Women’s Prison — Iran

Quite unlike any women-in-prison movie you might have seen, or contemplated seeing, Manijeh Hekmat’s 2002 Women’s Prison, from Iran offers no fetching blonds disrobing each other in cell block fights, or tough dyke guards leering at  nubile fems.  Far from it. The opening scenes take place in 1984,  in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war, and five years after the 1979 Islamic revolution. The female guards are all dressed from head to toe in  black chadors.  The prisoners, except for one, wear scarves but are otherwise dressed in layers of sweaters, jackets, ankle length pants.  They talk tough and foul, fight and smoke.

It’s a  difficult movie to watch with its grainy film stock, severe lighting and not very tight story telling.  Distinguishing between characters with only faces and vocal manerisms to help is sometimes difficult — especially when three key women are played by the same actor.  Some viewers will find themselves lost because of this, and not take in the whole movie.  Too bad. It’s a film and story you are unlikely to see elsewhere — women as they behave in a Muslim run prison as the culture changes around them.

It was ear-opening to hear the crimes some were in for — murder, prostitution– and the toughness displayed, even to a no-nonsense new warden, even with the threat of solitary confinement.  The language used — in subtitles, of course– was appropriate to our notions of prisons, with words like “rabid bitch,”  asshole,’ but leaves us wondering what the Iranian originals really are.  Is “bitch” a curse word there too?  Sexual dominance, and even rape, it seems are not just alive in the prisons of advanced western countries.  A wedding, complete with “birde” and “groom”  costumes, livens up the later part of the film.

As interesting as the traditional prison themes of toughness and rebellion are, the scenes of “domestic” life  — wash day, for example, with women treading on clothing in tubs of water, and hanging them out to dry, the care of children from infants to 8-9 years old — are equally so.

Alissa Simon at Senses of Cinema has a review much better informed about Women’s Prision than I am able to pull together, so I’ll just turn you over to her.

The in-depth research behind Women’s Prison generated one of its most chilling scenes—when the prisoners react to the death sentence passed on drug-addicted prostitute Mahin. Hekmat says soberly,

soon after the Revolution, the red light district in Tehran was totally demolished. Most of the prostitutes were living at that place and many of them were imprisoned, and some executed. The Revolution should have saved these women, but the authorities executed them. Since the executions were held very early in the mornings, we found that prisoners kept vigil through the night, staying awake with the woman who was to be executed.

Although Hekmat has been in the film business for 20 years (as producer, first assistant director and production manager), she faced many problems in making Women’s Prison. “As a first-time director, I had to get a particular permit from the Iranian Society of Film Directors and they denied granting such a permit, although I was qualified for the Society’s conditions.” Eventually, she obtained the permit in the name of her husband Jamshid Ahangarani (the film’s art director)

Senses of Cinema

Not a film for everyone, but those with an interest in women around the world, prison conditions or Mid-East cinema it’s definitely worth the time.