For all of our famously shortened attention spans and YouTube-enabled lack of tolerance for anything over nine minutes these days, the institutions that support storytelling still favor long stories over short. Just as it’s much easier to publish a novel than a short story, theaters and film festivals, and just about every other venue for showing films, favor features over shorts. That must be frustrating for filmmakers who gravitate to the short form, who can either stay with what comes naturally and struggle to be seen or go long and risk diluting their work. I wonder if that’s what happened with Shirin Neshat in Women Without Men.
Neshat is a visual artist whose photos and short videos are beautifully composed statements about the oppression of women in fundamentalist Islamic regimes. I haven’t seen any of her work in a gallery, her setting of choice, but what I’ve seen online and in magazines looks powerful and intriguing.
She and her husband and frequent collaborator, Shoja Azari, adapted her first full-length feature from a novel by Shahmoush Parsipour. The novel tells interlapping stories of five Iranian women in the ’50s (the film condenses it to four), all oppressed by men in various ways, who find freedom and solidarity in a beautiful, semi-mystical old orchard. Neshat’s settings and compositions are gorgeous and her film is full of strong performances, but it feels like a series of loosely connected and sometimes didactic set pieces. With a little tweaking, a lot of these segments might have made good short videos—in fact, you can see one on YouTube. But they don’t add up to a coherent movie.
The narrative feints this way and that—first toward character development, then an anti-imperialist reading of Iran’s recent history, then magical realism—without staying long enough with any of them to hook us in. The one theme that abides throughout is the suffering these women endure at the hands of men and the peace they find in their girl-power paradise. That garden is a comforting myth, but the movie would have been a lot stronger if it had either given us a clearer picture of the real world outside the orchard’s iron gates or steered clear of reality altogether.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.