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Review: The Day I Became A Woman

Tue, 03/10/2000 - 16:00

Chicago Tribune
October 2000
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
 Hava ,
 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."