Meshkini’s a self-reflexive film. German playwright Bertolt Brecht would

Meshkini’s decision to label the
sections of the film as tales immediately invites the viewer to consider that
these stories are fiction, perhaps even in some way fables. The decision to
alert the viewer to the films own fictionality makes this a self-reflexive
film. German playwright Bertolt Brecht would often uses techniques similar to
this in his plays in an attempt to distance the viewer from the action in an
attempt to encourage an objective reading of the film, often in hopes that the
audience would be pushed to a reaction that would change their way of doing
things. Bertolt Brecht believes that emotion blurs our rationale in assessing a
situation and that these two things cannot exist in the same sphere, hence why
there was an attempt by him to alienate the viewer. Meshkini using cue cards
and the terminological choice of tale may be used for the same purpose here, as
well as alerting the viewer to the fact there are multiple interpretations of
the film by foregrounding its constructed nature, particularly subtle feminist
readings.

The three tales contain a thematic link,
but are not linked in a causal manner. In Hollywood pictures, the form of a
narrative tends to rely on causality to explain actions, but Iranian cinema
breaks this convention, perhaps in an attempt to loosen their links to the
Western world even further. The Day I
Became A Woman introduces arbitrary events and does not have a clear
resolution. The ending features a meeting of the three tales, but not in a way
where they really overlap, just in a way where they have existed in the same
world as we have known all along. The final shot of the film echoes the opening
shot of the film, with a close-up of the sail of a raft, in an effect
bracketing the events together, and suggesting a permanence and continuality to
the condition of womanhood in Iran. Despite this, there is no real resolution,
mainly just an ending.

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The
use of children is a common feature of Iranian cinema. In this instance,
perhaps it is to invite the viewer to see things from an innocent, naïve point
of view. Iranian cinema is viewed more on the international art circuit than
domestically in Iran, so seeing things from this perspective may also invite Western
audiences to admit that they are confused by some of the Islamic traditions,
much as a child living the situation might be, which might change an
interpretation of the things to follow. Accepting there may be an ignorance and
0pening your mind to the content of the film can only be a good thing –
Meshkini intended to make the audience view the film in an objective manner.
She would be aware that this film is for a dual audience, and this complicates
the way we see the spectator. There is a dual address in the film to make it
suitable for both international and domestic audiences and the use of children
is a way to encourage participation by a Western audience without patronising
either party.  Hava is reluctant to grow
up, asking her mother and grandmother for all the time they will allow her to
play with her best friend, who happens to be male. After this time they will no
longer be allowed to spend time together due to Islamic conventions of modesty.
From now on Hava must also wear a chador and cover her hair, but we see that
she does not value the significance of this and actually swaps it with a boy on
the beach for a plastic toy fish. We learn at this junction that the sail on
the raft we saw in the opening shot of the film is in fact Hava’s chador, which
subsequently changes our reading of this image. The first shot now
seems to reflect the new challenge before Hava; perceiving the world through a
veil which will from now on filter her landscape. This image acts as a metaphor
for how she, as a woman, will experience life as she grows older. To a Western
audience forcing this on a nine year old girl seems extreme – she’s still a
child who just wants to play, but now her freedom of choice is gone and her
future is decided for her. This segment is the first instance that implies a
feminist reading. The future of girls in Iran differs, for the worse, from
those of boys in Iran.  Hava is keenly aware that “her new
status is a lesser one” (Reza Sadr, 2006). She understands that when she
returns home, she will no longer be able to play, especially with her friend
Hassan. When he is stuck in the house, Hava buys a lollipop which they share
through his window. Dempsey (2012) points out that the candy sharing with
Hassan represents one of the last moments where Hava can exercise autonomy over
her body. Hava is presented as being aware that she cannot change her future,
and although she accepts her circumstances, she is determined to enjoy her last
moments before she becomes a ‘woman’. The film could be quite dark because of
the themes, but is presented in a light and comical manner, because although
there is room to interpret it as critical of the repression of women, it is
more ambiguous like a fable or parable.

The
film presents the process of socialisation as a shutting of doors, rather than
as an easy experience, and the two tales that we see after Hava’s section
feature women later in the process, but still facing problems of embracing
their lives as women. Becoming a woman in Iran means accepting a cultural,
social role that is placed on you. The three characters we are introduced to
are all resisting this in a subtle way. Hava is more explicit with her initial
rejection of the scarf, and refusal to stay home when she wants to be playing.
In the second tale, Ahoo, a married woman, is taking part in a bicycle race
against her husband’s wishes – this rebellion causes her to be divorced and
eventually forced off her bike as well as being verbally abused for the
duration of the race for hurting her male family member’s honour. For women in
Iran to partake in physical activity does not fit with general ideas of
modesty, so even this is rebellious in the first place and is symbolic of her
trying to move away from her traditional role. Houra, the old woman at the end
of the film, is a rebellious woman because she has her own money. She has come
to the island of Kish to buy all the things she has always wanted and is acting
as an autonomous individual in an environment where this is unusual for a
woman. Their rebellion is one of the reasons this may be considered an
important feminist film.

