The Day I became a Woman, Review
Modest in appearance and manner, filmmaker Marziyeh Meshkini hardly presents the picture of a radical. "I am not a revolutionary," she says firmly.
But her very existenc as one of less than ten female directors in
Iran and the bold subject matter of her first film, The Day I Became a Woman, suggest
otherwise. Meshkini explicitly examines the effects of culture and tradition
on contemporary Iranian women of three generations, women she describes
as, imprisoned in the home, not because they are hated, but because they
are loved women who must forego emotional attachments if they wish to
achieve individual independence." "But I have not criticized nor made a judgment here," she notes. "I have only shown what exists in fact."
Meshkini discretion is not surprising.
In Iran, the clash between modernity and tradition has sparked a vigorous
debate over the country identity and future, leading the Ministry of
Culture to regularly censor films. Matters of religious tradition cannot
be questioned, and only recently, have the thoughts and feelings of women
found their way onto the screen. Certain representations, particularly of
women regarding dress or the suggestion of sexuality (couples cannot even hold
hands), are severely restricted.
Meshkini directly experienced such interference when The Day I Became a
Woman opened in Iran in February. The Ministry restricted its screening to a
tiny single theater in a poor section of Tehran, where money is scarcely
available for entertainment. "It was placed there as a form of censorship,"
Meshkini says. "The government is smart. Rather than banning it outright, they
showed it in way in which hardly anyone would see it." Authorities also
prohibited displaying the film poster, which depicts a woman riding a
bicycle a violation of a cultural taboo against woman exercising.
"I was surprised the film was shown. Afterwards, I was waiting to be put
in jail. People were telling me that something was going to happen to me."
Meshkini conveys a flinty pragmatism, a sharp intellect and a store of
resolve. "I don’t believe you can change everything overnight, but I
believe in the movement," she says. "People are deeply attached to the worldview
of their time. They cannot throw it away so easily. This explains the
delayed process of democracy in Iran. But moving in the right direction, you can
reach the goal."
Coinciding with the democratic election of President Khatami in 1997,
recent Iranian films have more directly confronted socio-political issues. "The
Day I Became a Woman is very much in step with the intellectual and
stylistic iconoclasm that characterizes the best of current Iranian cinema," says
Deborah Young, an American film critic based in Rome, who writes for
Variety and other publications. The film also continues a decade-long trend,
which saw Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami steadily gaining recognition
at international film festivals, eventually leading to Iranian films
reaching theaters and audiences here.
The effects have been beneficial, for both Iranians and international
audiences. In the U.S. the recent wave of Iranian films have been a
welcome corrective to the reductive media images of Iran primarily shown,
holdovers from the hostage crisis of over twenty years ago and the Iran-Iraq War
of the 1980â?Ts. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, Professor in the Film and Video Department
at Chicago Columbia College, and Artistic Consultant for the Film Center
annual Iranian Film Festival, notes the change, "Most of my students have been exposed to Iranian films and are interested in discussing the issues they raise. It shows that it not audiences who lack interest in such films, but the distributors, who decide for them."
"It extremely positive that Iranian films are part of the discussion
now. Even mainstream video chains carry them. People ideas about Iran are
changing it not just what they see in the media," Saeed-Vafa says.
"As more Iranian cultural products arrive here, I think people who may have
been ashamed of their identity, due to stereotypes, will feel proud of their
And deservedly so. Last year, more than a dozen Iranian films claimed
top prizes at major international film festivals. A standout in that group, The Day I Became a Woman won major prizes on three continents (at festivals in Venice, Pusan and here in Chicago). "The whole film bursts with visual imagery," says Young. "You can only catch your breath at the courage and urgency of this kind of filmmaking, which despite its layers of metaphor and surrealist and symbolic trappings, is able to
communicate the director distress in the strongest terms." Significantly, the film title itself is loaded it addresses a sensitive cultural issue. Meshkini explains, "In my society, the legal and religious regime considers a girl at age nine to have reached womanhood, and she is therefore restricted from certain places and actions. If she does
something wrong, she is treated by the law as an adult. But there are different standards or boys. Their maturity comes at a later age"
Meshkini explores this blurred boundary between girl and womanhood,
which "takes childhood play from a girl," in the wonderfully understated
opening story. Hava (which translates as Eve) awakens on her ninth birthday
wholly unprepared for the change in her status. Her grandmother
matter-of-factly explains that as a woman, she should replace her dolls with the chador
(the traditional Islamic draping of the female form), and can no longer play
with boys, including her best friend, Hassan. Meshkini uses subtle but
pointed symbolism to depict Hava stealing a bittersweet final hour of play with
her friend, before facing her new future.The limits of this future are dramatically conveyed in the gripping middle episode, which follows a young woman, Ahoo, determined to take part in a bicycle race against her husband and family wishes. Pursued by her male relations on horseback, and threatened with divorce and banishment, she struggles to pedal among an army of black-veiled women in a literal race for her life. Saeed-Vafa describes the story as addressing "the conflict between cultural expectations that women carry the social values and traditions and
the individual desires of women. In that struggle something must be
lost, some connection, because one cannot have both. When modernity creeps
into a traditional society, it stretches a married women between two poles."
