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Shirin Neshat, Women Without Men

Shirin Neshat doesn’t shy away from complexity. Her internationally lauded photography and video installation work takes as its primary subject matter the epistemology that informs how we view Muslim women and the real world forces which shape there lived experiences. She challenges stereotypes and received knowledge in all of her works, a quality that has not gone unnoticed by the international art world. A pair of major installations in the late 1990’s, Turbulent (1998) and Rapture (1999), both of which received prizes at the Biennial of Venice, long ago cemented her place as one of the world’s most compelling visuals artists. That claim is only strengthened by her feature directorial debut Women Without Men.

Based very loosely on a novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film tracks the lives of four disparate but loosely connected Iranian women who are collectively indicative of Tehran’s multilayered class system. Set during the fateful, tragic summer of 1953, the American backed coup d’etat which ousted democratically elected leader Mohammad Mosaddegh unfolds in the streets and in the narrative’s background. We are treated to no simple history lesson however; this is a sumptuous and melancholy glimpse at the inner lives four women in peril, each of whom resists the encroaching political and religious tyranny in their own desperate ways. As misogyny manifests itself in the clothing of religious devotion and barbaric inhumanity arrives in the cloak of patriotism, each member of Ms. Neshat’s ensemble most make compromise after compromise in order to survive.

Neshat won the best director prize in Venice, which she accepted while wearing green in solidarity with Iran’s brutalized yet nascent green movement. The fifty-three year old director has shown her all too timely film at Sundance and New Directors/New Films. Already open in Los Angeles and Washington D.C., the film opens in New York on May 14th.

Women Without Men director Shirin Neshat

Filmmaker: You chose to make a film about the which takes place during the unraveling of the only secular, democratically elected government Iran has ever known. What drove you to do this?

Neshat: For us Iranians, the summer of 1953 is the major determining point of our political history. Iran was a secular society at that time. We had a democratically elected leader that most of us loved and respected. The intervention of the United States and the British Governments overthrew the leader and brought back the Shah. It laid the groundwork for the Islamic Revolution. For most Iranian people, this is a very significant turning point in Iranian political history. It’s really odd, with all the recent developments since September 11th, when there is so much discussion about the history of antagonism between the US and Iran in the middle east, about why there is such a big gap between these two worlds, hardly anyone refers to this point in history and the fact that Americans had everything to do with this transformation of the country from a secular to a fundamentalist society.

I feel that, at least through a fiction, we can make a reference back to this period. Also, Othink Iranian people feel very frustrated because the world knows them only through the lens of the Islamic Revolution and they don’t realize that Iran was a very different kind of society.

Filmmaker: You drew your multi-narrative story from source material.

Neshat: The film is somewhat inspired by a novel that was written by an Iranian woman, Shahrnoush Parsipour. Her book was not at all political, meaning that the coup d’etat, the history, was only in the background. The book took place in 1953 even though she didn’t show the political dimension. One thing I appreciated was the selection of the characters. Each one of them represented a distinct socio-economic class. So by exploring their lives, you were able to get to know the various types of people and the complexity of the society. Also it shows a time in Iran when there was some kind of democracy, when a woman had a choice between being liberal, western or traditional and religious. For me, this was an interesting point of view to engage Westerners, who only know Iran as a very homogeneous, religious society.

Filmmaker: In other interviews, you’ve alluded to growing up in a household that accepted and in many ways lionized the Shah. How did that inform your desire to make this film?

Neshat: I try as much as possible not to be polemical about the political aspect of this film. Once I began to read different information about the coup of 1953 and this period in Iranian history, you realize that history is interpreted different ways by different people. In a fiction, I felt it was wrong to project a particular point of view. I was trying to be both symbolic and very general about what had happened in this country.

That said, certain things are undeniable and I think that there is no way that any pro monarchy people can resist the fact that the Shah of Iran collaborated with the C.I.A. of the United States. This has been admitted by the American Government, the documents were published in the New York Times, it’s public information, so it’s very hard to go with the argument that this is not a proven fact. The Iranian people for the most part, and I think this is what is so interesting about this point in Iranian history, they really only had a problem with the British. They really did have a good relationship with the United States until this event happened in 1953. When the Shah came back, in order to feel stable and stay in power, he began certain atrocities. He began to execute the communists. The Americans were very worried about the spread of communism in Iran. The Shah basically betrayed his country to stay in power. The anger that built among Iranians against the Shah, against America, became the groundwork for the nurturing of the Islamic Revolution. These are no fabrications, these are real, simple truths about the course of events.

We were making a film about four women. I didn’t mean it to be so focused on the details of the political events or be a history lesson for other people. It was really about balancing the political information so that it became very allegorical instead of being like a documentary.

