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New Directors/New Films ’10 | Artist Shirin Neshat Infuses Her Artistry Into “Women Without Men”

New Directors/New Films '10 | Artist Shirin Neshat Infuses Her Artistry Into "Women Without Men"

Screening at New Directors/New Films, “Women Without Men” has already made a mark on the festival circuit. Winner of the Silver Lion for best director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, Shirin Neshat’s feature-film debut represents an assured shift from the gallery-based moving images for which she is known, to the grand screen of the cinema.

Devotees of Neshat’s earlier work will recognize her signature visual virtuosity and narrative grace in the story of four women in early 1950s Iran, played by Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Shahrzad, Shabnam Tolouei, and Orsi Toth. Then as now, the ambitions and actions of these women from across the spectrum of Iranian society inform and affect the course of events—public, private, and often political. With history as a backdrop, and imagination extending the limits of lives lived under oppressive conditions, Neshat offers an exquisitely framed window onto these women’s world. [Synopsis provided by New Directors/New Films]

“Women Without Men”
Director: Shirin Neshat in collaboration with Shoja Azari
Producers: Susanne Marian, Martin Gschlacht, Philippe Bober.
Executive Producers: Barbara Gladstone, Jerome de Noirmont, Oleg Kokhan
Cast: Pegah Ferydoni, Arita Shahrzad, Shabnam Tolouei, Orsi Toth, Bijan Daneshmand, Shahrnush Parsipur
Writer: Neshat, Azari, Steven Henry Madoff, adapted from the novella by Shahrnush Parsipur
100 Minutes

Visual artist Shirin Neshat on what led her to make “Women Without Men,” how she found it and taking on the project…

I am an Iranian born, New York based visual artist who has recently turned into filmmaking. After years of photography and video installation, I wondered if I could push outside of gallery and museum walls into the theater setting, and most importantly to make films that could uniquely infuse visual art and cinema. With “Women Without Men”, I set out to pioneer my own cinematic language, one that did not follow any particular style or movement; one that challenged me to move from drawing story boards to writing full scripts; to work with film producers instead of art dealers, and to screen at film festivals instead galleries and museums. The process of development and execution of my film “Women Without Men” took several years but I believe the film today truly represents my original aim – the way it tries to converge art/cinema, art/politics, and allegory/realism.

I re-adapted a novel written by an Iranian woman author, Shahrnush Parsipur. This novel was written in magic realist style, which while proved to be quite challenging to turn into a screen play; it lent itself to a truly visual, conceptual and as well as a narrative film. The screenplay was eventually written by Shoja Azari and myself. As two Iranians, we found it fascinating to expand on the historical and political dimensions of the novel which took place in the summer of 1953 when the American CIA succeeded to overthrow the Iranian democratic government through a Coup d’etat. This was an opportunity to reintroduce Iran prior to the Islamic Revolution to the Westerners, when Iran was a truly modern, sophisticated and democratic society.

Also, we were well aware that “Women Without Men” was a well-known novel by a writer who had paid a big price for her literature; ultimately after years of imprisonment she had to live in Exile. So our attraction to this novel, aside from its artistic value became cultural and political. In 2003, I was approached by a European film production company called “Co-Production Office” in Berlin and together we made a commitment to make this film. The film was eventually shot in Casablanca, Morocco in 2007 and was supported by German, French and Austrian governments.

Neshat on the lengthy approach she took to making her film…

The most important issue for this film was how to define the ‘style’ of the narrative, as it was allegorical and realistic, artistic and political. We re-wrote the script over one hundred and fifty times to find the right balance. And at the end, we came with the solution that seemed to be most fitting both in regard to my own past artistic aesthetic and language and in regards to finding a narrative that was accessible and fairly represented the political environment of Iran at the time. Our approach then became finding ways to give equal weight to the crisis of the country as well as the main characters.

Director Shirin Neshat. Photo courtesy of New Directors/New Films.

Also, in order to make fair representation of that period, not only we found it necessary to research the political, historical background, but its visual style, cultural flavor. So we paid careful attention to researching that period’s architecture, interior design, fashion, music etc.

And on the challenges she faced in bringing her film to the screen…

The challenges were numerous both regarding the artistic and non-artistic aspects of the film. Fundraising for the film by the producers proved to be difficult, because essentially I was an Iranian/American working in Morocco and the production company was a European. Also, since none of us Iranians involved with the film could travel to Iran, we had to recreate Iran in the ’50s in Morocco within our very modest budget.

Regarding the artistic nature of the film, the biggest challenge was how to embrace the language of cinema without mimicking conventional cinema, and without compromising my own artistic signature. We were particularly cautious about not allowing the visual aesthetic aspect of the film to dominate the narrative progression. One of the most difficult challenges indeed was that how to follow the four main protagonists as well as the political events of the country simultaneously. Furthermore all ideas had to be expressed within an allegorical–a magic realist style. So we knew that this film would be quite demanding from the audience who had to keep so many characters and intentions.

Neshat on ND/NF’s audience is ideally suited for her film…

I think this festival is most appropriate for my film, because although I am not a young filmmaker, I am a new filmmaker, and the WWM shows an experiment in cinema. In terms of the experience of the audience with my film, indeed each viewer will take away something different, generally I believe appreciating art or cinema is a subjective experience, and will vary according to the viewer’s personal taste and political, cultural, orientation.

And on her influences & future projects…

For the past recent years I have been studying many directors; I have now my own favorite masters, such as Tarkovsky, Kieslovsky, Bergman, Kiarostami as well as some more recent filmmakers such as Roy Anderson, Wong Kar Wai, Elia Suleiman. I am drawn to each director for a different reason. For example I find Bergman extremely profound; Tarkovsky most visual and philosophical; and I love Wong Kar Wai for his visual aesthetic.

I have been very interested by another novel written by an Albanian author Ismail Kadare, called “The Palace of Dreams,” this film will be made in English, and it will be most likely filmed in Eastern Europe. While this surrealistic novel is not directly about Iran, it is an allegory related to Iran in the way in which it could capture the way the ‘ruling party,’ the ‘state’ tries to control people’s ‘imagination’ even their ‘dreams.’ I sense there are ways to explore, the absurdity, the vicious fantastism that threatens us today. With “The Palace of Dreams” I see a beautiful parallel in Albanian’s dark history and struggle with communism and Iranian plight with the Islamic revolution.

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