Washington, DC – How can you be an Iranian artist without addressing politics? You can’t, or at least that’s what Shirin Neshat, Iranian-American director of Women Without Men, would say.
Women Without Men, Neshat’s first feature length film, follows the lives of four Iranian women as they struggle to escape the misery of their daily lives. Based on the novella of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur, the movie is set against the backdrop of the 1953 coup that replaced the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh with the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
I had the opportunity to sit down with the visual artist turned director, world-renown for her pictures of women overlaid by Persian calligraphy and for her stellar use of eyeliner. “Iranian artists are affected by where they come from. I don’t know one Iranian artist who isn’t affected by the political realities of their country—whether you are inside or outside the country. If you’re inside you feel suffocated and if you’re outside there’s a feeling of nostalgia and exile,” she stated.
Though Neshat admittedly tackles political issues, she fiercely opposes having an agenda as it “ruins the purpose of art.” She admits to not having answers, rather she poses questions. “My work is not based on tackling a certain issue…I don’t have a strategy, I go beyond the stereotypes to show another layer of complexity and show the humanity of these people.”
As for why she always seems to tackle dark issues such as prostitution, anorexia, suicide and rape, Neshat was both pragmatic and visionary in her response. “A film without any drama is boring,” she said as-a matter of factedly. She also expressed frustration at critics who think she dwells on oppression, “They only look at a movie as a source of entertainment.” In trying to create a film that is both meaningful and artistic, Nesha admits to have alienated many movie-goers. At the end of the day, Neshat acknowledges, “You can’t control your audience.”
Though some use film to escape the harsh realities of the world, Neshat’s films confronts these realities head on, often leading the characters to come out stronger as a result. “Look at the history of cinema—look at directors like Bergman, they go to the depth of humanity, and come out feeling elevated, but only by going through a lot of pain.”
She pointed out that some of the most powerful artists have come out of oppressed societies such as Russia, Albania, Iran and Turkey. Iranian cinema is a prime example of the beauty that can result from oppression. But despite their increased recognition in the world of cinema, Neshat expressed worry for directors in Iran, “I think Iranian cinema is in trouble [because] they are running out of ways to express themselves.” In addition to stifling their creativity, the Iranian government has also imprisoned some of their most renowned directors, such as Javad Panahi at his home on March 1, 2010.
Neshat, who hasn’t been able to return to Iran since 1996, seemed to yearn for the feelings that her contemporaries in Iran are trying to escape. “Suffering makes people reflect and it’s one thing that’s very hard to do in the United States.”
Then how does one stay inspired in a society that is so comfortable? “Staying inspired is a process… be engaged in the world, read, travel, look around- I’m not stuck in a studio painting all day, I engage in discussions, I’m out in the streets and always on the go.”
Moreover, “darkness is an aspect of Iranian culture.” In light of the protests that occurred last year in Iran and the brutal crackdown that followed, Neshat exhibits great tact by creating a film that is both provocative and engaging without being unnecessarily winsome. After all, as both Neshat and Arita Shahrzad, who plays the character of Farrokhlagha in the film, told me, “This isn’t Sex and the City.”
Her film is dedicated to those who fought and died for Iran’s freedom— from the 1906 Constitutional Revolution through the Green Movement of 2009. Having participated herself in a hunger strike in New York in solidarity for protests in Iran, she expressed great admiration for the Iranian people who are fighting for their basic freedoms. “We all want to see progress and democracy in Iran.” The young people in the Green movement are “so inspiring and I hope it doesn’t die out.”
As for what Iranian Americans can do here to help, she emphasized human rights. “The world seems to have forgotten about the Iranian [people], they only focus on the nuclear issue, rather than focusing on the human rights issue.” Her remarks echoed NIAC President Trita Parsi’s testimony to the House Human Rights Commission on the situation in Iran.
Despite the challenges of recreating 1950’s Iran in Morocco, Neshat managed to create a film that is a visual delight as many of the scenes are worthy of being frozen and placed in art galleries. Women Without Men is playing for a limited time only in cities nationwide, see here for a full list of screenings.