Set in 1953 Iran, against the tumultuous backdrop of a CIA-backed coup, this film traces the stories of four women struggling to cope with their place in society in Tehran.
Fakri – the middle aged wife of a high ranking official in the dictator Shah’s military – is trapped in a loveless marriage.
Zarin – a young prostitute who suddenly can no longer see the faces of men – is slowly losing her mind as she struggles to come to terms with her profession.
Munis – fascinated by the reports in the streets of a Western-led coup – has to resist the seclusion imposed on her by her religiously traditional brother and her friend Faezah, who chooses to embrace religious conservatism and whose only interest is marriage.
As the film flows in and out of these interrelating narratives, the four discover a walled orchard where they find refuge – until the outside world breaks in.
The film is based on a 1989 novel of the same name by Iranian writer Sharmush Parsipur.
Director Shirin Neshat initially used video art installations to bring the ideas to life – dividing the experiences of each of the women into different rooms.
The viewer would piece the stories together by walking from room to room. This transformed the usual passive relationship between viewer and artist to a much more active one.
Neshat says that her intention was “not to say that the men are against the women or give a general sense of the situation of women in Iran. This is a story of a few women in 1953.”
But by placing events in a historical context, the complexities of the women’s lives are linked to the wider struggle taking place against imperialism and Iranian politics.
Here the director departs from the novel in which the political material is only mentioned as a background to the women’s lives.
Neshat expands the narrative by emphasising the historical and political crisis of the time – and by shaping the character of Munis as an activist, we can follow the unfolding political events.
The struggles of 1953 in Iran were fundamentally important to the development of Middle Eastern politics, even though they are little known today.
For anyone unfamiliar with Iran’s history, it is easy to identify the situation as one of political repression comparable to Iran today.
However in the early 1950s women and men enjoyed a brief period of more progressive rights and freedoms, under the democratically elected government led by Mohammed Mossadeq.
This came to an end after Mossadeq challenged the interests of the West. He upset the status quo by nationalising the Iranian oil industry, which took it out of British control.
His claim that Iran’s petroleum was a source of wealth and prosperity for the Iranian people unleashed a series of events. First the British retaliated by blockading the country. Two years later, a US-backed coup led to street protests and the collapse of the government.
It is impossible to watch the film and not see parallels to Iran today. It makes a viewer acknowledge that what is happening in Iran now is a consequence of the actions of the European and US ruling class decades ago.
Then, as now, women were in the forefront of the struggle for human rights.
The result is a film of contrasts: divided between politics and poetry, between the stark washed out documentary images of a city in turmoil and the sumptuous and beautiful images of the orchard.
It is a subtle and beautiful exploration of personal and political life.
Women Without Men occasionally suffers from its evolution from installation to film.
But what it lacks in pace, character development and plot it more than makes up for by the sheer beauty and power of its imagery.
Neshat has attempted to pioneer new ways of telling a story that crosses cultural and artistic boundaries – she largely succeeds.
The women’s individual journeys are compelling and the broader themes – between religion and secularism, tradition and modernity – have never felt more relevant.
Women Without Men is showing at selected cinemas