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Shirin Neshat’s Women Without Men is a must see:
This was perhaps the only way to end a day in which I spent much of the afternoon mixing with the work of Marina Abramovic, and a coffee with poet Marilyn Hacker, briefly in New York from Paris where she is busy learning Arabic. We saw Neshat’s film at the Quad, on 13th, with a smattering of other folks. A strange assemblage of people with various nasal problems and eating disorders: the large, curly-headed man in front of us ate Twizzlers continuously, stopping only at the credits to ball up the empty bags into his coat pocket. Why were there a dozen viewers only on a Saturday night in New York? That I can’t answer.
I have no idea what anyone else thought, but I was both transported to Iran, 1953, and into Neshat’s visual splendour, her complicated love for the sensuous and harsh contrasts of her country, and her people, and sharply aware of my body, the implications of my body on the planet in 2010. The film traces the lives of four women in what is surely an allegory for the impossible political situation of Iran, as much as the lives of women. It’s deeply depressing how she captures the very narrow pathways available to women, and how, like Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, and other aborted escape narratives such as Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, even when these women do make grand gestures–escaping a whore house, throwing oneself off a roof, buying an orchard and creating a cultural oasis for women, it can’t last: bulldozers, or tanks, or oil wells, or some other human “desire” will arrive and begin to drill on your back.
It’s a reminder of how far we have come in “the west,” yes, but in its extreme nature it also illustrates the deeply entrenched assumptions of gender, or more precisely, the deeply interwoven ideas of power, domestic, social, cultural and otherwise that we seem unable, as a people to move beyond. I’m thinking of the recent King Kong Theory by Virginie Despentes. Her vision of the world is quite simple: if women are still being raped, if statistics such as only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail, and 73% of victims know their rapists, etc., then how can the idea of women be said to have changed? This is not even to begin speaking of race, of poverty, of domestic violence or lack of equal access…and this is to say that my musings here are scratching the surface, I know.
The situation in Iran in the 1950s is not only heartbreaking for women. The men in this film seem equally trapped in their roles, which they play emphatically, from the most liberal to the most fascist. Neshat shows this brilliantly in her still photography as well: the divide of bodies, the concrete nature of ideologies. How systems becomes so deeply en”trenched” that it is the trenches we find ourselves inhabiting. Does the brother who threatens to break his sister’s legs really want the best for her? One senses the deeply troubling nature of obedience. One appreciates the degrees of difficulty behind even such small gestures as turning to face the crowd. Here is Neshat from an interview on the NYT blog:
Which out of the four main characters is the closest to representing you?
I feel closest to Zarin, perhaps because of how she quietly suffers and inflicts her pain onto her body, an experience that many women, including myself, are familiar with. Zarin’s body becomes a tool — she punishes herself for all that is wrong with the world, the social stigma, religious taboos and her own feelings of guilt, shame and sin.
For women in Iran in the 1950s there were few avenues, but Neshat reminds me that when I think “women” I’m thinking “life.” I am thinking human life. Not military life, or corporate life, but “life.” Or perhaps quality of life. For where women are not free, life is not free. Essentialist perhaps, simplistic for sure, but a basic. If these women are trapped, these men are equally trapped, even when, as we see here, it is the military that seems to free them, to make them less impotent.
My partner reminded me about the Bechdel test. It’s a wonderfully simple little rule that she uses to assess whether or not she’ll watch a film. It came out in one of her early comic strips but the formula is so elegant it has taken on a life of its own. It has to have
Simple, no? Neshat’s film fits, naturally. It gets an A+. But a film doesn’t have to be so extreme to fit Bechdel’s test, and to my mind this isn’t about gender at all. It’s about life (real or imagined). It’s about the kind of world we want to inhabit. And it would have far-reaching implications if it was taken at all seriously.
See also Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s response to Neshat’s film in this week’s NY Times Mag.
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