It’s just like me to review a film that came out in 2000, but cut me a little slack. I only just discovered it on the dusty shelves of my library. And it’s a tragedy that this film should be covered with dust, as it’s truly amazing. That’s the thing in America, though. This film had several strikes against it being a blockbuster in the states before the first actor arrived on the set.
First of all, it’s made in Iran. Gasp! Not only is it foreign, but it’s from a country that chants “Death to America!” Then it can’t be good. Second, it has the word woman in the title. Well, there goes half your audience. Third, its spoken language is Persian, which means it’s subtitled. God forbid the average American be asked to actually read something other than their twitter feed. Fourth, it won several awards at international film festivals, including the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival and has been described as “Felliniesque”, so by American standards it must be dense, boring, and incomprehensible. I mean, where are the vampires? Where’s the gratuitous sex? I want my money back!
But I’m telling you, dear reader, if you haven’t already seen this film and you don’t make an effort to do so, you are really missing out on one of the experiences of your life. It will take turns breaking your heart and delighting you. The fact that this was Marzieh Meshkini’s directorial debut astounds me.
Okay, the rest of this review is pure spoiler alert, but The Day I Became a Woman is so beautiful to watch that even if you know parts of the story in advance you won’t mind.
The movie is actually three short stories about Iranian women in different stages of their lives. They are each coming to grips with their identity, the one imposed by their culture and/or government versus the one that feels right for them.
The first story is about a delightful and vulnerable little girl named Hava, and it occurs on her 9th birthday. When she wakes up she’s told that today she is a woman, and that from now on she will wear the chador and not be able to speak to or play with boys. Basically, the door to her childhood is closing with a resounding slam. But she wasn’t born until noon, so she begs to go play one last time with her best friend, a boy named Hassan.
What was maddening to watch was that her mother and grandmother don’t seem in any particular hurry to let her go. You watch her childhood trickling away like sand through an hour glass, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I wanted to scream at the TV screen, “Let her GO, already! Surely you know what this feels like!” And then when she finally gets to go, Hassan can’t come out and play. It’s heartbreaking to watch them interact through his window, knowing it is the last time they will ever speak, and all the time the sun moves inexorably toward noon. At one point they innocently share a lollypop through the window, and the Iranian government found this to be highly sexual and insisted that it be taken from the movie. Thank God the director stood her ground.
The second story is about Ahoo, a young married woman who is participating in a bicycle race against the wishes of her husband. Strangely enough, the way this one was filmed, and the tension and foreboding with which it is infused reminded me a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There she is, just wanting to ride in a race, and she’s being chased down by her husband on horseback, and then later by her father and other members of her tribe, until eventually her brothers come and drag her off her bike. All she wants to do is ride in this race, and instead it has to be turned into a source of fear, anxiety, and control by the men in her life. It’s like she’s racing toward freedom and is thwarted in the end.
The third story, I have to admit, is a little strange. It looks nothing like the other two. It’s about an old woman named Hoora, who for the first time in her life is putting herself ahead of others. She somehow has a lot of money, and with the help of a bunch of little boys with carts she goes to a large mall and buys every single thing she’s ever wanted for herself. It gets very strange and symbolic from there, so I’ll let you interpret it on your own. But it’s delightful to see this woman finally coming into her own after a lifetime of doing everything for others.
I think the fourth and unspoken story in this film is about the viewers. We are looking at these lives through a Western lens, and we’ll never truly understand what it must be like to be these women. But it would be a huge mistake for us to think we do not have societal pressures upon us as well. Who among us has not heard of women referred to as bitches or whores and realized that more often than not the women referred to in this shameful manner were usually just doing things that the men of their world didn’t like?
I for one am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to spend time with Hava, Ahoo, and Hoora, even if only for an hour and a half.