Interview with Shirin Neshat about her first film - Women without Men - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews im April 2024 - Beitrag vom 02.06.2010

Interview with Shirin Neshat about her first film - Women without Men
Undine Zimmer

This first film from Neshat has been awarded the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice Film Festival 2009. Lyrical and sometimes surrealistic, the movie portrays the desire of four...

...women to escape the boundaries of society during the political upheavals of Tehran in 1953. AVIVA-Berlin asked the director about the keys to her moving images. It took six years to make - from the idea to the final result.

Shirin Neshat, born in Iran 1953, left her home country in 1979 just before the revolution. She is now living in New York. Her artistic photographs and video installations often include a reflection of her home country as well as her experience of being in exile. Since 1996 Neshat has not been allowed to visit Iran. In Europe she is mostly known for a series of photographs "Women of Alla" (1993-97) which show Muslim women with guns and weapons and their skin covered with religious calligraphy. Shirin Neshat´s artistic work deals with questions of religion, cultural self-definition and gender politics. She started working on the idea of making a movie out of the in-Iran forbidden but well-known novel "Women without Men" written by Shahrnush Parsipur. Neshat has dedicated her first movie to the victims of the fight for freedom and democracy in Iran since 1906 until today. For her movie she was moving forth and back between New York and Berlin. The challenge was to combine the work Shirin brought with her as a visual artist and at the same time make a film people could understand. Therefore Shirin and her team made a lot of conceptional decisions before they started shooting. Though there is death and violence in the movie, there is no blood. Music, sounds and pictures are carefully choosen. The film uses magic realism, which also marks a significant change in modern Iranian cinema. For Shirin her movie is an artistic work, not a political statement. She says that the women in the movie happen to be Iranians, but they could as well be Germans, French, American etc. As many Iranian movies Shirin decided to use a lot of symbolism. Even though her allegories are universal, the European audience might have some difficulty understanding them. Shirin has studied and lived for many years in the West and is strongly influenced by western conceptional Art, for example, images like the floating Ophelia can be found in her work.

AVIVA-Berlin: The novel "Women without Men", which your movie is based on, is subtitled "A Novel of Modern Iran". Throughout your artistic work you deal with questions of Islam and gender. You speak of your own artistic work as political. What does your movie "Women without men" tell us about modern Iran?
Shirin Neshat: First of all I don´t think: "What am I going to tell the world about women in Iran?" I am an artist first, so first of all I want to make a good film and second I am Iranian and a political setter. So by no means ever, even in my photographs and films, I wanted to be an ambassador or speaker of all the situations of women in Iran, I don´t even live in Iran - so how could I? It´s about trying to create a work of art that is also trying to communicate something important about our culture that is terribly misunderstood. In this way I think this period in the movie is a very important period. I think, people in the West only think of Iran after the revolution and they forget what Iran was before. And they forget what they did to Iran in 1953 for our political history. How we were in fact once a democratic, secular, very sophisticated, modern society and what has happend today in Iran is directly related to what happened then. I put that as another layer of my story, but not as a history lesson. It is not a statement of what the situation of the women was then.

© AVIVA-Berlin, Undine Zimmer: Shirin Neshat

AVIVA-Berlin: The characters in your movie are a divorced woman, a prostitiute, a political activist, and young girl who has been raped. All of them have a rather bad status in society until today. Can you tell us something about how the civil status of women has changed in Iran since the 1950s?
Shirin Neshat: These four woman, that also could be German have problems with their husbands, rape, annorexia, age... and they are running to find some idea of transformation. They go to an orchard somewhere. So I don´t want to take this out of context. It is a really universal story, but symbolical, also referring to a country fighting. I don´t think this film is a discussion of what it tells us about the situation of women in Iran.
But one thing I can tell you is, that we were not a religious society, so women had more of a choice that we don´t have today. As you can see in the movie some women are with the veils, some are without. Otherwise the film is really meant to be as much as a German film as a Iranian film, an American film as a British film in its style of symbolism and allegory and talk about womens´ struggle as well as a country´s struggle.

AVIVA-Berlin: You have not been allowed to visit Iran since 1996. How do you stay in touch with your homecountry and your family and friends - how do they find out about your work and life?
Shirin Neshat: Actually my mother and sisters live in Iran and we are in constant contact. I speak with them at least once a week on the phone. My family decided to stay in Iran, because they are happy there. Life in exile is not so easy. So they have chosen to live in Iran and I respect that. I know people who say: "I don´t know if I should go to Iran because I have been on Facebook". Can you imagine that if you have a facebook account you don´t go back to your own homecountry? Because you are worried that the goverment has something against you. That is how incredibly corrupt the Iranian state has become. They harass people for almost no reason at all. I don´t fancy being harassed. I like my freedom very much - as much as I miss my family, but we try to meet outside Iran.

