l'art d'être · laureen andalib

ANALYSING THE IRANIAN NEW WAVE: FEMINIST ANGST IN AN ETHEREAL UNIVERSE

ITHACA / ROME
PMA 6551 – Global Cinema II

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.” – Orson Welles

Film stills from Shirin Neshat’s first full-length feature, Women Without Men, screened at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2008. The film is an adaptation of the same novella by Shahrnush Parsipur from 1989, banned to this day in the Republic of Iran.

 

INTRODUCTION

In contextualising the artistic motives of contemporary Iranian women artists like Shirin

Neshat and Lily Amarpour, it is astounding to remark the number of aesthetic and conceptual

similarities which occur in the elemental phases of filmmaking– in addition to (yet also despite)

being placed within the genres of “contemporary” and “new wave” Iranian cinema. As both

artists invent exclusive ways of analysing the role of the woman under oppression, as well as

repurposing the woman’s role in society through reverse “gifts,” roles, and characterisations– it

is crucial to note that they are sub-sued by (and insofar conscious of) surveillance which haunts

them from the homeland. In this case, surveillance occurs as a characterisation [1]: being a

conclusively “modern,” woman-filmmaker within a larger scope of national implications. These

implications can be described by how the emigrated versus originating identity emerges in the

present when it comes to defining the modern, or “adjusting” Muslim woman in transition:

either on the move, and thus, having to make choices for herself, versus the biblical role of the

woman in Islam (not inclusive of religious law or entity, in this case, but rather) transversed as a

cultural quo (a behaviour, or particular treatment unto oneself and others within a specific

national climate). Interestingly enough, national surveillance (which in this case occurs as one

that is demeaning), seems to create an indirect form of longing for these Iranian artists to seek

and bridge between gaps of understanding between the West and East, and further urges the

demarcation of the degenerative gap between art and nationalism [2] (for example, this very 2

relationship is tethered by the complex politics-of-arrest and spontaneous cases of censorship

which occur today in post revolutionary Iran).

It is therefore through the lens of preserving and so-called “wanting to” return to two

forms of Iran in particular that occur in Iranian New Wave cinema [3], and perhaps counter to the

post-revolutionary as escape. One form is the (i.) pre-revolutionary, domestic Iran as “paradise,”

and (ii.) the “revolutionary” Iran of antiquity: revolution as enlightenment, which can be

described as a Persian renaissance in itself: a reflexion of the self, soul, the in-between, the

voyeuristic, the mind as poem, the ethereal landscape– both within, and beyond.

 

A BRIEF (AND RELEVANT) HISTORY OF IRAN: ART, LITERATURE, DEMOGRAPHICS

REFERENCE SECTION

The allusions made in this essay are in regards to a brief history of terms:

(a.) Sufism:

In this case, Sufism will be attributed as both the physical and ritual by alluding to the

Persian dervish dancer. The dervish is a follower of his own path, or in arabic, the Tariqah, and

performs various spiritual performances which can be described by uplifting one’s “body and

soul” through a consistent whirling, and in a graduated dress which inflates during the dance.

This whirling becomes a sealing with an “ultimate power,” (which can be God or otherwise,

counter cases can include worshipping the concept of “love”), and the success of the dance itself

is characterised in being a near out-of-body experience, according to dervishes [18]. The cyclic

nature of the physical, the chant, and the escaping of Islamised sound [4], will be referenced in this

essay in parallel with the religious (and anti-religious) Persian reverie as the folkloric.

(b.) Omar Khaiyyam vs. Rumi as the ancient, yet contemporary didactic (sujets d l’art) of Iran:

Two pertinent intellectuals to note in both the contemporary history and “renaissance” of

Iran is the omnipresence of two philosophers and poets who serve as proponents in shaping the

theory (and various fields of the humanities) in Iran: Omar Khaiyyam and Rumi. In brief, Rumi

can be critiqued as being both sacrilegious in his work (often questioned as a Sufi mystic

himself), but also controversial in countering the importance of God when juxtaposed against

passion and love– often the subjects which seduce his works. Perhaps labeled as the

“irrational”– Khaiyyam, on the other hand, counters Rumi as the rational: he is a scientist and

mathematician who questions existence, organic human encounters, and the rational analysis of

these very situations. In many ways, Iranians call the two poets the immortal didactic, as counter

relationships which shape the climate of Iran whether in conversation, politics, or the arts, and as

a forever haunting epitemy.

(c.) Shahrnush Parsipur:

Shahrnush Parsipur (born 1946) is a contemporary Iranian woman-novelist. Daughter of

an attorney in the Iranian Justice Ministry, Parsipur was born and raised in Tehran, and received

her B.A. in sociology from Tehran University in 1973. Prided as one of the greatest, and award-

winning Iranian novelists to this day, Parsipur has struggled with years of imprisonment by the

Iranian government (first by the Shah’s regime, by the intelligence agency SAVAK) and was

released, only to to be arrested again (unjustly, without charge) by the Islamic Republic

following the 1979 revolution. She remained in prison for four years and seven months – an

experience she wrote upon in her Prison Memoirs. After further arrests and detainments for

discussing virginity on three occasions in her book, Women Without Men (published Iran, 1989),

the first English-language edition of this book was published in 2004 by the Feminist Press.

