvert dealing with her own trauma and Munis, Faezeh’s friend, a politically conscious young woman, on the brink of an arranged marriage forced by her brother, Amir Khan.
From the very first shot, it’s evident that Neshat has brought along her unique vision from the world of graphics to the silver screen, through the lens of Martin Gschlacht (of the Academy Award nominated Revanche fame). Every single shot in the film has been beautifully lit and well composed. Martin Gschlacht uses color (or just as often, the lack thereof) to set the tone for each scene, adding to the richness and the emotional depth.
But what makes Women without Men a unique film is that it gives such a raw portrayal of the Iranian society in the 50s, something Iranians have rarely ever seen in other films produced after the 1979 revolution. My generation of Iranians (people in their 20s if you must know) have grown up watching heavily censored and manipulated versions of history, so this film is a real breath of fresh air. It’s also interesting to note that some of the locations or situations shown have been impossible to find in Iran for over thirty years, most notably the regulated brothel.
Beyond the history lesson and the admirably accurate cultural perspective, however, Neshat’s film often feels distant and unenergetic. Her surreal approach to the material -which is very delicate and thought provoking in nature- is a little distracting. The dream sequences sometimes feel redundant and irrelevant to the narrative, and personally, are a bit of a throw-off. It’s often hard to engage with these characters -as sympathetic as they may be- merely because the visuals, -again, as beautiful as they may be- distract us and put more emphasis on exhibiting a dreamlike quality rather than delivering the emotional punch.
Another major problem with this film is that the script for the voiceovers and some parts of the dialogue were written in English and translated to Farsi afterwards. Understandably, this may not be a problem for English speakers since the subtitles are just fine, but for me personally, the translation is so formal and incoherent with the structure and requirements of the conversations, it ends up being incredibly off-putting and towards the end, absolutely unbearable.
Nonetheless, Essa Zahir (Amir Khan) and Arita Shahrzad (Fakhri) deliver fantastic performances in the film. Particularly Amir Khan, who plays a hardcore Muslim extremist whose likes I have seen many many times in real life, turns a realistic performance and captures all the details of this monstrous, yet vulnerable character.
Women without Men is not close to being perfect by any means, but is definitely worth a watch, at least for its historical accuracy, cultural context, and the beautiful imagery. Neshat, who won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, is a director to watch for in the future.