The Day I Became a Woman – A Film from Iran

What an unexpected, unusual and brain shaping movie. The Day I Became a Woman is Marzieh Makhmalbaf‘s first film in her native Iran,  as a director  though she also has screen writing and assistant director credits.  Her husband is Mohsen Makhmalbaf and a first rate director himself.

The outline of the film is simple.  Three parts, each with the name of the female protagonist and corresponding to three stages of an Iranian woman’s life: the transition from childhood to womanhood; the new requirement of marriage; old age, with its possibilities and transitions.  What is so marvelous is the way in which certain actions or objects take on  symbolic weight, plunging the stories much deeper into the lives of all Iranian women, probably all women of any partially modernizing middle eastern culture, and likely of all woman everywhere.  The economy of means with which Makhmalbaf does this is phenomenal.

“Hava” is the first, and title story:  it is the day when Hava, on her 9th birthday, ‘becomes a woman.’ She is, of course, 9 and wants to play with her play friend of years, Hassan, a young neighborhood (orphan) boy.  Her grandmother and mother will hear nothing of it.  She is becoming a woman.  They measure her for her chador and shoo Hassan away.  Finally Hava, hearing her mother say she was born at noon, shows her grandmother by the family clock that it is only 11 o’clock.  She has one more hour.  She is given a thin stick and shown how its shadow, when stuck into the sand,  will shorten as noon comes.  When the shadow disappears her time is up and she must “become a woman.”  She runs off with a large scarf held around her head.

The sweet, child conversations as the two plead with each other to play sets the innocent undertone.  Hava’s large eyes, and childish vigor, unafraid of arguing with her mother, unafraid of adventure give us an immediate impression.  Her careful monitoring of the shadow and repeating that her “time is almost up,”  is a powerful and simple image for her life, and what is about to happen.  When Hassan can’t play – he is locked in until his homework is finished– she takes his allowance and gets some tamarind and  candy.

“Let’s share it before I have to say goodbye.”

She passes a round lollypop between them, both grimacing at the sour taste. She goes to the shore and trades her scarf for a colorful floating duck.  The two boys who trade have made a rustic raft out of oil drums and a platform, onto which they attach the sail.  The image of the boys’ freedom setting out to sea (in a boyish way) set against the shortening shadow of her own happiness is enormously powerful.   We don’t know it yet, but the “boat” will reappear in the third section.  At noon, Hava returns to her house and we see her being taken away by her proud progentiors.

“Hide your hair, hide your hair, don’t sin!”

The second part is a long bicycle ride/race — all women, all young, all in black.  The wind billows into their chadors and impedes their progress but they pedal with determination.  The camera focuses on one woman in particular,  ‘Hoora,’ with full and repeated studies of her face, a mirror of her unwillingness to stop.  We imagine at first that it’s a race and  she wants to come in a the winner.  It soon becomes apparant there is much more going on.

Long, multiple tracking shots follow a dashing young prince on a galloping horse.  Once the beauty of it is established we see the rider is her husband who is very angry that she is riding a bicycle.  He calls to her, rides alongside her, begs her and threatens her to get off the bicycle.  She keeps riding.  He returns with an elderly imam and they both ride along side of her, threatening her with divorce.  She keeps riding.  They divorce her, still on horseback and then the village (male) elders arrive, all on horseback, gesturing and shouting.  She keeps riding.  It is one of the strangest sequences you are likely ever to see in a movie. And so effective sequence, portraying with minimal emotion her unyielding determination.  You will feel the oppression of her village/clan and want to scream, to get in the way of the horses, to throw sand at the riders.  Your own legs will tense as she keeps riding, riding.  Finally her two brothers are sent.  The force her off the bike.  As the camera pulls away, keeping up with young competitor of  Hoora’s, it is unclear what is happening.  Are they beating her?  Are they carrying her away?  Is she standing her ground?

The third sequence, perhaps the most fanciful, centers on an elderly woman who has come into a sizable inheritance.  She has bound colored ribbons on every finger to remind her of the things she want to buy.  She has a local boy push her in a wheel chair into a major shopping mall and begins to buy a refrigerator, a bed, chairs, a sofa, each in turn being pushed by another young boy on a loading cart.  Finally she takes them in a grand parade to the beach and has all the goods set up on the sand, as though it were her house.  There are other comings and goings that are both amusing and sad.  In the end she tells the boys to get all their little boats and load the goods onto them and take them out to the big ships standing off the shore.

The little boats she is talking about are variations on the oil drum boats of the first scene.  One is just big enough to put a refrigerator on, tied erect; it bobs  in the soft waves with the ships in the background.  They boys put “nene” on a big raft, sitting in a chair with an umbrella and her big double bed behind her.  The camera pulls back to a surrealistic vision of her finally acquired worldly good, bobbing precariously on the waves, apparently to go back to the ships on which they first came.

I swear to you, you will not forget this scene for a long time — nor the bicycle race or Hava pleading for Hassan to play.

Hava, of the first section, appears in her chador with her mother, looking at the old woman, seeing, we believe, the probable end of her own days.

This is quite an extraordinary movie, about women, in 2000 in Iran, but really about women everywhere, the clash of tradition against individual expression, about hope for something different, in its bare beginnings.

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