Based on a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, Women Without Men marries the book’s magical realism with documentary-style re-creations of the clashes between street crowds and the military in 1953.
To curator Francesco Bonami, who has included Neshat’s work in several shows he has organized, the movie’s sumptuous, highly stylized images have the effect “of a painting in motion.” But beauty on its own doesn’t interest Neshat. “I’ve never made a beautiful image without juxtaposing it with something that violates it,” she says, pointing to a scene in a hammam where the serenity of the bathers is interrupted by a frantic naked woman scrubbing herself until she bleeds.
For all the film’s dreamy meditations on the female characters’ states of mind, it is anchored in a precise point in time—when “democracy was a possibility and then quashed,” points out the soft-spoken director, who chose to mirror the women’s quest for self-determination in Iran’s bid for democracy. That the film’s release coincided with the current round of protests in Iran was completely unexpected, though it seems “tailor-made for the present moment,” says Bonami, “almost as if Shirin is clairvoyantly in sync with the times.”
The daughter of a westernized physician and a tradition-bound homemaker, Neshat also pays tribute to the Persian intellectual traditions embraced by her father and erased by religious extremism. “I’ve always navigated between the very personal and the sociopolitical questions that are far bigger than me,” she says. “The film is very Iranian but universal in the questions it raises.”
While Women Without Men, in Farsi with English subtitles, is dedicated to Iranians fighting for democracy, Neshat insists she’s careful to avoid “art that preaches,” preferring to explore cultural complexities in the tensions between men and women, East and West. Still, she notes, Iranian artists occupy a “strange position,” at the nexus of art and politics. “There’s a lot of discussion of our work, even among people who don’t follow culture,” she says. “Our critics could be The New York Times, or they could be the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Neshat first had the idea to make a feature eight years ago. Feeling claustrophobic, she wanted to move away from work meant for an art-world-only audience. Many of her previous pieces had been video installations, often consisting of two screens facing each other with room for the viewer in between. But to make a conventional feature, she had to master entirely new skills, such as writing a script, creating flesh-and-blood characters and directing actors. Hardest of all, she says, was ensuring that her enigmatic images didn’t make the story hard to follow. With a budget of about $6 million, composed primarily of funding from the French, Austrian and German governments, she shot the entire film in Morocco with Iranian actors living in Europe.