Parsipur has fled Iran and now lives in the United States as a political refugee, and to date, she

has published eight books of fiction, as well as her Prison Memoirs. All works are currently

banned in Iran [2].

(d.) Demographics; Logistics of Contemporary Iranian Identity:

Literacy, 85% (2008); Median age, 28.8 years (2015); Under the age of 25, 41.27% (2015); Male

to female percentages under the age of 25, 51.3% male, 48.7% female [12].

(e.) The Garden as Eden: to What Extent is This Biblical?

For many medieval writers, the image of the Garden of Eden creates a location for

human love and sexuality, often associated with the classic and medieval trope of the locus

amoenus [3].

In Islamic ornamentation and arabesque design, circular motifs can explicitly allude to

the very flowers of the garden of Eden in the simplest forms– with specific colours pertaining to

the biblical narrative itself. In Islam, it is a deep cerulean blue, for example, or palette of cool

colours that artfully describes this allusion in architectural motif and ceramics. The term Jannāt

`Adni (“Gardens of Eden” or “Gardens of Perpetual Residence”), in the more specific, biblical

sense, is used in the Qur’an for designating the final place of the righteous, although there are

several mentions of the Garden in the Qur’an (2:35, 7:19, 20:117) also abstractly (there may be

other citations that talk about events which have occurred there without specific identification, or

vague citing of the location as the Eden). In the narrative of the Garden of Eden as a form of

expulsion (and in parallel to the proposition of this essay, as female escape), historically, it is the

woman who is often mourning in Islamic paintings, poems, and literature. In her film, Women

Without Men (2009), various interviews trace artist and filmmaker, Shirin Neshat’s (both) denial

and admittance in using the reference to the Garden of Eden as an element that is biblical in her

film, rather than cultural in conveying the roles of women:

“There are a lot of references people find to the Garden of Eden, the garden where the

characters end up, and many references people find to Christian symbolism as well. I think there

are some interesting points that some people get like you, and some don’t get it”

“The story is a deeply philosophical one. It tells of five women who all run away from

their troubled pasts and find that their lives mysteriously converge in an orchard in the

countryside. This orchard becomes a refuge, a place of exile, where they can disconnect

themselves from the external world…

The film follows in parallel manner each woman’s journey out of Tehran and into the

orchard. Once in the orchard, the women feel fulfilled and safe. Together they create a utopian

community, until one of them gets bored and chooses to open the orchard to others. Parsipur is

obviously alluding to the Garden of Eden” [16].

“The gardener is treated as a very mysterious, rather angelic figure throughout the film…

Women are recruited for the orchard…” [7].

(f.) Precursors and influences of the second Iranian new wave (revolutionary era) as they occur

in this essay: Italian Neo-realism, French New Wave, and The House Is Black (Forough

Farrokhzad, 1963).

 

EMERGENCE OF THE IRANIAN NEW WAVE

The emergence of INW cinema itself is constantly debated when it comes to defining a

concrete timeline of its birth. Firstly, the INW called for an (though initially thought-of “Islamic”

type cinema) an opportunity to challenge tradition, conservatism, and the biblical, by applauding

new ways of thinking not only in addressing socio-political issues, but also in elevating the

beauty of near-reverie-like storytelling that could diverge and still encapsulate the everyday

climate of Iran, in reverence to its allusions to antiquity (and free-thinking) indirectly and

carefully, and unto its deconstructions onto Iranian civilians through cinema. De-fragmenting

religion as abstract unto localised politics and culture, the expected audience for INW cinema

was initially catered towards a domestic (and later-youth audience in Iran), whereas the later

years of the genre started to breach outwards (and also on purpose) when realising its potential to

convey the post-revolutionary status of the internalised nation to audiences internationally

(whether; this was facilitated by Iranian film production companies, or, for the sake of avoiding

false charges by the Iranian government such as mentioned in 5 above, contracting instead with

international co-publishing film industries) started to prove rather successful. This commenced in

an engagement with initially looking towards France, an initial Western ally and partner of Iran

during the revolution. Thus, fascinations in parallel with the experimental qualities, experiential

focus, and lesser structure of sequence in French New Wave cinema can be arguable prescribed

to some of the developing fascinations in INW cinema in addition to Italian neo-realism, such as

in Lily Amarpour’s, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night from 2014.

As early works of INW cinema propagated fascinations with social politics and

schemes– cinema focusing on the emergence of identity, the restrictive limitations of growing up

in Iran for the youth, and questions of alienation was introduced by Hajir Darioush, who is often

cited as one of the first filmmakers who brought these ideas forward in INW cinema. It is later

said that these beginnings evolved into a greater scheme of rationing a critical outlook of

westernisation on that of the rural culture in Iran. After resonating concepts of identity and

adjustment, Darjoush became more concerned in these issues as a metaphor and emblem in

reflecting the greater politics of Iran, such as the nation itself as perhaps a caged child, alienated

from the world both economically and socially. In the late 1960s, after the release of films by

Darius Mehrjui followed by Masoud Kimiai and Nasser Taqvai [15], the New Wave became a

firmly-grounded cultural, scholarly, dynamic and intellectual trend in Iran. In this way, the

Iranian viewer suddenly became more critical of themselves, able to look at their nation

externally, perhaps discriminating, encouraging the new trend itself to prosper and develop:

while feelings of rebellion started to stir in realising how censorious the climate is in Iran in

being brought up as a traditional “native.”

