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Women Without Men: A Conversation with Shirin Neshat

by LEILA DARABI in New York

05 May 2010 02:343 Comments

Visual artist Shirin Neshat tackles her first feature-length motion picture with "Women Without Men," currently making the rounds on the festival circuit and opening in New York on May 14th. Made in collaboration with her partner, filmmaker Shoja Azari, Neshat's film is an adaptation of the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, a book banned in Iran by the censors of the Islamic Republic. Both novel and film recount the journeys of four single women of varying age and social status who wind up meeting in a garden outside of Tehran during the summer of 1953--the eve of the coup d'etat that ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and restored the Shah to power.

Before the wider release of the film, Neshat took time out to answer some questions for Tehran Bureau about her decision to take Parsipur's tale to the big screen and connections between that story and the ongoing power struggle taking place in Iran today.

Leila Darabi: What made you decide to make a feature film and how did you come to select Parsipur's novel to adapt? Did the magical realism in the story appeal to you as a visual artist?

Shirin Neshat: After several years of working with still photography and video work, my work became slowly narrative, and I found myself more and more seduced by the language and world of cinema. I wondered if I could take a professional and artistic leap from making short video installations to a full feature length film; from being a visual artist to a filmmaker; and most importantly to shift from an art to film audience. Then, after I made the commitment to make my first film, I had to find the right story that while it led to an interesting screenplay, it also adhered to my own visual vocabulary and aesthetic style from the past. So I began to read novels particularly by Iranian women writers. "Women Without Men" was an extremely well known novel that was brought back to my attention by a dear friend [Columbia Univeristy Professor] Hamid Dabashi. When I read this story, despite many people's warnings that the magic realist style of this piece of literature was most difficult to translate into cinema, I was relentless to move ahead.

My attraction to this beautiful novel were many, but to mention a few, I appreciated Shahrnush Parsipur, the author's imagination in the way she created most fantastic scenes and images that were both visually and allegorically powerful. Also, I very much appreciated the way the story moved in between the space of an 'orchard' where one could delve into most universal, timeless and existential crisis of a few individuals; versus the city of Tehran where one was confronted by socio-political, and historical crisis of a specific country.

At last, the film became about forty percent faithful to the original novel, yet I feel that it borrowed from its strongest elements. One of the major differences is that in the film a political dimension was added, focusing on Dr. Mossadegh and the Coup of summer 1953 as a pivotal moment of Iranian history.

You began working on the film long before the post-election melee in Iran that began last June. Has the inception of the Green Movement changed the way you yourself see the story?

The inception of this project began in 2003, and ironically in June 2009, just before the election we finished editing just as the post election uprising began on the streets of Tehran. So the course of events could not have affected us directly, other than the fact that we dedicated the film to the Green Movement and all democratic movements ever since the constitutional revolution of 1906. However, witnessing what happened to Iran this past summer, we see an incredible resemblance to the 1953 protests and how Iranians were shouting the same slogans in that time, demanding, justice, democracy and freedom. This is a reaffirmation that generation after generation, Iranians have been fighters and although at times defeated they have continued to rise and face their battles again.

For non-Iranian audiences, this may be a first introduction to the 1950's in Iran and Iranian politics before the Islamic Republic. Is this a story/film about former Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh?

This film is not about Dr. Mossadegh but about an important period in Iranian history, when the country was a 'secular' society; when there was some idea of democracy and freedom. Dr. Mossadegh happened to be a leader that at least the majority of Iranians loved, trusted or at least respected. Generally we felt strongly that returning to the period of 1953 served a great purpose, not only for the Iranians, but for the Westerns who mostly remember Iran after the Islamic revolution. Most Americans today remain unaware how their country was responsible for overthrowing the chance for democracy in foreign countries; how the CIA organized coup of 1953 marks the beginning of the deterioration of the relationship between the United States, Iran and the entire Middle East as well as creating the ground work for the 1979 Islamic revolution.

On the big screen, small screen and in the mainstream media, Iranian and more generally Middle Eastern women tend to be represented in the shorthand of veiled, submissive figures. How do each of the women in "Women Without Men" defy these stereotypes?

I feel that in all my work to date, although I have never denied women's oppression in Islam, I have never represented the female sector as 'victims,' which as you rightfully mentioned remains a Western cliché.

I believe the women in my work have been portrayed as people of strength, dignity, courage, and mobility. This depiction is my honest understanding and interpretation about Iranian women (can't generalize about all Muslim women) that no pressure succeeds to intimidate or silence them. It is precisely this sense of paradoxical that continues to inspire and interest me as a fellow Iranian woman.

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Advance tickets to New York screenings at Quad Cinema can be purchased via this link.

For listings of upcoming screenings in other cities, click here.

Excerpts of Shahrnush Parsipur's novel translated into English are available here.

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Looking forward to watch this movie someday soon.

PersianTraveler / May 5, 2010 7:02 AM

Hi Shirin NESHAT
I'm farbod , iranian man.
I'm painter artist & Graphic Designer
could you please send me your email address & contact me , please
Best wishes FARBOD

farbod EPS / May 22, 2010 7:59 AM

Hi Shirin,

I watched your movie in San Francisco last night and wanted to share some of my thoughts regarding its symbolism. I have searched everywhere for an email contact for either you or Shoja, but there is nothing. If you are willing to contact me then I would love to send you my thoughts.



Tina S / June 5, 2010 8:33 PM