Tonight, at the SVA Theatre on West 23rd Street,
we had the privilege of seeing an artist whose photographs and video installations have astonished us for years, the very talented Shirin Neshat, and we got to hear the Iranian-born artist discuss her work
and show clips from her feature-length film, Women Without Men, for which she received the Silver Lion Award for Best Director of the 2009 Venice Film Festival.
Neshat was given an eloquent introduction by David Levi Strauss, the director of the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Art Criticism and Writing. (Full disclosure: we’ve been happily teaching in SVA’s Humanities and Sciences Department for the past four years and before that, in 1979-80)
Neshat, a very impressive speaker, talked about many things, but most moving to us was her discussion about the artist as activist, and how in a country like Iran, artists and writers don’t have the luxury not to be involved, in some leevel, in politics. Quite a number of Neshat’s friends, including some colleagues she introduced later in the evening, have served time in Iran’s prisons for being critics of the Islamic Republic. But Neshat rightfully said that we need activism right outside the theater, in Chelsea, in New York, and in the U.S. where repression is not unknown. (Our own latest obsession is the hateful Arizona immigration bill, which Gov. Jan Brewer will probably sign soon.)
But mostly, Neshat talked about her journey from working with photography to video installations to her first full-length film. A constant through the change in media – as pretty much all of us who have appreciated her work could see – is that she sees things through the prism of personal experience and worldview and that her work always seems akin to poetry.
A recurring motif in all her works is a combination, or fusing, of her deep knowledge of Western art and her being steeped in Persian visual and literary traditions. When we first saw Neshat’s “Women of Allah” photographs, we realized that she was a storyteller, an impulse that deepened as she moved from still images to her video installations like Turbulent, Rapture and Fervor.
Neshat talked about her need and desire to reach out beyond the art world and to risk accessibility, about pacing in the development and presenting of moving images, about the years of work and collaboration with (and a certain dependence upon) others in the making of Women Without Men – based on the fantastic “novel of modern Iran” by Shahrnush Parsipur that came out just after the Revolution –
and how the magic realism and sensuous feminism of the novel manages to play itself out in the larger picture of the events in Iran in 1953 during the political and social turmoil of the coup overthrowing Mossadegh (whom we, as an old-timer, do remember, if not firsthand, but as someone we read about as a kid in the 50s and 60s, finding out about him first when we discovered he’d been Time’s Man of the Year the year we were born).
Neshat showed still photos and clips of the video installations as she recounted her journey to her most recent role as filmmaker. The long, luscious excerpts of Women Without Men shown were breathtaking and revealed someone who already seems amazingly in control of her material and her medium.
Here’s a good summary of the film in a review by by Sheana Ochoa:
The year is 1953, when democratically-elected Iranian president Mohammed Mossadegh is usurped by a British-American led coup that restores the Shah to power. Unlike most history, which is told by men, Women Without Men is conveyed through the personal stories of four women whose struggle in a male-dominated society merge to reveal the larger canvas of the downfall of their country.
And who better to tell this story but the very women whose oppression mirrors that of Iran? Dedicated to those who fought and died for Iran's freedom— from the 1906 Constitutional Revolution through the Green Movement of 2009—the film appropriately measures the universal devastation of patriarchy with the triumph of the matriarchal spirit.
Beginning and ending with the suicide of Munis (Shabnam Tolouel) in Tehran—her character represents a democratic and free Iran—the film redefines suicide from a cowardly act into one of transcendence. Then, through magic realism, Munis is resurrected to realize she is not meant to be her brother's captive woman, but a patriot who acts for the freedom of her country and herself.
Meanwhile, Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad, in her debut film performance) leaves her oppressive marriage and reinvents herself away from the civil unrest in the capital, purchasing an old mansion in the countryside, surrounded by an orchard and forest that recalls the centuries-old trope of an allegorical garden where the laws of men do not apply.
In this paradise, two other women take refuge with Fakhri: Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), a conservative girl whose rape awakens her to the reality of women's subjugation, and Zarin (Orsi Toth), a prostitute and living personification of Iran. However, when Fakhri decides to throw a party and invites the bourgeoisie to the orchard, Zarin falls ill. In one of the film's most beautifully tragic scenes, Zarin lies dying in a room upstairs as the military enters the house looking for traitors, planting themselves at the dinner table while a party guest wails a foreboding dirge. Like Iran, Zarin cannot abide the literal and metaphorical penetration of a patriarchy intent on oppressing the people. Zarin's inevitable death is the direct result of Iran's contamination.
After the screening, Neshat called up her collaborator, the visual artist and writer Shoja Azari, responsible for much of the work on the film, as well as Arita Shahrzad, who's not only an actor in the film but a visual artist herself; and an Iranian artist who'd just flown in from Germany, whose name unfortunately we couldn't catch.
Neshat answered a number of interesting questions (our SVA students are really on the ball) and we found the evening exhilarating and can't wait to see all of Women Without Men when its American commercial release begins next month.