EARLY IRANIAN CINEMA

As the Pahlavi Regime conquered all aspects of Iran’s culture and economy, its

censorship of films from 1925-1979 created a great difficulty for the film industry to thrive and

sculpt methods of developing [concrete] strategies which accurately reflected Iran’s real and

everyday culture. In this time, for example, Film Farsi had begun, yet was described as “low-

quality movies for audiences who were becoming addicted to such fare, losing any taste or

demand for anything different” [13]. Instead, Film Farsi mimicked the popular cinema of both

Hollywood and– perhaps Bollywood especially– through its frequent use of song and dance

between the interjections of narrative.

FIRST WAVE

In contrast to the first wave of INW cinema, three women Iranian directors, Farough

Farrokhzad, Shirin Neshat, and Lily Amarpour can be described as being immediately grouped

within the second new wave not only on a timeline, but also contextually in terms of their style

and subject-intent within their cinematic works. Whereas the first wave of the INW was

particularly a reaction to (and mimicry, of) international, popular cinema (Film Farsi), it did not

convey or even simply depict any subject relating to life in Iran, nor convey the individual

artistic taste which circulated powerfully within the country itself– rooted in its history, both in

the public and private sphere (where earlier cases of oppression has been cited as being hidden [5]

or underground in the pre-revolutionary era).

Yet, with the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the second new wave

accordingly commenced. Films produced were now original, tasteful, artistic and political–

bridging the indirect fear of opinions into the direct behaviour of critiquing the Republic of Iran

through film.

SECOND WAVE: EXTERNAL VIEWS, CONTEMPORARY IRANIAN IDENTITY

In his studies, film critic and writer Ahmad Talebinejad examines the pioneers of the

second INW as those who are chiefly male: directors such as Hajir Darioush, Dariush Mehrjui,

Masoud Kimiay, and Nasser Taqvai [8]. These are all directors who created inventive, near state-

of-the-art like films with highly concerned, political tensions in the Iranian climate, with

philosophical tones embedded within the layers of Persian, poetic language– both ancient and

contemporary. Accordingly, subsequent films of this type have contributed to the very “new”

term in the INW cinema itself, as Talebinejad has stated, and thus distinguishes these films from

all earlier roots. In this way, he remarks:

“The factors leading to the rise of the New Wave in Iran were, in part, due to the

intellectual and political movements of the time. A romantic climate was developing after the 19

August 1953 coup in the sphere of arts. Alongside this, a socially committed literature took shape

in the 1950s and reached a peak in the 1960s, which many consider the golden era of

contemporary Persian literature. Iranian New Wave films thus shared some characteristics with

the European art films of the period, in particular Italian Neorealism.”

However, counter to these references of Iran’s parallels to western new waves and their

subsequent parallels on a side by side timeline, theorist Rose Issa argues, in her essay in Real

Fictions, that Iranian films have distinctively blossomed as being [Iranian], a nation who prides

its cinematic language as an indexical and unique entity, separate from the Western world, one of

which “champions the poetry in everyday life and the ordinary person by blurring the boundaries

between fiction and reality, feature film with documentary” [9]. In addition, Issa also argues that

this approach has set departures for European directors to emulate this “fascination with the

Orient,” citing Michael Winterbottom’s award-winning, In This World (2002), for example, as a

“homage to contemporary Iranian cinema” [6]. Here, she pairs–

“This new, humanistic aesthetic language, determined by the film-makers’ individual and

national identity, rather than the forces of globalism, has a strong creative dialogue not only on

home-ground but with audiences around the world.”

In Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (2001), Hamid Dabashi, theorist and

famous INW-labeled pioneer, prescribes that modern Iranian cinema and the phenomenon of

[Iranian] national cinema unfolding the explicit critique as a form of free-thinking (whether or

not associated as rebellion) is a form of cultural modernity and advancement in itself. According

to Dabashi, “the visual possibility of seeing the historical person (as opposed to the eternal

Qur’anic man) on screen is arguably the single most important event allowing Iranians access to

modernity” [4].

“Rich in poetry and painterly images” [15], it is thus through the dimensions of shifting

back and forth between modern Iranian cinema and the resilience of antiquity (through the

fantastical and oral act of Persian storytelling, its recitation, and poetic activation via the

founding “life-theory” didactics between Omar Khayyam and Rumi, for example) that pave way

for these nodes of feminism to emerge as an additional layer of free-thinking, revolution, and

constant allusion folding unto itself as citations of the omniscient indexical: from, and onto, the

artful history of Iran.

 

FOROUGH FARROKHZAD: THE POETIC EMBLEM AND EDEN

Lucky are those who are harvesting now,

and their hands are picking sheaves of wheat…

Let’s listen to the soul who sings in the remote desert

the one who sighs and stretches his heart out saying,

wounds have numbed my spirit.

