Given our recent run-ins with the Middle East (and our ongoing battle to bring some manner of democracy to the region), it is safe to say that we still know as little about Islam and the people who believe in it as we did before a band of brazen psychopaths decided to slam commercial airliners into the World Trade Center. To the West, the cultural caveats of Muslim society, with its strict theocratic laws, limited civil rights and belief based barriers seems completely antithetical to the modern mindset, especially in a world teaming with more technical innovations and personal opportunities than ever before. We look at women cloaked from head to toe in carefully concealing garb, witness brutal acts of near-vigilante justice and see the stark contrasts between male and female freedom and wonder how, in the year 2005, such backward ideas can still exist. Tradition and spirituality are one thing, but while everyone else progresses, the Arab nations seem locked in a never ending holy war between faith and the future.
This is why film is so important. It allows us real insight into the background aspects of life in another culture, far removed from news reports and national propaganda. Unless they are dealing with specific political concepts within a country, the cinema is shaded by the region it is realized in, given shape and a sense of being by the elements that surround it and the people who partake of it. A country like Iran can be viewed and examined in films as simple as Gabbeh or as oblique as The Day I Became a Woman. The latter is an allegorical take on the way in which the female sex is subjugated and oppressed, and is the first film from director Marziyeh Meshkini. To tell her tale, Meshkini uses imagery and imagination to paint a portrait of modern day Iran that is both magical and menacing. Unfortunately, the visuals are not as recognizable as the filmmaker believes, and the lack of any real cultural or political context turns what should be revealing into something rather distant and vague.
Told in three parts, The Day I Became a Woman wants to explore the main phases of female existence in the heavily paternalistic Middle East. With each section named after the main character at the center of the story, and a growing use of metaphor and magic realism to accent the narrative, this is a film that moves from stark truth to surrealistic sentiments over the course of its 80 minute running time. Indeed, part of the problem with the film, from a purely stylistic standpoint, is the shift from fact to fantasy. While it must be difficult, if not next to impossible, to show what life is really like for a woman in Iran, the use of allegory and daydreams definitely dilutes the message. Let's begin the review with a look at:
Part 1: Hava
Storyline: Upon turning nine, a young girl is saddened to learn she can no longer play with her male friends. She bargains for one last hour of "childhood".
As the best realized and most fully developed vignette in the film, Hava could very easily be fleshed out to feature film size, should director Marziyeh Meshkini ever decide to expand upon the intriguing foundation presented here. Custom and ritual are the core of any culture, and to witness a sudden shift like the one that occurs when Hava turns nine (one day she's a child, the next, she's a woman) is incredibly interesting. Though she keeps her main characters decidedly innocent throughout the running time of the segment, we slowly begin to understand the dangers and deceptions the little girl's mother and grandmother constantly worry about.
In two particularly potent scenes, Hava is "swindled" out of her scarf by a couple of boys who woo her with a toy fish, clearly indicative of the way men will treat the girl the rest of her life. Then a fiercely determined boy, Hava's best friend Hassan, keeps tempting the young lady, asking her to defy her mother, and later share her candy with him. The look on his face as he tastes the treats, a combination of anger and amorousness, is very unsettling. It accents the sly, subtle sexual undercurrent that exists in the scene. Meshkini suggests that, indeed, there is something inherent in the male member of the species that even girls as young as Hava need to look out for. While fundamentalism is flawed, it is also founded on some aspects of inner truth.
Of course, much of this rings ridiculous in our liberty and freedom founded Western mindset, but it doesn't mean we can't see the situation for what it is. Yes, religion is at the center of the subservience, and the notion that puberty - and therefore fertility and marriage - is just around the corner. But all Hava wants is another hour of playtime, a chance to hang out with her friends the way she used to. By creating an artificial barrier, by mandating a day and time when one phase of life ends and another begins, there is a slightly self-fulfilling prophecy at work. Hava will now be viewed differently because her social order requires it. And because of such a switch, her life can now never be the same.
Part 2: Ahoo
Storyline: While participating in a seemingly neverending bicycle outing, Ahoo is accosted by her husband, her father, her tribe and her brothers.
