Film review: "Women Without Men"





It is about time a movie chronicled the events surrounding the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. President Barack Obama’s gesture of conciliation when he admitted America’s (lead) part in the British-backed coup d’état which ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the rise of the Green Movement more generally, both in June last year, only add to the demand.

Enter Woman Without Men, a Persian drama exploring the limited range of options available to women in Mossadegh’s Iran. Based on the 1989 novel of the same title by Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur, the debut feature from director Shirin Neshat won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. Notwithstanding the addition of the political import, however, the movie remains an art house one with limited appeal, cataloguing as it does the personal stories of four oppressed women – an activist, a traditionalist, an intellectual, and a prostitute – who seek freedom in, what one reviewer calls, “a kind of Adam-less Garden of Eden.”

The 99-minute drama is set in 1953, two years after Iran’s first elected PM passed a law nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The threat to the westward flow of oil forced the hands of those in Washington and London to act and a clandestine operation was carried out to return the Western-leaning Shah to the Peacock Throne. “My belief,” states Neshat, “is that the 1953 coup paved the groundwork for the Islamic Revolution, and the beginning of the antagonism between the U.S. and Iran.” While it is necessary to illustrate the legacy of Anglo-American involvement in Iranian affairs, especially at a time when the world appears to teeter on the brink of nuclear war, Neshat fails to illuminate any British and American culpability.

Given that many in the West only go as far back as 1979 in Iranian history, returning to the 1950s, you hope, would serve a greater purpose and remind those outside (as well as inside) the country of its secular society. After all, “the Western idea of Iran is post-Islamic revolution,” says Neshat in the 25-minute DVD interview, “and most people have amnesia about the period before it.” With this film, the Iranian-born, American-based artist endeavors to contribute to “the vast narrative of Iran’s history, reminding us of the voice of a nation that was silenced in 1953 and that has risen again.”

Yet despite the political dedication (in memory of “those who lost their lives fighting for freedom and democracy in Iran – from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009”) and efforts of restaging the 1953 protests in Casablanca, Morocco, less than nuanced scenes, such as an unoriginal scene of members of Tehran’s intelligentsia talking politics in a radical restaurant, are the one’s viewers will take away. This is not the film, then, for Tony Blair (who, according to comic Shappi Khorsandi, replied blankly “who?” when Channel Four news anchor Jon Snow said that Mossadeq was the reason why Iran hated Britain so much), or the rest of us Brits for that matter, to brush up on Anglo-Iranian history.

For those interested in Iranian cinema, particularly its unapologetic feminist variety, see the 2007 animated film Persepolis. Despite being set a generation later, Marjane Satrapi deals with the repression of womanhood in Iranian society so successfully that it earned an Oscar nomination. For those interested in learning about the anti-Western sentiments that have swept across the Middle East, though, and, more specifically, how the Anglo-American coup purportedly planted the seed of this contemporary rage, read Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003).

Iranians were aware, as Neshat demonstrates, of this conspiracy at the time, and its facts have been public knowledge for some four decades – well before U.S. involvement was publicly acknowledged by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. The story, however, is well worth retelling since its aftershocks are believed to be felt today. New York Times reporter Kinzer argues that “it is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [CIA code for the August ’53 coup] through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.”

“Nothing in history happens in a vacuum,” Kinzer said in a 2005 interview with Rick Shenkman. Linking the CIA’s first successful regime-change operation with September 11, though, takes unintended consequences to a whole new level and is, quite frankly, “far-fetched”. The author himself pointed out to the founder and editor-in-chief of HNN that “the coup in Iran was hardly the only factor that led many Muslims to begin considering the United States an enemy.” (Indeed, as Iranian historian Abdollah Shahbazi argues, four other factors played a greater role in Middle Easterners’ anti-Americanism: the 1952 CIA/SIS coup in Egypt; President John F. Kennedy’s reforms imposed on the Shah; support for Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War; and funding of the Afghan mujahideen.)

That said, the opening quote in Kinzer’s book by Harry Truman – “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know” – is one that Blair and others should heed in an effort to understand whether or not what happened then matters today. Although All the Shah’s Men often reads like, what one reviewer calls, “a screenplay,” it is thought-provoking in a way the magical-realist Women Without Men can only dream of, rendering it a must-read. And while a couple of fascinating hour-long BBC documentaries (Abadan: The First Oil Crisis and Iran and Britain) provide some much-needed nuance, there remains a film to be made.

As I said at the outset, it is about time a movie chronicled the events surrounding the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. President Barack Obama’s gesture of conciliation when he admitted America’s (lead) part in the British-backed coup d’état which ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the rise of the Green Movement more generally, both in June last year, only add to the demand.


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