During the latter years and towards the end of Shah Pahlavi’s regime– Forough

Farrokhzad, known as the “first woman of cinema,” (arguably also one of the most prominent

female Iranian poets of the 20th century, who, also exclusively established her cinema career at a

rather young age), came forward and created the short documentary film, The House Is Black

(1963)– considered to be one of the most famous precursors of INW cinema, as the Guttenberg

Press in 2002 famously stated:

It’s unflinching depictions of life in a leper colony, paired with artistically composed

shots and her own poetry, made this a truly unique film [8],

and as the film indeed lives on today within the greater genre of the INW.

Despite the divisions between the objective and subjective female perspective,

Farrokhzad interjects neo-realistic like imagery within the embodiment and cinematic reverie of

the mind as prism— the emblem of poetry functioning as not solely being internal but highly

indexical– through organic, careful, and anti-spectatorial perspective, perhaps even merging [7]

into the blind sweeping of the cinéma vérité. As Farrokhzad documents the daily life of a leper

colony (Behkadeh Raji colony), at times the (rather short; 22 min-feature documentary) film is

confusing conceptually– in questioning the poetic impositions of the reality before us, abstractified

through compositional minimalism of the image itself, by a narration elevated by a

higher questioning of existence. The gentle female voice, determinately Farrokhzad herself,

softly flirts with the beauty of creation perhaps as an allegory of the holistic documentary– as a

fascination that is melancholy, yet shape-shifts between quotations from the Quran, the Old

Testament, and her own poetry (most crucially, as the free-thinking, independent female)– in

universally spectating the leper colony as beings who endure hardship perhaps on behalf of

humanity.

By reducing the human condition to profiles, and including occasionally-experimental

compositions with the camera, Farrokhzad counter-enflames the essence of film through poetic

reverie and escape– distancing the female as both enduring and omnipresent in seeing upon

herself and yet unto others– a dichotomy which strays from initially viewing the film being pro

longingly focused on men who are lepers of conducting normative, day to day activities.

During shooting, Farrokhzad became attached to a child of two lepers, whom she later

adopted [4]– and this interestingly can perhaps account for the frequency of shots in which the

relationship between mother and child, ranging to the young girl as “being tamed” is presented

before the camera– re-iterating the innocence of voice in parallel with the innocence of

beholding a disability.

Reviewed by Eric Henderson as, “[o]ne of the prototypal essay films,” The House is

Black not only serves as the emblem of the(yet still) careful feminist emergences

during establishing movement of

the INW, but demonstrifies a

crucial and early fascination with

exploiting hardship indirectly

while regurgitating subjects of

the arts and Persian reverie as

the dream-like— an escape for

the mind to wander astray from

a notorious national climate, yet

reflexive of the escape into the past of applauded literacy and intellect that was, once liberation, in a land free of censorship and

surveillance. The House is Black also encroaches on the unfamiliar: the state of in-betweeness, in not

knowing what to breach as concrete, explicit and implicit.

Frequently blank landscapes of nature versus the industrial, occasional instances of intimacy between

persons (sometimes more composed than other shots) and allusions to nature as an eden, therein, and

after, is spliced again to the industrial, to even the granddaughter’s hair that is untangled by her

grandmother for just a few seconds.

Film stills from Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1963);
images exploring the relationships between mother and child.

For these elements that Farrokhzad both invents and reveres, it is through a powerful engagement with a

larger realm of parallels that bring forward the future nuances of INW cinema, such as in the works of

artist and filmmaker Shirin Neshat, as well as contemporary, young Iranian-American filmmaker,

Lily Amarpour.

 

ONWARD

In the onward discussion of comparing two contemporary Iranian films made by women

from two different generations, and the levels of individual nationalism exerted from each artist,

a few characteristics pertinent to second new wave Iranian cinema can be described as follows,

that is, in a general trend of the critical studies of Iranian cinema pertinent to this discussion [13]:

(i.) realistic, documentary styles, (ii.) poetic and allegorical storytelling, (iii.) the use of ‘child

trope’ (in response to regulations on adult material within films), (iv.) self-awareness, and

reflexive tones, (v.) focus on the rural lower-class, and (vi.) lack of the ‘male gaze.’

With these elements as precursors of the technical characterisation of the second wave, to

what extent are all of these categories fully included, or nearly dismissed in feminist INW film?

For example, the notion of the diminished male gaze, is rather, reversed in these two films in

particular, and perhaps even coincidentally: Women Without Men (Shirin Neshat, Iranian born,

2008) and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Lily Amarpour, Iranian-American born, 2014),

where the male gaze continues to be, traditionally spectatorial of the female as a sexualization

and dominance in both the domestic and public space; and yet, also existing as a vague

imbalance between religious and nationalistic impositions of gender roles, in what initially

originates as a lack of consensus and unanimity.

In an ironic and undermined instance, as Zarin wanders to the bath in Women Without Men, she walks through a ritual of men performing Namaaz, or prayer, and in taking a pause, does not realise that she has reversed her own gender role in being suddenly bowed to by men, and perhaps this is clearly intentional for Neshat.