The Ahoo section of The Day I Became a Woman is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it is an obvious attempt by Meshkini of portraying several facets in the life of a Middle Eastern woman - marriage, family obligations, social strictures - in the course of a single setting. And the use of the bicycle journey is visually arresting. But we don't get a lot of context here, nor do we ever truly understand if the contest is actually happening, or just a directorial device. The imagery is striking - dozens of women all dressed in black robes and scarves, each one traveling along the seaside with an endless ocean as their backdrop. The camerawork is clever and creative, giving us a real sense of urgency and movement and we can easily read the emotional resolve on every individual face.
Yet something just doesn't gel here. Meshkini may be trying to argue that women run a constant race to avoid the oppression of men, but the metaphoric bicycle business is way too literal to make a real resonant point. The men on horseback (another obvious symbol of ancient, throwback beliefs) constantly harassing Ahoo never seem to offer up much resistance. They're all talk and very little action. They threaten well, and puffy their occasionally bare chests, but they don't really provide any impetus for our heroine to acquiesce. Maybe this is another message, a way of portraying the male inability to communicate with the female, but again, Meshkini's methods are muddy.
Part of the problem is that, unlike Hava before her and Hoora to come, Ahoo never speaks for herself. Everything she is feeling, every aspect of the story, must be read in her expressions and viewed as it crosses her face. The actress essaying the role seems more than capable (and appears very attractive under all her socially mandated garb), but we don't get enough noticeable indications of what is going on to keep us connected. Instead, our minds start to drift and we find ourselves wondering about issues insignificant to the story (wow, the terrain is flat; gee, that ocean looks calm). Visually, this is a stunning sequence. Narratively, it is the weakest of the three.
Part 3: Hoora
Storyline: Having come across a large sum of money, an old woman buys up all the modern conveniences she can.
Here is where insinuation and truth take a holiday in this otherwise quasi-grounded film. The Hoora sequence of The Day I Became a Woman is so odd, so filled with oblique dialogue and strained insinuations that it's next to impossible to determine what the fudge is going on. The story seems simple enough. An old lady returns to her native land, a large inheritance in hand. With the help of a street urchin, she goes on a mammoth shopping spree. As she buys appliances and other items of materialistic wealth, a steady stream of helpers follows her, caravan style. Eventually, she and her possessions end up on the beach, where a sort of fake household is created. The old woman pines away for a child to care for her, even trying to get the local boys to "be" her son. Eventually, all these items are placed on a raft and the old woman is sent out to sea in the literal lap of luxury.
HUH? While Hava's story was simple, and Ahoo's tale tellingly apparent, Hoora's scattered, sloppy look at material vs. maternal wealth makes very little, if any, sense. Interesting images do not automatically make for cinematic symbols, and the constant repetition of questions and concerns does not lead to a subliminal level of deeper understanding. Instead, what we end up with here is an issue of impossible insight played out by a filmmaker who feels that everything they offer up is painfully clear. Granted, Meshkini showing us the malls and shopping arcades in the Middle East is inherently interesting, since we don't usually see signs of capitalist wealth and opulence in our daily interaction with the region, and the notion that Hoora wants all the things she was denied in life has a kind of palpable human resonance to it. But what is the main message here - that the right teapot equals womanhood? That a nice stove and a refrigerator that dispenses cold water are the last stages in feminine fulfillment? If so, it's a missive we'd very easily dismiss - that is, if we even can see it in the first place.
Hoora's hopelessly confused story sends The Day I Became a Woman off on a decidedly sour note. Up until the point, Meshkini has used filmic facets both believable and heavy handed to make clear, concise arguments about Arab life. We've witnessed the beauty and the banality of the region, heard the religious rhetoric and experienced the essence of individuality. Yet how an old woman and her desire for modern conveniences plays into these particulars is downright bewildering. Since, again, we have no character context, no notion of the country in which this takes place or clue as to the social fabric, we are left with lazy symbols shunted by mangled magic realism. This disappointing ending makes The Day I Became a Woman seem like a swindle. For a while, we were trying to stay in tune with the film. Then director Meshkini just went ahead and forgot about us, indulging her whims to some wacky, weird ends. Frankly, we can't follow her.
