Shirin Neshat, Iranian Filmmaker

The recent Iranian election and subsequent populist protests and uprisings have galvanized the imagination of the world. A new hope has arisen that another long oppressed people will be able to cast off their entrenched and reactionary government and forge anew a long but broken liaison with the rest of the world.

A year ago, I wrote briefly in American Cinematographer Magazine (June 2008) about my friend Shirin Neshat who is an Iranian filmmaker. She left her homeland at age 17 to study in the US, Northern California, but for most of the 90s she was able to return to Iran annually to visit family and friends.  A disturbing encounter at the airport in 1996 (she was detained and interrogated) forced her to decide not to return. She says “I don’t really fancy the idea of going to prison.” Between 1998 and 2003 she made ten short “videos”. I call them videos because they were shown as video in art galleries rather than in cinemas. But Shirin, unlike many other video artists, always shoots on film, her format of choice being 35mm. Her funding has come from collectives of arts patrons and collectors as well as European grants. Thus, she has worked outside the constraints of commercial cinema. Her work is sought mainly by fervent collectors and museums. She has further supported herself by the sale of her art photography, which has often featured chador-clothed women with poetic scripts written on their faces and extremities.  A gallery of her images can be seen at this Google site as well as at the Gladstone Gallery site.

A casual perusal of some of the more militant images makes it clear why it became dangerous for her to return to her birthplace.

In 2001 a friend gave her a novella written in Farsi by another Iranian woman living in exile. Shirin found the writer in the SF Bay area. Her name is Shahrush Parsipur. Shirin persuaded the now sixty-one year old refugee to let her make a film adaptation of the book. Shirin had never attempted a feature length film and this book posed many challenges. It tells the intersecting stories of five women in Tehran. Their stories come together in an idyllic, almost magical realist garden, where they go to escape differing forms of oppression.

Shirin has been deeply committed to realizing this work for several years. Parts of it have appeared from time to time in gallery installations. I saw two long sequences last winter at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. I had seen several of Shirin’s shorter videos such as Rapture some years ago. But the wide screen formatting and stunning beauty of the images from her feature, titled Women Without Men, in HD video projection, convinced me to search her out. I found her in a cramped office/cutting room in midtown Manhattan working on this film.

Though we have maintained email contact, her constant traveling in order to finish the film and with my own location filming impinging as well, it has been impossible for us to see each other. Several weeks ago I received an email from her telling me that the film will be completed in time to accept an invitation to screen in competition at this year’s Venice Film Festival-- as well as five screenings later in September at the Toronto Film Festival.

A subtitled trailer of Women Without Men is posted on Youtube at:

Though its images are in a discontinuous, non-narrative assembly it will give you a sense of the strong emotional thrust of the work, as it strives to define the plight of Iranian women. The irony is that the film is set in 1953. The social and human issues portrayed, however, remain timeless.

Shirin’s odyssey as a young girl in Iran, as a struggling student in California, then as an exile in NYC and her meteoric rise as a major artist in the high powered international art world, is told in great detail in the New Yorker Arts Issue of Oct. 22, 1907.  The article, “Voice of the Veil” is written by Lauren Collins. I mention the date because I can refer you online only to an abstract of the article.

If you have an online subscription you can easily access the whole piece. However you are able to find it, you will see it is a compelling story of the struggles many artists still face to realize their work.

What I would like to leave you with regarding Shirin and what I hope will be an inducement to seek out more about her is a short youtube video from FLYP of Shirin speaking about the “Green Revolution” now unfolding in Iran:

I wish her success in Venice and I hope that her film will speak loudly to the world, of the plight of women in Iran.

Note: Prior to this posting Shirin Neshat's film Women Without Men won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

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