In contextualising the longing return to two phases of Iran in particular, (I) the pre-

revolutionary, historical “paradise,” and (II) the return to the the “revolutionary Persia” of

antiquity: revolution which occurred as enlightenment— the following propositions displace these

films as critical points of departure: the garden (or abstracted landscape) as an Eden, the

hammam (historically known as, the Turkish bath) translated from a public to private vessel of

escape as a release from reality for the female, the notion of in-betweenness as both silence and

expressional transition, and magic surrealism (as brought forward by Shirin Neshat in her feature

prologue of Parsipur’s novella from the 2011 edition). Magic surrealism, coincidentally, and

further, becomes a universal platform to critique perverted forms of nationalism through

exaggeration, even breaching into being a humorous parallel with Lily Amarpour’s film as being

quite a fantastical, cross-cultural pastiche of horror.

In Amarpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Girl (Sheila Vand) prepares herself for her nightly ritual: wandering the streets and deciding justice for perpetrators in so-called Bad City: that is, with a deceiving, yet modestly attractive “signature look.”

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With no other choice as a prostitute, and after being scolded by Madame, Zarin (Orsolya Tóth) prepares for her next customer in Neshat’s Women Without Men.

 

ANALYSIS

THE CHARACTERISATION OF CRIMINALITY: CREATIVITY AS THE HOSTAGE

THE INTERJECTIONS OF FEMINISM (VS. FEMININITY) IN THE IRANIAN NEW WAVE

I. THE HAMMAM AS ESCAPE: THE VESSEL OF RELEASE

The Turkish Bath (Le Bain Turc), as painted by Dominique-Ingres (1862-3), is an early observation of the “bathing, oriental” female; the painting takes place in a hammam in Istanbul during the Ottoman period, and serves as a famous constructional allusion for many contemporary artists, like Neshat, in depicting the social sphere of the hammam for Muslim women through history. Here, as if looking through the lens, the situation is rather dream-like, as Turkish women swoon and relax, perhaps feeling free and oblivious of a male spectator.

In Neshat’s film, the Iranian bath mimics the structure of the hammam, where women bathe with their children and linger to socialise in a spherical vessel. Zarin (Orsolya Tóth), a fragile prostitute who lives with post-traumatic stress disorder under the oppression of a brothel, comes to the hammam daily to purify herself, violently, until all surfaces of contact on her skin is washed away from the men who have violated her.
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In a rather long, yet tasteful transition superimposed by sonic music, Amarpour montages various cut-to-cut scenes of how each character progresses in the next few moments (in reference to specific still below). The protagonist, or, The Girl (Sheila Vand) in this case releases herself as she bathes, just after killing an old man who continuously rapes a middle-aged woman by drugging her, making her forget the situation. Through a dichotomy of escape and release, the bath simply becomes a primitive moment of hiding, despite being an isolated character for the majority of the film.
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In both cases of these scenes of containing the bath as an escapist vessel, Neshat and

Amarpour explicitly incorporate nudity in their films, which, at first, may seemingly be critiqued

as an abomination if such a film were released in the Republic of Iran. At the same time, the 8

viewer is reminded in this very instance that the use of nudity is only possible because of these

films being international: in being films created, released, and endorsed by Western affiliations

outside of Iran, and the irony here is that, despite being heavily believable Iranian sites,

Amarpour shoots her film in the California desert, while Neshat shoots her film in rural

Morocco.

Prolonged as a stare– from the ceiling to the indirect betweenness before her, and in a

shot that takes place for almost more than a minute, Amarpour unusually chooses to focus on The

Girl as she bathes in a climactic and perhaps stressful transition in the film– reinforcing [though

still modernly] the “tub” as a form of escape, whereas Neshat’s allusion to the bath is sculptural,

literal, poetic, and heavily historical– alluding to the angelic, and chiaroscuro of the bath itself as

a place of refuge from darkness.

II. IN-BETWEENNESS: SILENCE, AESTHETIC, EXPRESSION

Whether through explicit references through setting, or metaphorical allusions to

literature and poetry, Shirin Neshat and Lily Amarpour carefully mould a hallow-shaped interior

of Iran through settings prescribed by blanketed soundscapes, references to poetry, and

existential, metaphorical, minimalist, one-sentence imagery– through both dialogue and image.

By constructing situations which are magnificently composed like paintings, Neshat

dabbles back and forth between antiquity and modernity by portraying the covered versus the

fashionable woman, for example (such as the changing and sexually-revealing woman who

exposes herself in the hammams through near eastern art history) and again, references Persian

antiquity through references to nature, both in Islam and the individualised poetics of Persia as

an escapist wealth of the natural world. In instances of prolonged intimacy, and a fragmentation

of logical narrative structure (perhaps evolving adrift into more of surrealism as the film

progresses)– the interwoven lives of five women start mimicking that of the “breathless” women

of the French New Wave– moulding between the textures of the close-up, the exaggeration of

bodily sound and frustration, and occasional paranoiac movement through urban spaces.

