The haunting ironies of Shirin Neshat's beautifully shot Women Without Men start in a flash forward in the opening scene with a young Iranian woman discarding her head scarf against a bright blue sky — just before she jumps from the roof overlooking her family's large home.
Iranian artist Neshat was born into a family sympathetic to the Shah, ruler of the Persian nation's centuries-old monarchy, and left the country as a result of the 1979 revolution. In photographs, she has explored female identity in Islamic culture, including some women's radicalization into militant Islam. (She was included in New Orleans' Prospect.1 international art biennial in 2008.) Her first feature film, Women Without Men (adapted from a novel by Shahrnush Parsipur) follows four women who meet, via a stroke of magical realism, in an orchard outside Tehran during the 1953 military coup, in which the United States helped the Shah defeat a movement to nationalize the country's oil industry.
While modernization and openness with the West offered new social freedoms to some Iranian women in the 1950s, the women in the film struggle with the constraints of strict religious and cultural traditions. The call of political nationalism keeps Munis tuned to the radio, but her brother thinks politics are not for women and tries to marry off the rebellious sister and get her out of his house. Prevailing Islamic attitudes about women's roles and modesty do nothing to curtail the existence of brothels, where Zarin tortures herself with the contradictions.
The disempowerment of women is one of the few constants while everything else is in turmoil in Iran. Authority stems from Islam and cultural tradition as well as military power, and change is occurring due to the arrival of political ideas (Islamic socialism) and cultural openness. (This is well before the backlash of fundamentalist Islam takes hold during the 1979 revolution.) It is a complicated portrait of a nation that is not well understood, and Neshat dedicated the film to the Iranian pro-democracy demonstrators of 2009. Tickets $7, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
Through May 20
Women Without Men
7:30 p.m. Friday through May 20, plus 5:30 p.m. Sat. & Sun.
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net