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Rated XX: Shirin Neshat
An artist whose work explores the role of women in Islamic society, Iranian-born Shirin Neshat, 52, has long drawn on events making news in her homeland. But having lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since she was 17, she had never expected to see her own name in the Iranian papers. All that changed last September, when Neshat, to her great surprise, won the Silver Lion for best director at the Venice Film Festival for her first feature, Women Without Men. “We didn’t even have a poster!” she says with a laugh.
The movie traces the lives of four women living in Tehran in 1953, when a British- and CIA-led coup replaced Iran’s democratically elected government with the Shah. In a show of solidarity with the current uprising—also known as the Green Movement—Neshat walked the red carpet in Venice in a green gown and flashed a peace sign to the crowd. Overnight she found herself one of the faces of the expatriate opposition. “That picture ran in all the conservative papers in Iran; they accused me of being a Zionist and CIA agent,” says Neshat, who has spent the morning scouring Facebook for newly posted video clips of the student protests taking place in Iran that day. “It’s my way of keeping up with what’s going on,” she explains between sips of tea in her loft in New York’s SoHo.
Neshat, whose mother and siblings still live in Iran, has been observing the country from afar since 1974, when her family sent her to California, where she studied painting just as the Iranian revolution was gaining ground. She feared returning for 16 years, during which time she married Korean-American artist-architect Kyong Park; had a son, Cyrus, now 20; and questioned whether she wanted to make art. But in going home again in 1990, she found her subject matter and her voice as an artist. She visited sporadically until 1996, when she was detained at the airport and badly frightened. Fourteen years later the experience of dislocation—of being poised between two cultures—continues to dominate her art. “My work has a lot to do with my obsession with home and the absence of home,” says Neshat, who won the top prize at the Venice Biennale in 1999 and is best known for her photographs and video installations. It is only through art, she says, that she can “create this other world that allows me to become complete.”
For the women populating her debut film, such freedom is out of reach. Each in flight from social or sexual oppression, they converge in a mystical orchard. Though one goes mad and another jumps from a roof to her death—in the film’s opening image she’s suspended in free fall—Neshat refuses to see her characters as victims. “If they have the courage to flee,” she says, her delicate features set off by the black swooshes of kohl beneath her eyes, “they’ve taken their lives into their own hands.”
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.
Neshat—who is divorced and lives with longtime collaborator and boyfriend Shoja Azari, an Iranian-American filmmaker—speaks excitedly of upcoming screenings at Sundance and in Dubai, the film’s first airing in an Islamic state. She’s unsure of her next project, but one thing is certain: It will be a departure from anything she has done before. “This idea of finding a medium or style and repeating yourself, I’m totally against that,” she says, noting that she didn’t know anything about photography or video when she took them up. “I think this has become my pattern: I seek some new territory, arrive at it and do it until I feel exhausted. I like starting over.”