AVIVA-Berlin: Your movie was reviewed in and Radio Iran LA. What are the reactions concerning your movie in your home country, I assume, it wasn´t and won´t be officially shown there?
Shirin Neshat: It will never be officially shown. But there is an incredible story: The film premiered on April 9th in Los Angeles. On April 8th my sister went to the cinema with my mum and there is a store next door where she bought three copies of "Women without Men". Later she tried to buy more and the guy said: "I had 500 copies, but it is already sold out". A few days ago I was in London at a party and this woman from Teheran came to me and said: "Everybody has seen the film. They all bought the videos." People are ahead of the game. Piracy is just incredible advanced. I don`t know how they do it. The movies that are not released in Germany yet, they already have it in Iran. So even though "Women without Men" is really commonly known. I was delighted and really happy to hear that.

I had some comments on Facebook, which actually have been very positive. There is criticism of course, but I think of it not in a bad way. We show a picture of political complexity. Some people said we were too hard on the Shah or we were too much on the side of the communists - no matter which camp they come from they tend to criticize. Otherwise people are really happy that we paid attention to the period and the way that we dedicated the film to the green movement, for the way it shows women or that it brings music to minds from that period, that we have forgotten. In Los Angeles is a big Iranian community. There are many women and men about 70 or 80 years old. When they saw the movie they cried, because that is their generation.

AVIVA-Berlin: The orchard has a long tradition in islamic poetry. In your movie it is a peaceful paradise for the four women who are escaping from their lives. At the same time the orchard is an ambivalent place, where the women have to deal with their personality, like Faezeh and Fakhiri. What does the orchard mean to you as a metaphor?
Shirin Neshat: The orchard has been always universal everywhere. When you are in a beautiful garden you are escaping the banality of everyday life and you feel peace. I think this idea applies for all of us. It is like a fragment of paradise. But particualary in Iran, in the Middle East, where we have so much desert, the garden has been, even geographically speaking, a very elemental space. But in our traditional spiritual mysticism, literature and poetry - both in classic Islamic and Persian literature - we refer to the garden as a place of spiritual transcendence, a place where you could be free and left alone from all that surrounds you in the world.

© AVIVA-Berlin, Undine Zimmer: Shirin Neshat

So for me in this film it became a space for women to have refuge, a kind of exile. This was really the main element of the film. The city represented a historical sociological element of the country and realism. The garden represented an unworldly kind of life after death, a universe that only exists in your head. The gardener is a very bizarre and mysterious figure. The way we worked with the pacing, the sound were meant to make it a place that is really sacred, but at the same time hunting like Eden: If you make a mistake or disrespect it, it punishes you and is falling apart. At the same time the orchard serves a different purpose for each woman - it is like a mirror. Zarin just came to die, but oddly was saved and than became one with nature. To me Zarin and nature were one. Faezeh did not come by her own choice, but it was a place where she really faced her horrible dilemma and she recovered. And for Fakhri it was a place where she had a chance and at the end she learned that she was really selfish. Munis´ spirit was like riding over the orchard and she was watching the women. Munis tells us the story of the women and the country and finally she landed. I did not care for people to understand all that, but that was my idea when I started to go on with the movie.

AVIVA-Berlin: In your opinion who are the most important (female) writers and collegues who are discussing gender issues in Islamic societies in Iran and abroad?
Shirin Neshat:There are a lot of western filmmakers making movies about women. But if a man makes a film about men we don´t consider him to be a masculininst. But women are important to me and an inspiration because I am a woman therefore I have been very keen on reading literature by Iranian women and I am really interested in Iranian women in general because they have been incredibly phenomenal. They blow me away, even last summer, when you saw the Iranian women out on the streets. It is consistently evident that the more the Iranian women are under pressure, the more defiant and resilient they become. This is shown through their activism, their poetry, books, art, filmmaking. There is something about the Iranian women that really feeds me as a form of inspiration. I find them heroic.

AVIVA-Berlin: Are any of them translated?
Shirin Neshat:Not so many. Actually the one poet I love the most has been dead for a long time: Forough Farokhzad - she is really timelessly powerful and her poetry has been translated. Parts of Shahrnush Parsipur´s work has been translated, but many more are not.

AVIVA-Berlin: Could you tell us more about your future projects? Will you deal again - as you put it in an interview with Eleanor Heartney with Art in America with the "limitations of the genre movie?"
Shirin Neshat: Actually I still continue with photography but my nature is like this: When people say: "Oh, she is the one that makes all that films about women and Iran.", I turn the other way. Now I have picked a novel that is only about men and there is just one woman. It is an Albanian novel and called "The palace of dreams" written by Ismail Kadare. At this state it is just a dream yet. But it is not going to be in Farsi and won´t be set in Iran.

Thank you very much for the interview!

© AVIVA-Berlin, Undine Zimmer: Shirin Neshat dedicates a movie poster to AVIVA-Berlin

More information about Shirin Neshat and her work at:

Please do also read our review "Women without Men" by Shirin Neshat on AVIVA-Berlin.


Beitrag vom 02.06.2010

Undine Zimmer