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Family Affair

Iran's most prolific filmmaking family produces another great work with The Day I Became a Woman


By now it's almost a commonplace that Iran has the most artistically adventurous and exciting national cinema in the world. Indeed, the flow of interesting films from Iran nowadays is such that it's not easy for any new work to stand out. Given that, Marziyeh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman must be counted an exception within an exception--even by Iran's high standards, its bravura display of cinematic savvy demands superlatives. Along with Abbas Kiarostami's ABC Africa, which premiered at Durham's DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival on May 5, The Day I Became a Woman strikes me as the most inventive and extraordinary Iranian film of the past two years.

There's a noteworthy bit of irony in that comparison, though. Throughout the 1990s, two names dominated the international awareness of Iran's new cinema: Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The former was a well-regarded director before Iran's 1979 revolution, who returned to work in the late 1980s and quickly gained a critical following abroad. The younger Makhmalbaf was a revolutionary hero-turned-filmmaker who became the most celebrated talent of his post-'79 generation. In the case of this new film, it's not that Kiarostami is suddenly sharing the artistic high ground with an unknown talent. Rather, The Day I Became a Woman is a different sort of Makhmalbaf film, one scripted by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and directed by his wife, Marziyeh Meshkini.

In describing the film thusly, I don't mean to take any of the credit for its stylistic brilliance away from Meshkini, who clearly has talent to burn. But The Day I Became a Woman still deserves to be seen as part of a large and fairly astonishing project in which, beginning about five years ago, Makhmalbaf seemed to ease off on his own work and devote himself to a new endeavor: turning his whole family into world-class filmmakers.

One could speculate about whether this step resulted from a creative block on Makhmalbaf's part or from his revolutionary idealism, his determination to transform Iranian society from within. (Of course it could have been both.) If you ask the Makhmalbafs, they will say that their familial metamorphosis began in 1996 when 16-year-old Samira Makhmalbaf, the family's oldest child, became frustrated by Tehran's schools and asked to be taught at home. In response, her father started giving all three Makhmalbaf kids and a few friends intensive home instruction in art, philosophy, history and other subjects, including, of course, cinema.

It was a short step from studying filmmaking to making films. In 1997, Samira conceived and shot The Apple (scripted by her father), which was a hit at film festivals around the world. In 2000, her sophomore feature, Blackboards, not only won a prominent prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but also inspired an impressive documentary by her younger brother Maysam, How Samira Made Blackboards. (Ironically, all of this activity was preceded by a coup from the youngest Makhmalbaf, Hana, who at age 8 made a short that was invited to the 1997 Locarno Film Festival.)

By now, the family is a mini-film industry unto itself. Last fall in Tehran I visited their headquarters, Makhmalbaf Film House, and found a cheery hive of incessant activity, with inquiries pouring in from festivals and distributors around the world. Much of that busyness related to The Day I Became a Woman, which had just debuted to great acclaim in Venice and went on to become the company's biggest prize-winner to date.

Joining the family enterprise well after all the Makhmalbaf kids have plunged in, Marziyeh Meshkini seems less like a latecomer than the star pupil in her husband's film school. Although Mohsen's provocative and cleverly wrought script anchors the film's achievement, Meshkini's exuberant, expertly controlled direction gives it the intoxicating sensory power that most viewers will recall long after leaving the theater.

