Shirin Neshat is the most famous Iranian-born artist in the international contemporary art world, and with good reason. Her photographs of women covered in Persian script, and her stark, absorbing, video installations of women and men—often on separate screens, always dark, tense, and on the edge of exploding while at the same time gorgeous and surprisingly meditative—are frankly stunning. (Her double-screened video projection Tooba is in the permanent collection of Seattle Art Museum, and last played for a year and a half in 2006 and 2007.)
Neshat's newest work is a feature film, not a video installation, but it shares the qualities of her other works, and adds the layer of narrative. Titled Women Without Men and based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, it premieres in Seattle Friday at Northwest Film Forum, where it runs through July 15.
The magical realist novel is based on the 1953 CIA-backed coup to replace the democratically elected Iranian government with the Shah. Neshat's adaptation weaves together the stories of four striking women: an anorexic prostitute who becomes something like a sacred vessel, the aging wife of a military general, an unmarried woman who commits suicide in the first scene and comes back to life soon after to join political activists, and a young naïf who simply wants to get married.
Neshat spoke to The Stranger's Jen Graves on Tuesday, by phone from her home in New York.
I first want to talk about Zarin, the anorexic prostitute who hallucinates at the sight of her john, then flees to a women's bath—a beautiful place, sparkling with dusty light—where she scrubs her own skin until she bleeds. A few years ago, I caught your short video portrait of her [video portraits helped to fund the feature film], and was never able to get her out of my mind. You've said her character feels the closest to you.
In some ways, every one of the women has an aspect of my own issues in them, but I think with Zarin, I found her the most touching. There's her issue with the body, and the question of her loneliness and alienation—the fact that she always came across as if she was a woman that was never meant to belong to this planet but somehow she had to cope with it. Although I've never been like that, I've understood that problem, and to some degree, I have experienced being lonely a lot of times in my life. The most important thing to me is her relationship to her body, in the way that she punishes herself for everything that is wrong with the world. When I was young, I was very briefly anorexic, but I think this is very much of a woman issue: You basically self-inflict to cope with everything that is wrong in the world. Oddly enough, the one that is the most sinful [the prostitute] becomes the most spiritual. We have a saying, that the mystics, the dervishes in our Sufi tradition, are the people that suffer the most, and because they're so tortured, they turn into spiritual beings. Zarin, who is the most tortured, becomes the most spiritual and the most compassionate in the way that she impacts the other women's lives. It's her spirituality and otherworldliness that I like. The last thing, also, is that Zarin never speaks in the entire film, but you always understand her.
Fakhri, the general's wife, is on the other end of the spectrum from Zarin.
You got it. Two of the women, their problems are tangible and realistic and almost narcissistic, and two are otherworldly and more allegorical characters.
You recently optioned another novel for a feature film: The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare. What's the story of that book?
I think most people don't know this writer, and I think they should. He is probably the most prominent Albanian poet and writer. It's really a beautiful story about how in Albania there is this institution, this palace organized by the state, by the government, that is built to receive people's dreams. On a daily basis, people deliver the dreams that they've had.
In this palace, it is really crowded with men all wearing uniforms. It's highly secret, highly Kafkaesque, and organized in departments. The first department is receiving, where they receive the dreams. Then there is selection, where they select the dreams for the third department, which is interpretation. They want to interpret the dreams because they believe that in people's dreams god sends messages that might tell what's coming, that the government can read. It really is an absurd story about the fanaticism of government and religion. The whole story is about this character who is going to be interviewed. In many ways, the story is about Iran, where we have this fanatic government that is so absurd in this day and age.
Are you banned from Iran? People are always reporting that you are. You originally left in 1979, and haven't been back in several years now.
I'm not really banned. It's a choice. It's more like the question of security. I mean, most likely I shouldn't go, but there's no fatwa.
Speaking of dreams, do you ever dream of Iran at night?
Just before you called, I'm sitting here with my Iranian friends looking at a video of a singer I grew up with and she is dead now, and we are feeling very nostalgic. I dream of returning home, seeing where I was born. Mostly I dream of my hometown, but to be honest, things have changed so much in Iran that I don't have that romantic idea that I'd go back and everything is going to be dandy. In fact we have no idea what that experience would be like.
What has it meant to you to switch from the art world to the film world?
Having just done a year traveling with this film, it's definitely been a transition. I've gained a whole range of communities that I didn't have before. It's much more grassroots. [In film] we have less discussions about—it's less of an elite discourse. It's more about ideas, whether political or artistic. I mean I still love to be an artist and I'll continue to show at galleries and museums, but if I ever doubted there is an audience for films like this one that I made, I am wrong, because there really is an audience. It's never going to be mainstream, but it really energized me, feeling like, it's good to take risk. It was definitely a risk and the failure was more likely than not, but I'm very proud I went through it. I'm very tired right now and I'm going to go into hibernating for the next month just to do my work because the public really demands a lot of energy from you. As a visual artist, you don't have that level of interaction with the public. We were screening every night in a different city, all over Europe, the U.S., Canada.
One art critic [Charlie Finch] suggested you made another switch in making this movie: That you've begun sympathizing with the Iranian government, because of the movie's depiction of the anti-democratic Anglo-American-backed coup.