I was born after the coup. I was not even in the country when the Islamic Revolution happened. All my colleagues on this film were in Iran. It was only later that I went back to Iran and became fascinated with the Islamic Revolution. I tried to do alot of research and the work I did all goes back to a sort of understanding of the Islamic Revolution. For this film, I had to go back and interview a number of people, pro-Mosaddegh, pro-Shah, anti-Shah, communists, muslims, all kinds of people who were critical players in the coup d’etat, to understand the complexity of the political fabric at that time. Then, the challenge was to play that in the narrative in a way that would not dominate the stories of the women. Yet, I wanted to give enough information, particularly to westerners who have no knowledge of the coup of 1953. So it was very tedious. We really tried to just pull the most important facts and not get too far into the details. Those facts are that Iranians were fighting against the British, who were still dominating our oil reserves. Dr. Mosaddegh planned to nationalize the oil. The British were upset, so they went to the Americans and got their help. The American C.I.A. overthrew Dr. Mosaddegh’s government in order to get him out of power so that the Shah could rule the country. Both the British and the Americans were deeply worried about the spread of communism, especially given the fact that Russia was right next door to Iran and the communists were big players in Iran at that time. So these are the major factors in this film that you see and there are other details that we just couldn’t possibly get into. I think it still speaks to the viewers about how our country was betrayed and deceived, how it was fighting against imperialism and dictatorship.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges you faced moving from photography, installation and video work into narrative feature filmmaking?

Neshat: For years, I’ve made video installations, about fifteen of them I think. The more I did that, the more I became interested in the idea of storytelling and the idea of narrative. So in terms of the form, the language of my work, it was already becoming more narrative. At the same time, I began to have the desire to explore the world of cinema, the audience of the cinema, and the responsibility of challenging myself as a visual artist to take the language I had forged, the visual style, and turning it into a more narrative style. I questioned weather I could make a film that lasted an hour and a half, that could be entertaining in many ways, both visually and in terms of the narrative, and yet retain the values and the visual aesthetic that I had created for myself, that I knew from the art world. So in one way, it was my attraction to the grassroots relationship of cinema to the general public and on the other hand, it was the language of cinema that excited me, of storytelling as opposed to just creating concepts.

Filmmaker: Period pieces set in Iran seem like they might be a tough sell for financiers, and yet you were able to make a gorgeous and completely convincing film that brandishes rather lavish production values.

Neshat: I don’t think we had a chance to have American producers. We were very lucky to find a European producer from Berlin. This was a German-French production. They approached me in terms of making this film. They raised the money from Austria, Germany and France. It was really odd; I’m an Iranian-American, making my first feature film, and the film was supported by European governments and shot in Morocco. The budget was very modest for this type of production. It was under five million dollars. Its quite an epic film, set in 1953, so it was very difficult to make for that amount of money. The recreations of the scenes of the coup d’etat required masses of people, military activity, all of that, it was quite large in scope. We tried to do our best. The European governments and foundations believe in supporting films regardless of the original roots of where the come from. We never would have had a chance in the United States.

Filmmaker: How have expatriate Iranian audiences reacted to the film?

Neshat: The reaction of the Iranian community has been overwhelming. This is partially due to a sense of nostalgia for this period which has been so rarely documented. Very few films have been about this period and most of the films from Iran today are about the post Islamic revolution sociological situation in Iran, so for alot of Iranian people young and old, it’s incredibly touching to go back to this part of Iranian history. Then of course, there is the incredible irony of the timing of this film, the timing of the Iranian election and the uprisings in the streets of Tehran; oddly, some of the scenes of uprisings in my film resemble the uprising seen in the streets of Tehran last summer. Some of the relationship of women to the political process, images of women of the front lines demonstrating, were very similar to what we saw last summer in Iran, of women demonstrating with the men. Even the image of Munis (Shabnam Toloui) as she’s on the streets, about to die on the streets reminded us of the image of Neda. So I think for alot of Iranian people, this film is reminiscent of Iranian history, of our struggle against imperialism, against dictatorship and their fight for democracy. Alot of the young people who are fighting have very little visual memory of 43′ because the government of Iran tries to eradicate information about Iran’s past other than the Islamic Revolution. This film is, of course, not allowed in Iran. I get alot of pleasure from having people be able to witness this film beyond the artistic nature of it, but just because of the historical value of it.

Filmmaker: Do you know of any piracy of the film in Iran? Have Iranians within the country been able to find ways to see the film?

Neshat: I have heard that piracy is a big deal in Iran. I hear for big American films that haven’t even been released in theaters that Iranian people are watching in their living rooms. I could hardly believe it. Our film opened in Los Angeles on April 9th our film opened in Los Angeles, on April 8th the film was already selling in underground stores in Tehran. I got a call from my sister who already bought a few copies of it. I was delighted by the power of piracy that is allowing this film to be distributed! Many Iranian people are looking at this film.

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