As part of my research into the politics of representation I’ve been looking at the work of Shirin Neshat. Initially I explored her earlier photographic pieces, Women of Allah and short film work such as Rapture. When I discovered she had made a feature film a few years ago, Women Without Men, I was keen to view it and purchased it on dvd. I did not regret spending a few pounds in order to see it.

Women Without Men is a magical realism film that, for me, somehow sits in the gap between conventional narrative-based film and art films. This will come as no surprise to anyone who knows Shirin Neshat’s work since she somehow manages to find the difficult space between dualities. In the film she, and her co-writer Shoja Azari, skilfully weave a tale (based on a novella by Shahrnush Parsipur) through interior and exterior worlds – probing the intersections of the personal and the social, the spiritual and the political, as well as questioning the dividing line between the specific and the universal.

The film is set in 1953 in Tehran, during the American/ British instigated coup which resulted in the unseating of the democratically elected, and popular Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh. It tells the intertwining lives of four women who come together in what seems to be a place of sanctuary – an ancient orchard. The illusion of safety is soon shattered by the invasion of the military. The characters are interesting but what fascinates me most in this story is the strange world Neshat creates in the garden/orchard. Gardens are clearly steeped in metaphorical and religious meaning and it is interesting to see how the film’s writer and director navigates this difficulty. Her garden characteristically inhabits the space between dualities; it contains beauty and is full of life but there is also something mysterious, uncanny, even oppressive about the space. This impression is largely thanks to the cinematography – the geography is disturbed in different shots and some scenes are awash with colour while others are washed out to sepia. The musical score further enhances the disorientating effect on the viewer.

In terms of how this research might impact on my own practice, it has helped confirm my intuition that film will be the most effective medium to express my conceptual ideas. I’ve done a bit of video and animation work, but I have limited skills in this area……time for a leap into the unknown.


Joanne Herbert