Shot on sun-baked Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, The Day I Became a Woman tells three stories that are not so much realistic narratives as they are complementary allegories about the state of women in Iran. In the first, a little girl on her ninth birthday is told that she has one hour left to play with her male friend before she becomes a woman (according to tradition) and must put on a scarf and retreat from nonrelated males forever. She responds with a sly act of provocation that announces her own, very personal understanding of the differences between men and women. In the second tale, a young woman riding in a bicycle race for women--all of whom wear the head and body coverings decreed by Iranian law--is hounded by her husband, her father, a mullah and other men from her tribe, who thunder alongside the bike path on horses demanding that she end her rebellious ways. And in the final story, which has an air of playful surrealism recalling Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, an old woman "gets her own," finally, by going on a shopping spree that flaunts her independence.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Iran's cinema is its connection to the country's literary traditions, including a current of storytelling that's richly, unashamedly symbolic. That's the case in The Day I Became a Woman, as it is in previous Makhmalbaf films such as The Peddler and The Cyclist: The people we see aren't realistically individuated characters, but types whose dramatic meaning lies in the ideas they represent. The tripartite story that contains them is much the same. It's as metaphorical as the riddle of the Sphinx that Oedipus encounters--only, here, the subject is the "three ages of woman," Iranian-style: youth, maturity, old age. Women have a hard lot at every stage of life in Iran, no doubt, especially in traditional villages like those along the Persian Gulf, and Makhmalbaf's thrust in portraying that hardship is clearly polemical. Yet if his tale were simply a stern, unequivocal broadside against "Islamic patriarchy" or some such, it would be as welcome to Western anti-Iran propagandists as it would be neglible as art. Makhmalbaf doesn't give us anything so dour and clearcut, though. On the contrary, much of the film's power comes from qualities that cut decisively against the straitness of oppression: joy, ambiguity, rebellion, spiritedness.

Another recent Iranian film that has received great acclaim, Jafar Panahi's The Circle (yet to play the Triangle) is a doomy, po-faced view of Iranian women's plight, one apparently tailored to the notion that the country's traditions are nothing but inimical. Panahi's female characters seem contrived as emblems of powerlessness. Makhmalbaf's, on the contrary, are emblems of women's resistance, and more than that, of the key instrument with which people and artists alike can change the world: imagination.

One can hardly picture a woman conceiving the bleak, formalistic despair of The Circle. The Day I Became a Woman feels far more aligned to female concerns: It's about self-possession and moral victory, not literal defeat. It's also about the beauty of the natural world, the pleasures of the senses and the irresistibility of weapons such as wit and creativity. As deeply humanistic as any previous Makhmalbaf film, it finds its most far-reachingly political gesture in subordinating hopelessness to playfulness.

That virtue comes across as clearly as it does thanks to the expert exuberance of Meshkini's direction. There are dozens of great images and moments in The Day I Became a Woman, from small ones like the girl's scarf being used as a boat's sail in the first episode, to the entirety of the second episode, in which the galloping horses, whizzing bicycles and Meshkini's relentlessly tracking camera amount to a dazzling ballet of desperate motion--if any film sequence of the past year deserves the term "tour de force," this surely is it. It will literally leave you agog, breathless and amazed.

Yet quite beyond such individual flourishes of brilliance, there's the overall feeling that Meshkini's film exudes, its sense that no rigid system or hidebound orthodoxy--especially, perhaps, one conceived and enforced by men--can long withstand the powers of creative imagination that The Day I Became a Woman itself exemplifies. No wonder Mohsen Makhmalbaf has turned his whole clan into a filmmaking unit: This kind of message deserves a family's unity and persistence of vision.

Every Abbas Kiarostami film leaves me awash in thoughts and impressions on first viewing, and ABC Africa, in its recent world premiere at the DoubleTake Documentary Film Festival, was no exception. Made at the behest of the United Nations, this documentary about the situation of AIDS orphans in Uganda will surely be at the top of critics' 10-best lists at the end of 2001. Given its subject, such a comment may well seem excessively, insensitively aesthetic, yet I don't mean here to give any sort of overall reaction to the film. There will surely be time for that when ABC Africa goes into general release in the United States (which probably won't happen sooner than this fall). For now, let me simply note one thing that struck me right off.

By any reckoning, ABC Africa is both a powerful document and an admirable artistic leap for Kiarostami, with an accessibility that will surely add to the numbers of his supporters. Yet it is also, I believe, a leap of sorts for cinema itself, in presenting what is perhaps the best case so far for low-budget digital video (DV) as an artistic medium. Made by Kiarostami and one other collaborator using two cheap mini-DV cameras, ABC Africa shows a major artist creating a work so immediate and personal that its existence in another medium can scarcely be imagined. Certainly, I remain skeptical concerning some of the consequences of the cinema's ongoing digital revolution. But DV is not incidental to this Kiarostami masterpiece, it's integral, and that indeed is important news in the first year of the new millennium. EndBlock

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