Marzieh Meshkini’s three-part film, “The Day I Became a Woman,” from 2000, is a masterwork of symbolic cinema; it depicts, with vast imagination, the ordeals faced by women in modern Iranian society. Meshkini reportedly made it as three separate short films, in order to elude the system of official censorship that governed features but not shorts. The result is a trio of tightly composed and lyrically filmed episodes, titled by the name of their protagonists, that offer images of enormous psychological power—images that ought to haunt both the memory and the subconscious of anyone who sees them. Not enough people see them, but they are both screening tonight at Anthology Film Archives and readily available to stream anywhere.
The film set on Kish Island, in the Persian Gulf, and all three episodes take place largely by the sea, making use of both its photogenic and its metaphorical aspects. The first story, “Hava,” features a girl on the day of her ninth birthday—the day, according to her grandmother, that she becomes a woman, and, as a result, the day that she must cover her hair with a head scarf, and that she can no longer play with her best friend, a boy named Hassan. After Hassan is sadly turned away and Hava, bewildered, protests, Hava’s mother finds a rather ingenious loophole, allowing her one last brief outing with her friend—but, by the time Hava arrives at Hassan’s home, he’s virtually imprisoned there, forced to do homework for fear that his teacher will hit him. Instead, the two forlorn friends share a snack, through the jail-like bars of his window, that evokes both the submission to religious law and the power of yet another law—the one of unintended consequences—that gives rise to surprising behavior and knowledge and reverberates with scriptural overtones regarding forbidden fruit and the power of temptation. (It also delivers, in a subplot involving Hava’s head scarf, a notable metaphorical suggestion of whom society’s rules empower and whom they restrict.)
The second story, “Ahoo,” features a man on a galloping horse, loudly calling the name of the protagonist and scaring away the animals and birds on the scruffy plain. The creatures get the idea; striking fear is his intention. He aggressively gallops toward a large group of female cyclists who are pedalling urgently along a narrow seaside road and rides menacingly close to one biker, Ahoo, whom he orders off her bike and back home. (Looking straight ahead, without even wasting a glance at him, she whispers, “No,” in a cinematic moment of sublime defiance and freedom.) He leaves—and then returns with another horseman, a mullah who’s there to perform a divorce on the spot if she won’t give up her bike (which the clergyman calls “the devil’s mount”). She blankly intones, “Go ahead, divorce me.” As Ahoo speeds ahead through the pack of bikers and then slows down and falls behind, the number of horsemen showing up to coerce her off the bike and back to the family and the tribe successively increases. It’s a fablelike mechanism of poetic repetition that Meshkini’s direction emphasizes, in a series of simple, swift, majestic, and recurring (or rhyming) images that follow Ahoo, from the side in tracking shots, from the front in closeups, and from behind in her virtual point of view, as she makes her way among the crowd of other women cyclists and away from her oppressive male pursuers. What’s clear is that the black-clad group ride is actually a horde of women fleeing their husbands, families, and clans—it’s a ride of freedom with a funereal tone, a simple yet spectacular fusion of kinetic ecstasy and tragedy.
In “Hoora,” the third story in Marzieh Meshkini’s “The Day I Became a Woman,” an elderly woman virtually moves onto a beach with a stockpile of freshly purchased possessions.
Photograph Courtesy Makhmalbaf Film House
The third story, “Hoora,” features an elderly woman, stooped and limping, disembarking from an airplane at the Kish airport. There, a boy working as a porter pushes her, in a wheelchair-like cart, on her peculiar errands: he takes her to one shopping mall after another, where, pulling cash from her stocking, she spends enormous amounts of money buying a wide variety of household goods that she has always lacked, including a refrigerator (all her life, she says, she wanted cold water), an ironing board, a bathtub, a washing machine, a stereo, makeup, and a batch of pots and pans. As the boxes full of her treasures accumulate, she’s followed by a line of young porters towing them on their carts, until she orders the workers to spread her possessions on the beach. What results is an amazing precursor to Agnès Varda’s film “The Beaches of Agnès,” in which Hoora virtually moves onto the beach, with her most important new possession as the centerpiece of the display: a bedroom featuring a big bed and a wedding gown. No less than in Varda’s film, this scene stages the passions of a lifetime in terms of a first-person reckoning. Meshkini’s breathtaking tableaux suggest a double absence, rendering Hoora in the split guise of a merry widow and a Miss Havisham, even as she prepares for another, perhaps final, and similarly symbolized journey (one that nonetheless unites the three tales in a deft and bittersweet flourish).
Stream “The Day I Became a Woman” on Vimeo.