Most importantly, like Amarpour, Neshat imposes a script that is minimalist, yet with a

highly poetic dialogue: almost as reflexive as the intonations of the female voice in The House is Black,

with self-questioning of the depleted, disillusioned woman embedded in somber vocals

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that end with the surrealist silencing of non-diegetic noise. Carefully detached from critiquing

the present-day Iran concretely, Neshat orients her film by silencing the chaos of the revolution–

allowing her heroines to wander through a melancholic inquisition of a fragmented reality (see

image on first page of the protagonist, isolated within a revolting crowd of revolutionists– all of

which are men). Through the expressional, Neshat still stabs at modern corruption in Iran by

depicting a more serene pavement of its history through utopic poetry, exaggerative chiaroscuro,

colour, and composition– while revitalising the marvels of ancient Persia through hints of her

artistic craft, cinematic sensibilities, and prolonging intervention in time, which in this case,

parallels the same fascination with time as Amarpour invests in her own film.

For Amarpour, throughout A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, indiscreetness is quite

notorious. Prolonged moments of in-betweenness can perhaps be attributed to taking up more

than half of the play-length time of the film. In Amarpour’s film however, language operates,

literally, as not only being [literally] foreign, but highly minimal in dialogue: hidden, and

metaphoric as a reverence to higher forms of Iranian poetry, music, and Persian existentialism

through astounding brevity. For example, as The Girl approaches a young boy on her “nightly

run,” the situation mimics an old Persian riddle remarking the curiosity of Satan disguised in a

cape, where he uses his teeth to first haunt, and then interrogate a young male trespasser as he

soars across his path:

Have you been a good boy?
If you’re bad… Then be aware for I will, and then, and must, come back for you.

By using negative spaces between words, sound, and physical space, time constantly

lingers as a concrete element in the film for no reason, through the technique in which it was

constructed and mended into by Amarpour. So often, the film would drift into a scene that lingers

for so long (yet so beautifully) while the characters’ movements would be unrealistically (but

believably) slow, almost as mystical and determined as a sufi dance, and time (which can be

interchanged with the term, “negative space,” in this case) almost consumes the environment and

characters as a spirit, who are rather cartoonish to begin with. Here, three instances are

recounted:

(I.) When Arash wanders aimlessly after given his first “high” pill at a Halloween party,

dressed as Dracula, he walks through a blank, ‘suburban utopia.’ Here, the soundscape is only

described by wind, but then hinted with sonic elements. While the composition emphasises his

place within a highly constructed, divided space, Amarpour allows the scene to drift by focusing

on Arash’s position almost mystically, as he looks up at a lamp post with his neck bent, and

stares into the sky. It is uncertain whether he is in pain, deep in thought, hallucinating, or simply,

suddenly allowing the present to consume him, and it is in this lost time (approximately a four-
minute long scene which he assumes the same position) the scene is painfully long.

(II.) In using the negative space between the body, space, and time, Amarpour’s

fascination with anticipation, and challenging gender roles, can be seen openly throughout the

film. After their first encounter, and as The Girl almost mandates Arash to go to her apartment

(rather than an invitation, oblivious to any sexual tension) because he is unable to walk in his

intoxicated state, she places him on her skateboard, stands, and pushes him home, while he sits

on the tip. Here, The Girl takes lead, steers him home, and as the blurring of space describes their

experience of traveling to the apartment, the fixated image of The Girl standing over Arash

lingers for three minutes. For the first time, the woman is subvertently the transporter of the

male.

(III). Perhaps the most famous instance in the film is when The Girl and Arash relax at her

apartment– where she turns on music, and both characters lose track of time. As the viewer

anticipates a fierce ultimatum from The Girl, where the first time the woman initiates an intimate

decision (in either being the initiator of a romantic kiss, or a hungry vampire-feed on aloof

Arash), Amarpour concludes an unusually long scene with a simple embrace of the characters

through exhaustion, trust, and perhaps the commencement of an innocent, indie romance.
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III. MAGIC SURREALISM: EXAGGERATION AS A MEDIUM OF EXPLOITATION

Neshat explores the woman’s psychological and anthropological capabilities by re-appropriating social

roles as a form of constant questioning and frustration. In addition, the imbalance between being the

planar Iranian woman, versus the woman in Islam constantly creates tension in her film despite the

misconceptions imposed by historical extremism. Through her ensued passions for art as activism: such

as exploring gender-related issues in the Islamic world by fluctuating between ethereal universes,

imagination, reality, and demonstration [17], Neshat sites magic surrealism as a specific method (this is

especially discussed in her 2011  prologue to Women Without Men in Parsipur’s novella), to amplify the

problems of women in a meticulous yet critical manner: if indeed these escapes are fictional, and more

resemblant of Persian folklore, thus, perhaps it is unable to be “charged” as being explicitly critical of

theIranian government as a practicing artist.

In Amarpour’s work– to Westerners, the plot could seem to operate in the famous,

cinematic genre of a “dysfunctional reality:” a man and woman, burdened with exotic

personalities, operate as introverts in society and somehow come to find each other. Yet, one or

the other (or both) deal with the aspects of either: (1) the rigidity of moving between social

classes, both in the domestic sphere and outwards (2) having a personal nature which is

seemingly odd and displaces them from relating to others (3) indifference to a generalised idea of

love (4) facing the nuances of a developing nation, socio-political regime, period of recession in

a nation, or even, a disillusioned form of democracy. All of this, or perhaps one of these

situations, determinately makes the viewer subconsciously (or directly) empathetic to an abstract

form of realism, quite literally– not only coining it as the first “Iranian Vampire Western” in the

sense of its literal (but also humorous) horrors, but by also placing a slinky personality of a

protagonist within a woman who uses the burka as a cape of power, interrogation, but also calm

reservation (of uncloaking) when a “task” (in this case… execution) has been completed.