Overall, The Day I Became a Woman is interesting on levels other than those of narrative or meaning. It is rare when a Western audience gets a chance to view the authentic, non-Tinsel Town tenets of obscure ethnic locales. One of the great things about foreign films is the ability to see into these arcane cultures and differing social circumstance. Unfortunately, Meshkini assumes a lot of things, mainly because she is making the movie for herself first, the rest of the world second. There is probably a lot of meaning in the bike race and tons of interesting insights to be gained from Hoora's beach house histrionics. Yet it is only little Hava who we truly understand and empathize with. Had her story been expanded, showing how her ninth birthday became the defining moment for her entire life, we would have a very good film on our hands. Indeed, Hava's tale could be incorporated very easily into the middle and last sections of the film without losing any of the additional depth Meshkini is looking for.
Instead, we get three pieces that barely add up to a whole. Our filmmaker does try to draw it all back together in a closing shot that gives us a glimpse of Hava watching Hoora float off to sea, but it is far too little way too late. The oppression of women in Arab nations is nothing to ignore or to be taken lightly. Any film that can shed some light on the how's and the why's of the region and its theocracies is well worth spending time with. But the truth about The Day I Became a Woman is that it's a primer for particulars that the rest of the planet has long since passed by. There is nothing really new or novel here, no true sense of discovery or discussion. Instead, this is a filmmaker feeling her way through a new modern world she hopes will understand and embrace her. Many will, but not because of the actual movie involved. The issues raised here are far more emblematic than the film that features them. The Day I Became a Woman is intriguing, but it definitely lacks a true cinematic spark.
When dealing with the transfer of any foreign film, the source material can be sketchy at best. Aside from obvious issues like age and dirt, how the print was preserved and the method of the film's original creation (the camera, the lab) are also potentially fouling factors. With all this being said, Olive Films presentation of The Day I Became a Woman is very good. The 1.33:1 non-anamorphic image is letterboxed (one guesses at about 1.66:1) but there is no 16x9 mastering. The colors are correct, the contrasts sharp. One might complain about the lack of subtlety and nuance here (the visuals have a very hard, very strident look) but the DVD captures what Meshkini made - for better and, occasionally, for worse.
Presented in Farsi with English subtitles, the aural aspects of The Day I Became a Woman are thin, reedy and occasionally very shrill. There is very little subwoofer in the Dolby Digital Stereo mix, and dialogue can be decidedly flat. The musical scoring is interesting, but almost Mono in the presentation and the translation seems superficial and scant at best. Characters will speak for long periods of times with only a phrase or two offered up in exposition.
Olive Films provides a nice set of bonus features here, one of which being absolutely crucial to understand the film and its point of view. Richard Peņa, the Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center is on hand to explain almost every aspect of this movie. Drawing in the current cultural and political situation in Iran, as well as his knowledge of Meshkini and the work of her famous husband Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Peņa places many of the scenes in context (the importance of bicycles, the modern look to the film's final act) and argues for a certain thematic consistency. While he occasionally reaches for some of his conclusions (he dismisses the sensuality of the scene between Hava and Hassan as mere "familial closeness") he is an excellent guide through the more maddening aspects. The rest of the added content includes a critical essay by Shirin Neshat (accessible via DVD-Rom) a photo gallery, and a trailer. Neshat's take on the film is also offered in an embossed booklet that comes, along with postcards, inside the DVD packaging.
Perhaps the cultural differences between East and West are too different to allow for ready comprehension of each other's ways and means. To us, certain facets of the Arab lifestyle are barbaric, while they view us in similar, unsympathetic terms. More than just a moral crossroads, we seem to be at conflicting purposes as to our part in the global dynamic. While one can argue that both societies look outward and inward, a film like The Day I Became a Woman proves that, at least in the case of gender issues, the modern Islamic world is still stuck in some decidedly dark ages. The fact that a woman, director Marziyeh Meshkini, is able to shed light on the situation while still sticking steadfast to Muslim law about entertainment and film proves her power behind the lens. Many will enjoy this creative, allegorical discussion of feminine oppression and persecution. Others may see through all the allusions and metaphors and find the experience less than impressive. Either way, there are some important issues buried inside this often amazing looking movie. This is one day that should be well remembered. Instead, it's confusing and contrite.
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