 

Space is used interestingly throughout
the film. Despite Iran’s status as a developed country with cities and infrastructure,
it is presented to us here as very flat and very empty. In Iranian cinema, the
landscape is very important. The Day I
Became A Woman is shot entirely on an island named Kish, where rich
Iranians come to shop duty free. The choice to ignore the bustling parts of the
island and present it as a vast rocky desert by the sea makes the characters
very prominent. It almost becomes a graphic representation of a space rather
than a real one. The houses we see in the film are closed spaces – Hava, the
young girl we are introduced to in the first tale, lives in a house with an
open courtyard, but her mother and grandmother will no longer let her male
friend Hassan into the complex as it is her ninth birthday and she is now a
woman and as such, must be segregated from males as is customary in Islamic
society. When Hava goes to collect Hassan to play, he cannot leave the house he
is in and they must talk only through bars. We never see them in the same shot,
only the jumping from one to the other.

Another space present in the film is the
airport – a transitional space – a space where nobody stays, only passes
through. An airport is an example of what Marc Auge (1995) calls a non-place.
At once the space is open and empty, but simultaneously bordered and closed.

For Western audiences, the Male Gaze
(Mulvey, 1975) is a feature of cinema that cannot be escaped. Women are
objectified and shot in ways that are solely for the male viewer. There is an
emphasis on bodies and sexualisation. For an Iranian film, where the makers and
viewers will more than likely hold strict Muslim values this is not the case.
The Gaze that is present in The Day I
Became A Woman is not that of a Western production. There are almost no men
present in the film, so we do not see the traditional shot-reverse-shot motion
of the camera as a man looks at a woman. All the female and male characters are
segregated, they are never seen in the same shot. Nowhere in the film is there
a two-shot featuring a man and woman, which is ever-present in Hollywood films
as a symbol of a romantic or close-relationship by members of the opposite sex.

Even when we see the men in the second
tale – the bike race featuring Ahoo symbolically riding away from her male
family members – the men and Ahoo are not in the same shot, it jumps between
them. The way the men are presented in this scene is a stark contrast to the
women. The women are cycling, their bodies shrouded by traditional Islamic
dress, where the men are all shirtless and very obviously so. The contrast is
really visible, but the critique this may be offering the audience about the
inequality is subtle. The film is successful in not being explicitly critical
while still earning a reaction. When the brothers catch Ahoo and dismount her
from her bike, the camera does show them both in the same frame, but the camera
continues to move as if the race is still moving and thus we do not see the
most violent moment of the film in any detail. As Michelle Langford points out,
“The breathtaking mobility of the camera is paradigmatic of the tale about to
unfold: the tale of a woman’s desire for social mobility… the camera is
constantly mobile throughout this part of the film, like the protagonist,
almost never pausing to rest” (pg 2) and goes on to explain that this “virtual mobility may not reflect the actual mobility available to women in
Iranian society” (pg 2). The fact we do not see the violence is another example
of the convention of modesty present throughout the film that is present in
many pictures produced in post-revolutionary Iran. Anna
Dempsey describes the men chasing Ahoo in the second segment as representing
“codes which silence the public female voice and hide the female body beneath
the cloak of modesty” (2012). This segment featuring Ahoo may be the most
symbolically critical of women’s lives in Iran, as Ahoo seems to be the
character presented to us that is least happy with her way of life, accepting a
divorce in exchange for some freedom to ride her bike.

In
conclusion, the main reasons The Day I
Became A Woman  is such an important
piece of feminist cinema comes from the representation that arises of a society
that Western audiences do not understand, where the life of a woman is decided
for them. Even in Western societies women have not gained equality, despite
huge progress, but to see an explicit representation of the repression suffered
in Islamic countries is fairly shocking. Despite this, “a majority of Iranian
women support the Islamic system and many actively participate to promote the
official regulations and rules regarding women” (Ferdows, 1995 pg 327) and
while this may be hard for Western audiences to understand it is important to
see a representation that shows this is the case, but also showing the doubts
they have. As Dabashi says, “The fact that emerges from The Day I Became A Woman is the systematic, unjust, and endemic
repression of women written and carved into the fabric of a culture” (Dabashi,
2007). This statement summarises the message of the film, and summarises why it
may be so important as a feminist piece, despite its simple aesthetics. Despite
the rebellion of the characters, the Islamic culture is such a strong, well
defined society, it would be impossible for a woman to be truly independent in
her choices, and this is evidenced within the film.