On a another hand, to Easterners– the plot could be said to be… Ironically simple: it is a

reality which indeed describes the upbringing of any young man (or woman) in their twenties

coming from “a region in the Near Eastern world” under oppression. As a hybrid-narrative, in

one respect, it seems to resurrect the engrossing genres we are so immediate to familiarise

ourselves with: that of the western vampire horror, and the dysfunctional, post coming-of-age,

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 11.42.15

Surreal and perhaps even biblical, a famished, yet thankful Zarin passes away in the cottage-side household in the final scene of Women Without Men, the place where all women sought refuge and shared their stories of struggle. While an Iranian party pauses downstairs, the Shah lavishly dines in the home of the eldest protagonist’s (Arita Shahrzad) homage as a sanctuary.

invented theatre within a theatre. Even then, for example, even if filmed in the “middle of

nowhere” in California, Amarpour passionately recruits an entire set of Farsi-speaking Iranian-

Americans who spearhead her film, and by decorating an ‘imaginary city’– she inserts Persian

motifs through politically unnoticed graffiti within her own, realised industrial world (seeming to

reference a similar context of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Deserto Rosso), although the director

claims to subliminally contextualise the nature of an ‘unknown’ city (what Amarpour blankets as

Bad City). Still, as the director denies the film’s affiliation with Iran, the various anthro-political

phenomenons, both social and gender-counter, in regards to modern-day Iran– become a critique

of a complex world, symbolically, yet still detached in an alternate cinematic universe. The

surrealism also exists within the chaos of the character itself: Amarpour creates a feminist

protagonist who is a controversial hero. She is firstly an Iranian woman, can slaughter mankind

with a bite, yet acts upon her intrinsic form of judgement detecting corruption in a deserted land.

She skateboards leisurely, yet skeptically, during different times of the night, and returns to a

cyclic routine to assert the passage of time in the plot of a new night. In the end, the film

becomes a foreplay of the in-between state of being a slave to both fear and desire– both in the

moment and throughout a lifetime– and magic surrealism, in parallel with Neshat’s fascination,

furthers exaggeration as a medium of exploitation.

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 11.43.45

IV. THE GARDEN AS EDEN

Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 11.44.31

In Women Without Men, the lives of five Iranian women, all facing generative forms of

oppression because of the men in their lives, mysteriously are able to converge in the countryside

of Iran in a surprise of interwoven fates. This country-side provides them a cottage with almost a

mythological-like garden. Even in reference to the hammam, the bath is only reached through a

labyrinth of internal streets around a garden, such as a scene where women and children gather at

an “unknown well” in an “unknown place” in underground Iran to find peace and mercy after

being lost in the bushes. As stated by Neshat herself, she reclaims:

“What is interesting is how eventually this community falls apart. The utopia proves

impossible due to the likelihood that every woman herself contains the flaws that she is running

away from in the outside world. To me this book, which is very visual, is political, philosophical,

mystical, universal, and, of course, very feminist” [11].

Through the politics of a blurred reality, these elements come forth as both abstract and

biblical– the garden as home, a rebirth of optimism, or even, an escape into a landscape not

necessarily associated with nature (for example, for Amarpour, this landscape is one that mimics

the industrial oil-tanks of the Iran, such as during the brief and intimate “first date” between

Arash and The Girl in the middle of a factory-nowhere, again resembling Deserto Rosso).
Screen Shot 2016-08-13 at 11.46.07

With each allusion to a movement through landscape almost as a fever-dream, both Neshat and

Amarpour allow their characters to enliven a sort of paradise free of politics, but rather,

gesturally paints an unknowable and endless path for each character to speculate and soar in

either what consumes them, or contributes to their life as something toxic– it is thus a constant

following of them, on the viewer’s behalf, as a suffocating and intimate movement through time

and space– encroaching on the surreal landscape of nature as being the ultimate– and perhaps

only, romantic opera across space that occurs in the films.

 

CONCLUSION

Whether conceived as being chiefly humanistic or a-political, the schematics of

interjecting feminist attitudes in the Iranian New Wave were breached by revolutions in free-

thinking, independent cinema practice and drive, and newly born rebellions which tasted the

fervour and satisfaction of critiquing corrupt nationalism through cinema. In an effort of

disenfranchising the traditional nodes of femininity being stuck between the cultural versus

biblical, Amarpour and Neshat are still able desert reality through their seeking return to an old

Iran free of surveillance, more as paradise, and as the poetic escape it was once revered for even

since antiquity. As their films exist within their own dream-worlds, their films’ contributions to a

still-developing phase of feminism in Iran, especially in the film and arts industry, exist in

themselves as alternate, cinematic universes of storytelling– but through complex poetic efforts

that strip Iran’s paranoid nationalism as troublesome, and perhaps inspired by Farroukhad’s

heroism. In a reflexion of the self, the soul, the in-between, the voyeuristic, the mind as poem,

the ethereal landscape– both within, and beyond– the women protagonists of these films also

breach the priding power and strength of these Iranian filmmakers as being rebels within

themselves unto the world of cinema as liberation from oppression.

