Women Without Men Review

Four women in 1953 Iran, in the first feature by Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat.

Women Without Men takes place in Tehran in 1953, against a background of the CIA-backed coup which deposed Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstated the Shah. Munis (Shabnam Toloueh) is forbidden from joining in the anti-Shah protests by her brother, who wants her to marry. Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), who wishes to marry Munis’s brother, is attacked and raped while walking through the city at nighttime. Zarin (Orsi Tóth) is a prostitute, and anorexic, who believes her mind is going when her johns’ faces begin to disappear. She escapes from the brothel. These three women are joined by a fourth, Fakhri (Anita Shahrzad), the wife of one of the Shah’s generals. She owns an orchard where the three women congregate, a magic space.

Shirin Neshat was born in Iran in 1957, moving to the USA at age seventeen to attend University. She has a considerable reputation as a photographer and video artist, tackling head-on the oppression of women in Islamic countries. She has made short films but Women Without Men is her first feature. (Her directing credit is “in collaboration with” Shoja Azari, who cowrote the screenplay.) It’s a strange yet compelling mix of overtly political period drama with Persian-inflected magic realism. Faces disappear, and a dead character comes to life. The film is based on a novel by Shahrmush Parsipur, whom Neshat knew as an exile in the USA, and who plays a small role as Zarin’s brothel madam.

While the lead actors are strong – in particular Orsi Tóth, who has a harrowing scene in a bath-house – this is primarily a director’s film, with Neshat’s eye for a striking image never in doubt, all in muted colours, at times so desaturated as to approach black and white. Needless to say, this film could not have been made in Iran itself: probably not during the more moderate Khatami era and certainly not now under Ahmedinejad. It was shot in Morocco, with financing from various countries. Amongst Neshat’s collaborators were Jim Jarmusch’s editor Jay Rabinowitz and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who provides the music score.


Women Without Men is released by Artificial Eye on a dual-layered PAL format disc encoded for all regions.

The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. While shot on film, Women Without Men‘s image has clearly undergone much manipulation at the digital intermediate stage. Colours are drained, in some scenes almost to black and white, but the image is sharp with solid blacks and I have no reason to doubt it represents the intentions of Neshat and her DP Martin Gschlacht.

Two sound mixes are offered, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround (2.0). While much of the film is dialogue-driven, the soundstage particularly opens up in the scenes of public meetings and demonstrations, with the sound of marching feet making particular use of the subwoofer. There is some English dialogue, but the majority of the film is in Farsi, with English subtitles optionally available.

The main extra is an interview with Shirin Neshat (25:16), conducted by Ailsa Ferrier. She talks about how the events of 1953 were significant for Iranians, as they marked an end to a brief period of democracy in the country – and led, a quarter century later, to the Islamic Revolution. She also talks about her collaboration with Shahrmush Parsipur, who when they first met was living in a garage in California. They worked on video installations dealing with the characters in the film before embarking on the feature itself. She also distances herself from the realist aesthetic of much other Iranian cinema.

The only other extra is the theatrical trailer (1:52).


Updated: Jan 16, 2011

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