While the 31-year old Meshkini is closer in age to Ahoo, she relates
most to Hava. "The first episode applies almost universally in my country to all
girls. That why I feel closest to it. The second episode, no,
that not me because marriage has been a plus for me. In my family women are not
subjugated and I actually have many advantages."
Meshkini is the second wife of the famed Iranian film director Mohsen
Makhmalbaf (and the younger sister of his deceased first wife). She has
worked as an assistant director on his films The Silence and The Door,
and on two by Makhmalbaf ’s daughter Samira, The Apple and Blackboards. Both
Meshkini and Samira graduated from the Makhmalbaf Film School, an informal, but
rigorous training program the unconventional Makhmalbaf set up in their home
when Samira decided to become a filmmaker. When Samira’s Blackboards
took a top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a proud Mohsen proclaimed
(referring to Meshkini as well), "Four years ago, I stopped making films and
started making filmmakers. Like the others films produced by the Makhmalbaf Film House, Meshkini describes The Day I Became a Woman as a family affair. "Mohsen provided the initial treatment, which I turned into a finished script. Maysam
(Makhmalbaf 19-year-old son) shot still photography for the last two
episodes and edited the first. Hana (Makhmalbaf 8-year-old daughter)
acted as script girl and shot stills for the first episode."
While the film does not reflect Meshkini current situation, it does
express the common plight of many Iranian women. "My freedom depends on the
freedom of the women of my country, the Ahoos," she says. "Her story takes place
in motion. The movement of the camera echoes the movement of the women.
Movement in my view is the symbol of life and the way we can change our
But we go step by step toward change. Things cannot happen overnight
because then there is a tendency to swing back maybe even worse than before."
The conflict between change and tradition plays out in many ways in the
In the first episode, Meshkini notes, "The older generation, who were
not allowed to enjoy their childhood, nor allowed to be individuals in their
youth, interiorize the injustice and want to impose the same traditions
on future generations. But what do they have? They have nothing except
those materialistic objects that they collected that could be easily
In the final story, Meshkini moves deftly, from realism to near-surrealism,
to focus on that older generation. Her fingers knotted with strings to
remind her of all she needs, Hoora, an elderly woman, alone in the world, sets
out to make up for all she missed with a no-holds-barred shopping
binge. This absurd, tragicomic exclamation point to her life, however, leaves her
unfulfilled and plagued by a remaining string whose nagging significance
she can’t remember, while her newly purchased consumer goods sit,
ludicrously arranged into a makeshift house on a beach. A pointed demonstration of
the clash between old and new, the vignette links all three sequences as
her mother and the cyclists join to bear witness to film stunning,
majestic final scene, which may or may not represent their own constrained
American audiences might easily view the film as exotic something
limited to Iran and its region with little relation to life here. But Meshkini
points out, "Everywhere in the world, there comes a moment, like in the first
episode, when a women feels her freedom is limited when compared to men.
I am not only talking about my country, I’m thinking about the whole
world." While the specifics may be different and the realities harsher in other
countries, the results may be more similar than we’d like to think.
"Nearly all the world presidents are men. Nearly all film festival heads are
men," Meshkini notes. One could add, how many American woman directors can
most of us name? How often are the concerns and views of women truly expressed?
"We don’t have equality," Meshkini says. "That why I am fighting for
my rights. Seeking equal conditions with men constitutes the problem of
women on earth. I express that problem in Ahoo story in a way I think
everyone can understand."
Deborah Young concurs. "It really a sign of the film's effectiveness
that it reaches across social boundaries to speak to women more broadly.
Westerners respond to this film so strongly because we recognize our own
condition perfectly reflected in its metaphors."
Shooting the film, Meshkini battled problems that many women, whether on
movie sets, construction sites or in the boardroom, can relate to.
"Men" and even women" tend to have less faith in women. When we were shooting I
had to work harder than anyone else to prove that I was in control and that I
knew what I was doing. It took a lot of energy to prove I could do the harsh
job that men usually do."
At the end of the second story, Ahoo is confronted by two men on
horseback and forced off her bicycle. As the scene unfolds, the camera pulls away,
leaving the outcome of the confrontation unclear. Bearing in mind her
confrontations with authorities and tradition, does that final shot
signify that Meshkini is pessimistic about the future?
"In the last scene, I don’t try to make a judgement or provide a
resolution "I leave it to the audience," she says. "Different
audiences, even in my country, have different resolutions. If a woman fights, she may
get her freedom. In Afghanistan, probably the woman will go back home and
that the end for her. In another country, maybe something else will happen. But,
I’m not pessimistic. By no means! Even if only a few saw the film, the
issues it raised are now part of the dialogue. I’ve portrayed the movement of
the women in this film like a river coursing forward. The river neither stops nor
returns. I want to say that a movement has started and should continue.
Maybe all, by crying out loud, will get to freedom. "I should quote you one of the greatest poets, Ahmad Shamloo. In one of his poems he said, I am the common pain, cry me, Meshkini says. "I cry all of my country women." Perhaps Meshkini quote should be amended to simply read "I cry all women."