I was thinking that is really amazing. Just because you go back to history, you're picking on the [American] government and collaborating with the government of Iran? I was really surprised. His argument was so amazingly stupid! I mean, I can't go back to Iran, I'm fighting the Iranian government, I'm supporting the Green movement, and because I go and make a film that touches on this pivotal moment in history—if you made a film about the Nazis, you're against Germany? I expected him to be more intelligent than that. Madeleine Albright officially apologized to the people of Iran and admitted to this conspiracy [the coup]. Plus, we're a democracy here. The American government has everybody thinking that it never does wrong, and meanwhile all other governments do things that are wrong. Do you know that 95 percent of the public I showed this film to in America didn't know that their country had done this coup d'etat in Iran? And the same in Britain! Tony Blair once said he didn't know who Dr. [Mohammad] Mossadegh was [the democratically elected leader who was overthrown by the coup]—Tony Blair! It's slightly educational, really, it's not anything else.
Dr. Mossadegh angered the British by nationalizing the oil of Iran—and then the CIA got involved. Your movie comes out just at the moment of another historic moment in American-British oil: the spill.
Yeah, I hadn't thought about that connection, wow. In Iran, it was the British who were dominating the oil of Iran, in their economic interest. But since they couldn't overthrow the government, they reached out to the Americans on the argument that because of democracy, Dr. Mossadegh was allowing a lot of room for the communists, and if you don't get rid of him, it will be too late. Mostly the British were after the oil, and the Americans were after domination of that region.
You've watched Iran absolutely transform, becoming what it is now through the Islamic Revolution. But how have you seen this country, the United States, change in its relationship with the world?
The problem has been that since September 11th, the preoccupation has been the clash between the West and the Middle East, and that's translated into foreign policy that's been pretty horrendous. I think Obama gives me hope, but the Republican and conservative approach is really horrifying. I always say I'm as American as Iranian. I've lived here as long as in Iran. I think this is a beautiful country and I never define this country according to its government. I think we're going through a good phase, and I hope Obama will have a chance to do his work. I was just in Amsterdam, where it was shocking some of the people who were being elected, they were really racist, and I thought, 'Europe is going this way, and it's a good thing America is going this other way.'
What about what's been going on in Arizona with the immigration laws?
There are always pockets of racism, but I'm very optimistic now—much more than I was before. It's a very complex time and I'm no expert, but but I think the country's going the right direction, that's my feeling. I wouldn't have thought so a couple of years ago, but now I do.
How was the experience for you as a woman filmmaker in Morocco?
I've worked there several times. All my videos you've seen were shot there.
Was Tooba shot there?
That was shot in Mexico. But, so, the Moroccans are extremely gentle people. I've never felt discriminated there, I'm always surrounded by men as well. Gender has never been an issue there.
You've resisted being called a feminist.
If women make work about women, they don't like to see it reduced to just being about that. I think I resist categorizations like that because it simplifies things. But of course I believe in the feminist movement, I believe in it 100 percent. But I don't approach it like that. I approach it because I believe in the strength of the woman and I believe in what I'm saying.
What are you working on now, artwise?
I've just actually shot some new photographs, some black-and-white photographs, and I haven't shot studio photographs in, oh, 10 years now, everything has been about film. I shot them and most likely I will go back in and do hand work, and they're only of men, no women.
Do you think projects like Women Without Men help to open up the art world, or just exist separate from it?
I think artists are beginning to break the boundaries between disciplines and experimenting. There is a public for it. It's a little bit difficult for the dealers to have to redefine their artists as they change so fast, but generally they come around. I never do it for a strategy of the career, I just do it because I'm passionate about cinema and wonder if I can make it.
What for you is the difference between cinema and film or video art?
There's definitely a huge difference. My feeling is that, essentially, with cinema, it's all about telling a story, and all about character development, and an entirely different way of construction and pacing that suits the idea of entertaining people for an hour and a half. You can be enigmatic and fragmented with a video that is about a concept, and people can come in the room and leave, because you know that you don't have them pinned down for an hour and a half. The idea of making a video installation for an hour and a half is the most painful thing you can possibly imagine, it just doesn't work.
What about enigmatic, fragmented, conceptual films like Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle?
His audience is mostly select art-house. I love him and I love his work but it's very difficult to see his films being distributed in more mainstream venues, because it's almost a little bit too enigmatic, and the pacing is very difficult. But I think every artist approaches cinema with their own logic. I wanted to make a film that is very accessible. I went 50-50. Julian Schnabel went 100 percent [with The Diving Bell and the Butterfly], I think, Matthew Barney went 20 or 30 percent narrative, Pipilotti Rist went 20 to 30 percent narrative [with Pepperminta], maybe even less. It's beautiful. But does it make sense as a story for an hour and a half? I'm not talking about judgment, I'm talking about the approach of artists.
In Women Without Men, I'm curious about the changes you made to the novel's story. Why did you have Munis kill herself rather than be killed by her brother?
Mainly, I didn't want to stick with this more realistic approach. This just seemed too cliché almost, I wanted to have a more symbolic and allegorical event. The brother was enough of a cliché already, to have him kill the sister was almost too much for me. I wanted her to take flight, to jump—there was a freedom in that.
In shooting Zarin's scenes in the bathhouse, were you intentionally referencing Orientalist paintings such as Ingres's 1862 Turkish Bath?
Yes. We wanted to make it as beautiful as possible, but to have it broken by this woman who was anorexic and who was bleeding, to have that subversive element. That sense of horror. So this was very important to me.
Your movie, like the novel, is banned in Iran. Many filmmakers would not want their work pirated, but what about you?
Yes, well, we're very happy about it. It makes Iranians very emotional. Piracy is a blessing.