Sunday, February 27, 2011
Watch Me Grow: The Day I Became a Woman
[This is a contribution to the Iranian Film Blogathon, hosted by Sheila O’Malley of The Sheila Variations, which is meant to honor the imprisoned Iranian director Jafar Panahi by raising awareness about Iranian cinema.]
As the title implies, Marzieh Makhmalbaf’s The Day I Became a Woman (2000) is about transitions. Made up of three short stories that are linked by theme more than by narrative, the film is about a 9-year-old girl who wants to play, a 20-something wife on a bicycle who wants to ride and an elderly woman being pushed around in a cart who wants to buy. What these women have in common is that their existence at the end of the day will be different than when it began, or at least it could be. One of the characters has change forced upon her, one of the characters wills change into her life and one of these characters is granted change as a reward for survival. Together their stories form a triptych depicting the unfortunate lifecycle of the Iranian woman, who between two too-short lives of relative free will is confined by dress and cultural expectations.
The film’s first chapter is about the 9-year-old girl. Or perhaps I should say almost-9. Hava (Fatemeh Cherag Akhar) wakes up on her birthday to be told by her grandmother that she is now a woman, and that with womanhood come restrictions. Now Hava must wear the chador. Now Hava cannot play with her friend, an orphan boy. Of these changes, the chador is incidental to Hava – it has no significance, no symbolism. Not yet. But being prohibited from playing with her friend is unconscionable. She begs her mother and grandmother to reconsider, and at last they agree to release her on a technicality: Hava is free to play for one hour until noon, the exact time of her birth, but then she’ll have to accept her womanhood and all the rules that go with it.
Set free, Hava charts her remaining time with a tall slender stick poked into the ground, watching the stick’s shadow growing ever shorter as noon closes in. Hava is chronicling not just the end of her playtime but the end of her childhood. And yet as the story moves along, it’s clear that Hava is nothing more than a little girl. We can see it in the delicate way in which she inserts the stick into the ground, just like her grandmother taught her – a slightly uncertain new trick. We can see it in the way she wades into the sea to play with a plastic windup toy, giving not a moment’s thought to how she’ll soak her dress. And we can see it in the way she shares candy with her friend – playfully running a lollipop around on her lips, plopping the lollipop in her mouth and then into his and back again, and tilting her head from side to side in bursts of awkward energy.
When “womanhood” comes for Hava, she doesn’t resist it, but that’s because she doesn’t realize the full implications of that transformation. Still, there’s a touching urgency to her playtime, like a kid trying to hang on to the last day of summer. Alas, this is a summer she’ll never enjoy again. When she shares her candy with her friend, he’s behind bars: confined to his room until he finishes his schoolwork. But we never forget that his imprisonment is temporary. The restrictions now being imposed on Hava’s life will be unrelenting.
The film’s second chapter shows just how difficult it is to escape from the restrictions of Iranian womanhood. It begins with a stirring image of a man on horseback, the camera moving laterally with the rider as he points his horse diagonally into the distance. (Films often give us riders going left or right, or forward or backward, but rarely are riders captured moving toward the corners of the frame. The result is an effect not too far from depth-stretching 3-D.) The man rides with urgency, shouting a name, “Ahoo! Ahoo!” Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), we soon learn, is his wife. And she’s riding, too – a bicycle. The question is why? According to the dialogue of others, Ahoo is in a bicycle race, and indeed much of the film features her pedaling amidst a pelaton of chador-clad riders, surging forward, then falling back, then surging forward again. But thematically speaking, Ahoo seems less determined to get somewhere than to leave something behind: her husband and her marriage. Her husband repeatedly demands that she give up the race and return home. He brings a mullah who divorces them as she rides. He sends back tribal elders and Ahoo’s brothers, all of whom urge her to “get back to her life.” But Ahoo is committed. She wants out.
What’s striking about this chapter is how much we discern from so very little. Ahoo has about three lines of dialogue, each of them one or two words long. She never says she’s unhappy in her marriage. She never says what, if anything this ride means to her – and indeed it’s quite possible that the only thing she enjoys about riding the “devil’s mount,” as the mullah calls her bicycle, is that it allows her to defy her husband. But each time she pedals ahead, we sense her will. The men on horseback come and go, and Ahoo, under her own power, rides on. But can she get away? The entire film takes place on Kish Island, and the Ahoo chapter is dominated by shots of the riders pedaling their bikes within view of the shoreline. Because the bike race seems to have no obvious start or end point, or markers charting their progress, it could be read that the riders are going in circles – pedaling ahead but getting nowhere.
Indeed, that seems to be Ahoo’s fate. After several attempts to coerce Ahoo into giving up the race, some of the male elders set up a roadblock. They allow another rider to pass, but when Ahoo rides up to them, they force her to stop. The camera, however, moves ahead with the other riders, looking back at a cloud of dust where the men on horseback surround Ahoo. Do they force her from her bike? Do they drag her back to the life they demand? Or does she manage to ride on? The film leaves it a mystery, but the persistence of the men suggests they won’t rest until Ahoo obeys. And as the camera moves on up the road without her, the life Ahoo wanted seems to slip away.
What will become of Hava and Ahoo? Makhmalbaf suggests one possibility with the closing chapter. Hoora (Azizeh Sedighi) is an elderly woman who for reasons that aren’t made clear has just received a large inheritance. Did her husband die? A brother? We can only speculate, but clearly Hoora is alone. Blissfully alone. In the opening of the final chapter, Hoora is wheeled around by an African boy who helps her make a long list of purchases – a refrigerator, a washing machine, a bed, linens, a sectional couch and so on. These are things, Hoora says, that she’s always wanted. Her inheritance gives her the financial means to have them, but maybe so does her singlehood. Hoora’s life is her own, and it’s as if she wants to make her own home for herself after a life of playing servant to someone else’s wants and needs. Hoora’s fingers are covered with strings, each of them reminders of all the things she wants to buy, each of them symbols of lifelong dreams that only now are capable of coming true.
The Hoora chapter is the most surrealistic of the three. After the shopping is done, Hoora orders her young helpers to unpack her belongings somewhere that she can see them (ostensibly in the hope that she will notice what’s missing), and so it comes to be that Hoora’s new possessions are spread out on a white sandy beach, assembled with care as if within the walls of a home. The refrigerator is stocked, the washing machine somehow works and all of the packaging disappears. It doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a nice image, and the same can be said of what happens next, when in an effort to get Hoora’s new possessions back to her home, somewhere off Kish Island, the boys load them onto small makeshift pontoons and float them out to sea. Symbolically, it’s an image that suggests liberation, as Hoora gains the freedom to float according to her whims – the same freedom Hava had until noon of her ninth birthday. But the image could also be read to suggest that Hoora is drifting into the afterlife, as if her dreams can only be answered in death. Thus the Hoora chapter, and the entire film, ends with a scene that’s bittersweet – touchingly fantastic and depressingly impossible.
As Hoora floats out into the sea, Hava arrives with her mother and watches the spectacle, trying to make sense of it. Is this her fate? And if so is it too late to escape? The Day I Became a Woman suggests Hava will have to live a long time to ever feel so free again. With a light touch, Makhmalbaf’s film makes a deep impression.