The Day I Became a Woman
review by Gregory Avery, 4 April 2001

In the second of the three stories which make up The Day I Became a Woman, a young Iranian woman, Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), bicycles furiously alongside many other women, their black chadour billowing behind them like kites, down a winding path which borders the ocean, taking them from high cliffs down to sea level and back again. And all sorts of men show up trying to stop Ahoo as she pedals along her way. There's her husband, who arrives, on horseback, and  tries everything from reminding her that cycling isn't good for her bad leg to threatening to divorce her. He turns up later with a local mullah, who also beseeches Ahoo to stop what she's doing, to no avail. (The divorce, it turns out, can be performed on the spot.) Then Ahoo's brothers and father take their turn at bullying her. But still she continues onward, even though it is clearly a physical and emotional exertion.

Is she, along with the other women, taking part in some sort of cycling competition? Are we watching an allegorical fantasy, or reality? As it turns out, we can interpret the sequence either way. The symbolism is obvious: the men, on horseback, represent the arcane, while the women, on their efficient, smooth-running riding machines, are quite modern. And always out in front, there is one Iranian girl who pedals along, unperturbed, in traditional dress but listening to music on a set of headphones, either indifferent or oblivious to what is going on behind her.

The sequence carries unexpected power, though. For one thing, you may not realize until well into the episode (which is over twenty-six minutes in length) that everyone in it is constantly in motion. (Something I can't recall seeing employed in anything since Zbigniew Rybczynski used it for a Depeche Mode music video in the 'Eighties.) Also, there is a combination of striving and purity in the face of actress Shabnam Toloui---she looks like someone who deserves to achieve whatever simple goal she's attempting to reach. When she lowers her foot towards the ground, at one point, as if she were going to come to a stop, I found myself, if not gasping, than taking an unexpected intake of breath. She isn't going to give-up after all, is she...? But, no, she's just slowing down so that she can shift into a lower gear on her bike, without interrupting her progress. The episode itself ends on a deliberately ambiguous, but haunting, note, with the camera gliding, like the characters, along its own way, while the people whom we were watching become smaller and smaller until they're indistinguishable from the rough and mostly barren landscape.

The film was directed by Marzieh Meshkini from a screenplay written by her husband, the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf; their daughter, Samira Makhmalbaf, has, at age twenty-one, already completed two feature films, while this is Meshkini's first. In the film's opening story, a young girl (Fatemeh Cheragh Ahktar, who is enchanting) is about to have her ninth birthday, upon which she will enter womanhood and will no longer be allowed to interact freely with men. Having been born at noon, she given the time up until then to pay one last visit to a young boy who has been her playmate, all the while diligently marking the time. The third story follows another woman, this one very old (Azizeh Seddighi), who's first seen disembarking in a wheelchair from an airliner in the city of Kish, after which itinerant boys wheel her all over the place, through ultra-modern shopping malls where mannequins, and shoppers, wear up-to-date Western-style clothing, as she buys all the things she says she's always wanted in life but never had a chance to get---everything from furniture to appliances and tableware. Since she does not have a house in town, everything ends up parked on a beach. The episode's closing image could have come from the best of Fellini: the boys use rafts made of oil drums strapped-together to float the old woman's new possessions out to sea, while the woman herself rides grandly on her own raft, bobbing amid all her newfound luxuries.

While it may be asking too much to expect the same rich emotional panoply that Satyajit Ray could evoke from something as simple as a family riding down the road on their horsedrawn wagon in Pather Panchali, it would be great to report that The Day I Became a Woman is a success, but it falls short of that. Each of the film's stories turn out to be built on one idea, which is then developed...just...a...litttle...bit, and that's all. The stories end up seeming less than anecdotal. We never find out, for example, exactly what the bicycling race means to Ahoo in the second episode, and when the old woman in the third episode demands that a transparent glass teapot that she purchased be returned to the store from which it came forthwith because it's "naked", it registers only as a quaint joke.

Iran has experienced a whirlwind of change over the last twenty years, from rule under the Shaw to a strict Islamic Fundamentalist regime and, now, a society where Islam is being challenged by a growing women's movement demanding more freedoms. Meshkini and Makhmalbaf made The Day I Became a Woman as three short films, so they could technically get around possible government censorship, even though the move denied them access to government-controlled film stock and equipment. This may have been one of the reasons why the stories in the film were kept "small", but the filmmakers may also have thought that emotional and dramatic resonance would come in and fill up some of the space. That doesn't really happen. For better or worse, we are left wanting to find out more, not less, about the people who see in the film.

Directed by:
Marzieh Meshkini

Starring:
Fatemeh Cheragh Ahktar
Shabnam Toloui
Azizeh Seddighi

Written by:
Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Rated:
NR - Not Rated
This film has not 
yet been rated

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