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April 5, 2001 2:00 AM
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REVIEW: Spin Cycles; Meshkini's Feminist Tracks on "The Day I Became a Woman"

REVIEW: Spin Cycles; Meshkini's Feminist Tracks on "The Day I Became a Woman"

by Scott Foundas



(indieWIRE/ 04.05.01) -- At the start of the second episode of Marzieh Meshkini's triptych film, "The Day I Became a Woman," a man (Cyrus Kahouri Nejad) forcefully gallops his horse across the screen in an ebullient diagonal composition. The man is in feverish pursuit of a woman (Shabnam Toloui), who happens to be his wife, and who happens to be escaping from him with equal vigor and increasing speed on a bicycle. And as man and woman weave in and out of the buzzing fury of an all-female cycling race along the coast of Iran's Kish Island, Meshkini's film transforms into a pure, nearly dialogue-less exploration of color, form and movement through space.


Surely, there has been no more gifted succession of images yet on screen this year --earth-toned, pumping legs, black billowing chadors, and silvery, spinning spokes against a pastel, airy landscape as metaphor for inner, personal freedom. And Meshkini's camera-eye -- so vital and inquisitive that even the ultimate interruption of her protagonist's forward motion cannot hold back the runaway energy of her tracking shots. Effortlessly, the movement keeps on, pulling us beyond the screen and along into episode three.


The remaining two-thirds of "The Day I Became a Woman" also impress, even if they lack the conjunctive dazzle of the cycling bit. In the opening vignette, a young girl (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar) pleads, poignantly, with her mother and grandmother, begging to spend the waning hours of her eighth year of life in the company of a beloved playmate (who happens to be a boy). Soon, the girl will turn 9, be viewed as a woman under the rules of Islamic law, and forbidden the social company of members of the opposite sex. In the finale, an elderly woman (Azizeh Seddighi) buys up several truckloads of furniture and other consumer goods like so much bulk candy, and then displays them on a public beach -- symbols of all the things in life she believes have been denied her. The progression is from a youthful cheer and warmth (reminiscent of dozens of similar childhood depictions in other contemporary Iranian films), to an absurdist fantasia of old age (in which electric appliances plugged into sand magically come to life) and, ultimately, to the consideration that the three women depicted might be but multiple representations of one unifying character -- a woman for all seasons fractured and fragmented by Meshkini's multiple narrative ellipses.


"The Day I Became a Woman" began as an advanced student project for Meshkini at the Tehran film school run by her husband (the prolific Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who also scripted the film's three stories), and there is an extent to which the rigid thesis and deliberate structure of the film suggest a studious, undergraduate approach to art. But Meshkini mostly leaves such concerns spinning in the sun-baked dust and sand of her carefully chosen landscapes -- her film's tricky form feeling less imitative and more the necessary subversion of a filmmaker whose very gender makes her an oppressed minority in her home country. Meshkini is one of a select few women filmmakers working in Iran, where women are socially subjugated and the laws governing movie censorship barely allow for any accurate screen depictions of female life. And we are doubly lucky to have received a work that is not only intrinsically aware of its own bevy of self-contradictions, but lovingly brushed with a deeply-felt feminine instinct that never appears less than authentic.


Meshkini is forced to come at her central sentiment -- that women of all ages seek escape from the unfulfilling existences dictated to them by a male-centric society -- through a series of inventive representations. (As a point of comparison, think of sexual innuendo in American movies under the Production Code.) From the early innocence of a lollipop shared between two carefree tots to the haunting and comic final arrangement of makeshift, oil-drum sailboats bravely rallying against the incoming tide, Meshkini surreptitiously inverts and reinterprets Iranian attitudes about gender and social taboo, crafting a highly politicized statement without ever overtly appearing to do so. In short, she tells us, through furtive bursts of artistic imagination, what it means to be a woman who must choose to stifle her own desire or live in fear of the repercussions of not doing so.

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