 

NOTES

[1] A brief history discussing issues relating to occurrences where creative women in Iran were arrested (for example, being characterised as rebellious against the law) or were declared in exile will be included later in this essay.
[2] For example, a notable event to remark in the history of fine and cinema arts in Iran is its inclusion into the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, a global arts-festival that showcases contemporary art through pavilions which exhibit a specific country or group of countries within a region. However, rather than being intrinsically focused on the politics of Iran, as artists in other pavilions may have had the freedom to mediate between local and global politics in their work, critics have carefully noted that Iranian artists reflected mostly on identity, and their transition within the exterior world. For example, Iranian curators Marco Meneguzzo and Mazdak Faiznia developed the concept of the pavilion by carefully calling it, The Great Game, a title that alludes to Iran’s relationship to the outer world as existing on a timeline specifically relating to its strings to colonialism, and beyond itself as a global interface [14].
[3] In this essay, Iranian New Wave cinema will be referred to as *INW cinema.
[4Islamized sound, as coined by Muslim sound theorist and artist Ibrahim Quiraishi: in brief, the total landscape of Muslim noise that perpetuates from the city, despite the convolution which could propagate from urban noise and non-humanistic sound– even in regards to including the sonic, and de-fragmented noise of the “purified” Azhan (Koranic verses transferred through speakers and satellites throughout an Islamic city during times of prayer) when re-franchised even as mass production.

[5] Samples of cases where arts-related institutions or organisations were shut down by the Iranian government, or consequently suppressed: the Iranian National Ballet Company (1958 – 1979); disbanded in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution.

[6] A controversially-coined, and pioneered term central to the foundational writings of his critical studies; cultural representations that are the bases of Orientalism, and the West’s “patronising perceptions andfictional depictions of ‘The East.’”

[7] Indexical, as in immediately being referential and relational in alluding to Iran’s renaissance during antiquity during pre-fifteenth century: in poetry, literature, astronomy, and mathematics (see reference section).
[8] As of 2016, all forms of nudity in the Republic of Iran are banned.

 

WORKS CITED

[1] Biegstraaten, Jos. “KHAYYAM, OMAR Xi. IMPACT ON LITERATURE AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST.” Encyclopædia Iranica. KHAYYAM, OMAR Xi. IMPACT ON LITERATURE AND SOCIETY IN THE WEST, n.d. Web. 14 May 2016.

[2] Curtis, Mary Jo. “Novelist Shahrnush Parsipur Named First International Writing Fellow.” Brown Administration News Bureau. Brown University News Service, 2 June 2003. Web. 14 May 2016.

[3] Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, English Translation by Williard R. Trask. New York: Harper Row, 1953. 200, N. 31. Print.

[4] Dabashi, Hamid. “II.” Master & Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema. Washington DC: Mage, 2007. 39-70. Print. Forough Farrokhzad; The House Is Black.

[5] Dukes, Kais. “The Quranic Arabic Corpus – Quran Search.” The Quranic Arabic Corpus – Quran Search. Corpus Q’uran, 2011. Web. 14 May 2016.

[6] Hamshahri. An Interview with Ahmad Talebinejad. Vol. 3, P. 10. N.p.: Daily Morning, 1995. Print. No.

[7] Hartney, Eleanor. “Shirin Neshat: An Interview.” Art in America. Art in America Magazine, 16 June 2009.

[8] “Iranian New Wave.” Cinema of Iran: New Waves in Cinema. World Heritage, Guttenburg Press, 2010. Web.

[9] Issa, Rose. “Hkw.de | The House of World Cultures | Rose Issa.” The Fabric of Life and Art. Haus Der Kulteren Der Welt, 3 Aug. 2004. Web.

[10] Kiann, Nima. “Chronology of the Iranian National Ballet and Les Ballets Persans.” Les Ballets Persans. N.p., 2002. Web.

[11] MacDonald, Scott. “Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Shirin Neshat.” Feminist Studies 30.3 (1996): 634-38. Feminist Studies, Inc., 2004. Web.

[12] “Middle East: Iran.” The World Factbook. US Central Intelligence Agency, n.d. Web. 14 May 2016.

[13] Mirbakhtyar, Shahla. Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006. Print.

[14] Morris, Natasha. “Iran Goes Back to the Future at Venice Biennale.” The Guardian. The Guardian News and Media, n.d. Web.

[15] Nottingham, Steve. “Iranian Cinema.” Steve Nottingham: Early Soviet Cinema. SFN, Aug. 2002. Web.

[16] Roxo, Alexandra. “A Conversation With Shirin Neshat (Women Without Men).” HN. Hammer to Nail, LLC, 2015, 16 Nov. 16. Web. 14 May 2016.

[17] Vilcek Foundation. “Interview with Ana Lily Amirpour, Director of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” YouTube. YouTube, 06 Nov. 2014. Web. 27 May 2016.

[18] “The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi.” New Page 1. Raindrop Foundation of Texas, Institute of Interfaith Dialogue, n.d., Web.

ANALYSING THE IRANIAN NEW WAVE: FEMINIST ANGST IN AN ETHEREAL UNIVERSE

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