A number of surprisingly thoughtful and compelling films about women have come out of Iran. Films like The Day I Became a Woman, Ten and Kandahar explore the issues of women in compelling social contexts. While not the most compelling in terms of ideas or presentation, Women’s Prison might be the smartest subversion of exploring women in films.
Set in a female only prison, the film chronicles the change in dynamic that happens when a new warden takes over and starts to shake things up. The back and forth that begins between the two groups as well as the gradual change in tone and attitude that happens over time are compelling, surface level plotting that make it an engaging drama, but it’s the undercurrent of what the “bad” women represents that becomes interesting.
Taking place in a prison, writer Farid Mostafavi and director Manijeh Hekmat are able to get away at depicting women as far more aggressive, physical and bold than if they were not in a prison. After all, these are women who have committed crimes, murders, thieves and criminals. One expects the kind of behavior that happens: disregard of authority, overconfidence and a willingness to fight back.
But allowing these attributes of women to come out in the context of them being “bad,” the film is allowed to show Iranian women behaving in ways inconceivable to show in films set in normal society. But is the film actually saying that these behaviors of women are bad? A strong argument can be made that the film is positioning the audience to identify with the prisoners, who are accosted from society and put into prison because they don’t fit into society’s norms.
After all, it’s the warden who comes off as cruel and unfair towards the women, having her two brothers rough them up a bit and then treating them as if they have no rights as human beings. For those who want to read into the political subtext of this being a story about the tyranny and inhumanity of authority in Iran, there’s a gold mine of relational quandaries to dig through.
As an actual film, there’s a glaring lack of direction. There are a number of characters that shift in and out of prominence and the entire film spans 18 years. That allows it some space to explore the generational shift because of this change in authority, and also how younger and younger women start appearing in prison, the prison brats, so to speak, raised in prisons and then finding themselves landing back inside prison one on the outside.
Still, as a film of ideas that seeks to subvert, Women’s Prison is a smart film, finding a perfect context to push the bound of what is acceptable to show and how women should be defined in Iran. It lacks the elegance of The Day I Became a Woman, the focus of Ten or the storytelling of Kandahar, but it’s still a film worth placing in the conversation, if only because of how well it presents the idea of womanhood.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing