August 14, 2009

The Day I Became a Woman (2000)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 7:43 pm
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Director: Marzieh Makhmalbaf
78 min


Kish Island, Southern Iran. Three tales about Iranian women. Hava is a nine year old girl told by her mother and grandmother that she is now a woman and must act accordingly. She is forbidden from playing with her male friend, although she gains a reprieve until midday, the time she was born. Her friend is still in school, doing homework. They communicate through the bars in the classroom window, passing him sweets, as the time before she must leave approaches. Finally at noon she is collected by her mother, who instructs her to wear a chador.

Ahoo, a woman in her twenties, is participating in a cycling race, with dozens of other women. She is pursued by her husband on horseback, who instructs her to stop cycling. Ahoo defiantly rides on, even to the point of exhaustion. Her husband returns with the Mullah, who divorces the couple on the spot. The men in Ahoo’s family later pursue her, demanding that she stops, but she continues, cycling much longer than her rivals.

Hoora, an elderly and wealthy widow arrives at the airport. She hires some young boys to help her purchase household goods that she never had before, which she remembers with pieces of string attached to her fingers. The goods she then purchases are laid out on the beach as she waits for the ship that will take her away. Two female cyclists watch curiously, then speak to Hoora, mentioning Ahoo. Hava and her mother also watch on as a series of rafts take the goods to the ship.


Mohsen Makhmalbaf might have been the most prominent Iranian film maker of the 1980s and 1990s along with Abbas Kiarostami, but by the end of the 1990s, it was the female members of the Makhmalbaf family that were making a splash and making their names. First, his seventeen year old daughter Samira directed her sympathetic part-documentary, part fiction debut feature ‘The Apple’. Shortly after, Mohsen’s wife directed her own debut. Much like most of the films of the Makhmalbaf clan, it’s a liberal, humanist film that examines the role and position of women in contemporary Iran. What separates it from the films of Samira perhaps, is that ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ has a more surreal element to it, described by Roger Ebert as ‘Felliniesque’.

Hava’s tale might be the most conventional of the three, the most naturalistic. Makhmalbaf earnestly explores the pressures placed upon young girls in Iran at a very early age. In this instance, it’s the ‘coming of age’ of a nine year old girl, who’s now told she’s a woman. Hava is a carefree girl who wants nothing more than to be able to play with her friends. She doesn’t understand the responsibilities that have now been placed upon her. Makhmalbaf captures her confusion well. It doesn’t dawn on her what will change at midday. Her friendship with a local boy is shown poignantly. When he can’t leave class, she passes his sweets through the bars of the window, which are slightly too high for her to reach but she perseveres until she can make it. Then there’s the recurring motif of the chador, the symbol of womanhood but also the end of innocence. Hava doesn’t realise what the impact of what it means, but Makhmalbaf reminds us that this is something that occurs to all girls of Hava’s age, forced to grow up far too quickly in a paternalist society.

It’s the next two tales where Makhmalbaf becomes more visually expressive, whilst also confirming the challenges faced by Iranian women of all ages. The image of the cycling women is a striking one. Ahoo might be a rebellious wife, defying the wishes of both her husband and her family, but is this image a wider metaphor? Ahoo strikes us as being an individual within the race though, racing to the point of collapsing, outstripping her rivals, who cycle serenely at a steady pace. Only Ahoo is challenged en route and cursed for her actions. So whilst the cycling device might be a representation of the female experience, it’s only woman who’s challenging the consensus. With a combination of tracking shots, close ups and sudden shots that pull away, Makhmalbaf keenly demonstrates how women of a certain age, presumably newly married, face the most difficult of pressures, which can hardly be escaped from.

Hoora’s tale is also abstract, with a striking set of shots in particular of a vast number of consumer goods spread out across the coast (as well as a bizarre sequence when the local boys act domestically with them – take pretend showers, wash and iron etc) that also relate to the opulence and wealth of the region, organised as a rival to Dubai and other resorts. Makhmalbaf’s main emphasis is upon depicting widowhood as a form of liberty; that once a woman no longer has a husband, she is once again free or not quite so subjugated at least. Faced with her liberty, Hoora almost is at a loss what to do. She’s disorientated and directionless in the wider world. But we see her pride; her desire for a better life – the life she never had as a married woman, and her determination; to complete her task despite the numerous items she wants to buy, even forgetting some. This entire project has sentimental value for her.

In the final moments of Hoora’s tale, the three tales are all brought together, as the women of all three ages are united. Ahoo isn’t present; her future is perhaps less determinate, but two fellow cyclists refer to her in conversation with Hoora. Most poignantly on the other hand, we see Hava, wearing a chador, watch the strange final sequence of Hoora and her goods travelling over to the ship. Hava’s full life is ahead of her, and her future experiences might reflect those of the other women in the film. These are women who’ve made their own choices in adulthood though. Through a combination of simple but sympathetic storytelling (which presumably relies on semi-improvisation and not so rigid a script) and expressive, eye-catching visuals, ‘The Day I Became a Woman’ is one of the most honest, persuasive examinations of the female experience in Iranian society and is another success from the Makhmalbaf house.


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