New York video artist filming Parsipur's powerful story, Women Without Men
Washington - "The deep green garden, its walls plastered with mud, faced the river with the village behind it."
This is the opening line to Women Without Men, Shahrnush Parsipur's highly praised and controversial 1989 novel of five women from very different backgrounds and experiences who find freedom and refuge - physical, psychological and spiritual - in a mystical garden outside Tehran.
Much of the story is timeless and employs elements of fantasy or magic realism, but other parts are set in a specific historical moment - the 1953 coup that overthrew the government of Mohammad Mossadegh.
"It is a very beautiful story with a political message about the exiled community and ideas of utopia," said noted Iranian-American photographer and video artist Shirin Neshat. She has spent the last six years adapting the novel into a film, with its complex, interwoven tales of women who exist as real characters but are also capable of becoming ghosts, seers, and even trees that grow and blossom with the seasons.
At the end of a recent preview of the movie at the University of Maryland, many in the audience stood and applauded. The showing was followed by a discussion with co-writer and co-director Shoja Azari, who has worked with Neshat for many years on her striking video installations, which often deal with themes of gender difference and the role of women in Islamic society.
Azari observed that Neshat would be gratified at the response to the film - but also appalled because it was unfinished and still required modified soundtracks, color corrections and final editing.
Women Without Men employs many of the visually abstract, evocative images of figures, often women, in stark landscapes that can be found in Neshat's earlier video installations, which are displayed in art galleries instead of conventional movie theaters.
The film combines the strongly feminist themes of the book with a depiction of the roots of Iran's political conflicts in the 1950s, according to Azari.
"We see women from very different parts of society in the 1950s - upper class and poor, observant and secular - but all of them trapped, seeking personal freedom in the garden," he said. "The themes are relevant today, whether one is Iranian or not."
Everyone in Iran will eventually see the film after it is released, Azari predicted. "Not legally, but through private screenings and parties."
FROM NOVEL INTO FILM
In response to questions from the University of Maryland audience, Azari talked about some of the challenges, practical and artistic, in making Women Without Men.
The film was shot in Morocco, since Parsipur's novel, with its daring portrayals of women's sexuality and oppressive male control, long has been banned in Iran - as is much of Neshat's challenging video work.
Creating the look of 1953 Tehran in 2007 Casablanca and Tangiers proved quite a challenge, according to Azari. "Casting was very difficult," he added. "We had to look at many different faces to find Iranian-looking faces."
Perhaps the biggest challenge was combining the book's elements of magic realism with the political events of the time.
The clash of pro-Mossadegh demonstrators with army troops, for example, is filmed in harsh black-and-white tones, like a news documentary. By contrast, the light becomes soft, the images surreal in the garden, where "wisps of cloud drift through the frame at supernatural rates and pine barrens suddenly give way to swamps," according to a 2007 The New Yorker magazine profile of Neshat.
And when one of the characters, Munis, leaps from the roof of her house where she has been trapped by her brother, she floats through the air, signaling her continued presence in the film as a living spirit.
Neshat is now deeply immersed in the final production of the film, and hopes to release it formally at the 2009 Cannes film festival beginning May 13.
When she first read Women Without Men in 2001, it "awoke in Neshat a feeling of deep communion," according to New Yorker writer Lauren Collins. Neshat located the author in San Francisco and the two became close friends, drawn together by the deep bonds of art and exile.
Parsipur was imprisoned in 1981 for four years, without formal charges, and again for briefer periods after writing Women Without Men. She has lived in the United States since 1994.
"I just fell in love with the way she looks at the world," Neshat told The New Yorker.
Producing and directing a feature film is a departure for Neshat, who was born in Iran and now lives in New York City. She began her career as a photographer before drawing widespread attention as an innovative video artist. (See "Shirin Neshat: Pursuing a Dream.")
"She has accomplished a quality of composition and image construction at the highest artistic level," wrote New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldah. "Neshat's elegant two-screen meditations ... emit an icy heat of suppressed passions; they are among the first undoubtable masterpieces of video installation."
During the lengthy process of making Women Without Men, Neshat released two parts as short videos: Mahdokht (2004) and Zarin (2005).
On an American television program, The Charlie Rose Show, Neshat said, "I'm hoping for an understanding of Islamic culture that suggests complexity. My work simply raises questions as opposed to answering them, leaving a level of ambiguity. ... It is both a realistic picture of the culture but also has a level of emotion and mysticism and an idea of beauty."
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