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Review: The Day I Became a Woman

Sun, 01/10/2000 - 14:00

Year: 2000

By: Alissa Simon
At the Cannes Film Festival, Iranian auteur Mohsen
Makhmalbaf announced proudly, "Four years ago, I stopped making
films and started making filmmakers."  His daughter Samira was the
first to parlay her training at the Makhmalbaf Family School into
international success with THE APPLE, and then Cannes Jury
Prize-winner BLACKBOARDS.  Mohsen wrote and edited the former, and
wrote and produced the latter.

Now another member of the talented Makhmalbaf clan takes the
spotlight with a dazzling directorial debut.  Working from a
screenplay authored by Mohsen and produced by Makhmalbaf Film House,
Marziyeh Meshkiny (also known as Mrs. Mohsen Makhmalbaf) proves that
time spent as assistant to Mohsen and Samira has paid off with THE
DAY I BECAME A WOMAN. Her film world premiered in the Critics Week
of the Venice Film Festival and came away with three prizes:
the Premio Cinema Uom e Natura, the CICT-UNESCO prize and the Premio
Isvema (consisting 100,000,000 lira for the Italian distributor).

THE DAY I BECAME A WOMAN offers inventive camera work, a confident
physicality, and a straightforward feminist message. The film may be
enjoyed on a simple narrative level and understood on a more
complicated allegorical one. It is by far the most accessible and
visually exhilarating of the new crop of Iranian prize-winners.
Shot on Kish Island, a free enterprise zone in the Persian Gulf, it is comprised of three stories that resonate in unexpected ways, and together add up to far more than the sum of their individual parts.

"Hava," the first episode, follows a girl on her ninth birthday who
is told by her mother and grandmother that she has come of age and
must now wear a chador.  Her male playmate Hassan is told, "She is not a child anymore.  Go and play with boys, not girls."  When Hava demands further explanation of her new status, she is told it involves hiding her hair and not sinning.

As befits some one whose name means "Eve," Hava is depicted as innocent yet full of guile.  She ultimately wheedles her way out of the house, promising to return before noon.  Her method of tracking time involves measuring the shadow cast by a stick.  The fast approaching deadline of her birth hour and this means of checking the elapsed time lends the story a visceral tension.

Hava finds her erstwhile playmate Hassan finishing his homework.  As Hassan converses with Hava through a barred window, she suggests
that he erase the teacher's approving signature from the previous
day's assignment and present the old homework as new.  At the seaside, Hava is persuaded by some older boys to trade her head scarf for a toy.  The boys cleverly use the scarf as a sail for their makeshift raft.

When Hava returns to Hassan's home, she threatens, "If you don't
come, I'll go play with someone else." He hands her some money to buy
ice-cream and she returns with tamarind and a lollipop. An
extraordinary long sequence follows of her reaching up to feed him
the tamarind and then sharing the lollipop, which she transfers from
her mouth to his.  This action is repeated many times, and shown in
close up. The shots are protracted so that we see their tongues
sensually caress the candy.  As the children finish the lollipop,
Hava's mother comes and covers her with a chador.  The story ends
as it began, with a black scarf blowing in the breeze.

The billowing of black garments is echoed in the second episode,"Ahoo."  The most compelling of the three, it is notable for its virtuoso camera-work and bold female defiance. Young wife Ahoo is competing in a bicycle race with dozens of other chador-clad woman, pedalling intently down a hot, dusty road. As Ahoo moves through the pack, her concentration is broken by her husband, who tears up on horseback, and orders her to stop. Humiliated and more determined than ever, Ahoo surges ahead, her  chador clenched in her teeth. Two horseman pull up alongside her.  Her husband has brought a Mullah who tries to shame her. "That's not a bicycle," he cries, "that's the devil's mount.  Get off now."  The husband vows to divorce her. From the pack of cyclists comes the whisper "Go girl, go."  "Go ahead, divorce me," Ahoo pants.

The constantly tracking camera provides momentum, making
the audience experience the landscape and participate in the race. More horseman come after Ahoo, including her father. "Divorce
isn't our way," he tells her. "Stop now, otherwise you will lose
your family."  Ignoring his ultimatum, Ahoo merges into the pack of
cyclists as the horsemen pursue her. Riding harder, Ahoo moves ahead,
but the elders of the tribe return, threatening retribution.

Pushing herself through the other riders, Ahoo nears the leader. She sails past, but sees something in the distance, and puts out her foot to slow. The other woman regains the lead.  As the leader gazes back, we see what happens next from her continually receding perspective. Two horsemen force Ahoo off her bike.  The sounds of angry shouting and plaintive protests become fainter and further away, and are replaced by the sounds of nature.

The final episode, "Hoora," is also distinguished by clever
camera-work, now played for comedy. Elderly Hoora is visiting the massive duty-free shops of the island, motored by an obliging youth.  As Hoora's purchases add up, a long line of small boys follows in her wake, pushing large appliances. The ultra-modern, glass-enclosed shopping malls with their marble floors, escalators, and glistening chrome, contrast sharply with the island's ragged boys scrambling to earn a living, and the traditionally dressed women.

The film's three episodes come together in fascinating ways on the beach as Hoora awaits a boat to transport her treasures home.  The boys unpack her purchases and set up a virtual household on the sand.  In a surreal and funny scene, they parody women's roles, pretending to cook, clean, and apply make up. Two young women from the bicycle race appear.  "We joined a cycling race and were left behind," one tells Hoora. "There was a woman with us.  Her husband showed up on a horse, then the whole tribe came. Her brothers made her stop.  Her friend disagrees, "That girl took another's bike and continued the race," she says.  In the background the boys start to put the packages on makeshift rafts (resembling the one in the first episode) and move them through the water towards the ship while on shore, the chador-clad Hava and her mother watch.

Continuing the policy of the Makhmalbaf Family School, THE DAY I
BECAME A WOMAN provided further training for 11-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf who served as script girl, and her 18-year-old brother Maysam, who acted as stills photographer. "Hava" was shot first as a stand-alone short.  The other two episodes were shot later and indicate Meshkini's growing cinematic confidence.

Screenplay: Mohsen Makhmalbf; additional dialogue: Marziyeh Meshkiny
Cinematography: Ebrahim Ghafouri, Mohammad Ahmadi
Music: Mohammad Reza Darvishi
Principal Cast: Fatemeh Cheragh Akhar, Shabnam Toloui, Azizeh
Production: Makhmalbaf Film House
35mm/color/80 minutes