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Addressing Women's Lot Through the Generations

Movies * 'The Day I Became a Woman's' director examines conditions in Iran for various age groups and seeks the universal.

April 06, 2001|NANCY RAMSEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"You are a woman today," a grandmother informs the spirited Havva one morning. "You cannot play with boys anymore. Hide your hair, don't sin."

It is Havva's ninth birthday, and in Iran, according to Islamic beliefs, a girl of that age can be legally married; outside the home, she is expected to wear either a long robe and trousers or the traditional chador, a head-to-toe shawl designed to conceal the contours of the female body. Determined to hang on to her childhood as long as possible, Havva finds out the exact moment of her birth--noon--and spends the late morning running through the streets, licking a lollipop with her friend (a boy) and cavorting along the beach with two boys building a sailboat.

Havva is one of three main characters in director Marzieh Meshkini's "The Day I Became a Woman." Using allegory, humor, a whimsical tone, a quirky narrative structure and stunning scenery, the film addresses the plight of women in today's Iran. The film moves from Havva to a young woman named Ahoo riding in a bicycle race by the sea along with lots of other women. All pedal furiously, their black chadors streaming behind them in the wind--except that Ahoo's husband is following her on horseback, demanding she return home lest he divorce her.

In the final sequence, Houra, an elderly woman of independent means, arrives on the island of Kish, a beautiful vacation spot in the Persian Gulf, to buy every appliance and piece of furniture she's ever wanted. Marching purposefully through stores, a bevy of young boys in tow, she then heads out onto the beach, where the boys set up all her new possessions. The episode seems to suggest that for Houra possessions have taken the place of emotional attachments.

"The Day I Became a Woman" is one of three Iranian films opening in the next few months in Los Angeles; with its large Iranian population, Southern California is the country's top market for Iranian films. (The other films are Bahman Farmanara's "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine" and Jafar Panahi's "The Circle.")

"The Day I Became a Woman," which opens today, is the first film by Meshkini, who is in her early 30s and exhibits both a sharp intelligence and a girlishness. "My grandmother told me, 'When you're 9 years old, your life will completely change,' " she said recently, while in New York for a screening of her film.

"She was very traditional, and she was always trying to find signs of the exact time something was to happen. There was a time to make a movie, a time to find a husband, a time for the Persian New Year to start. One year, when we were children, she put an apple in water--food was symbolic for her--and she told us to watch it, that when the apple moved, it would be the New Year. We stared and stared and finally realized it was never going to move."

From that incident, Meshkini became aware of how each generation could see the same thing from a very different viewpoint. "My grandmother was convinced the apple did move. She came from a generation where you accepted what you were told," said Meshkini, whose traditional black head scarf was offset by black jeans and Reeboks.

"A young girl like Havva wants to try everything. You feel that even if they chase her from heaven, she'll still try. Ahoo wants to escape the boundaries of society, but to do that she'll have to forgo emotional attachments. And for Houra, all that's left are beauty and material things."

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Forgoing emotional attachments as the price of individual freedom is something Iranian women often face, said Meshkini, but luckily not a choice she's had to make. Meshkini's husband is the well-known director Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Gabbeh," "The Peddler"). He was married to Meshkini's older sister, who was killed in a fire, leaving behind three children--Samira, now 21; Mayssam, 19; and Hanna, 12. Several years ago, Samira came home from school and announced that she didn't want to return but wanted to study filmmaking.

So her father set up the Makhmalbaf Film House, where family members and others study filmmaking, sociology, philosophy, painting, sound recording, poetry--and, as pre-production for "Day," a rigorous cycling program was added to the curriculum. (Samira's films, "The Apple" and "Blackboards," have both been screened to critical acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and elsewhere.)

The films are collaborative efforts; for "Day," Makhmalbaf wrote the script, and after that "it's impossible to say which parts came from him and which from me," says Meshkini. Both husband and wife draw on lessons from a 1962 Iranian film about a leper's colony.

*

While she did not obtain permission from the government censors before she began shooting--the film was privately financed--Meshkini did have to appear before a seven-member, all-male censorship board before the film could be released. "They said to me, 'You're cutting men apart, your film is against the veiling of women, it's against religion,' " recalls Meshkini.

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