Film and TV

Lifting the Veil

On the day she turns nine years old, an Iranian girl must bid childhood farewell. Male playmates are banished; girlish dresses are exchanged for a loose-fitting chador to hide the curves the wearer will develop as her body matures, and a rigid segregation of the sexes is suddenly enforced.

Increasingly, Iranian films are addressing the plight of post-Revolutionary women. Directed by first-time filmmaker Marzieh Meshkini, The Day I Became a Woman comprises three separate but related stories. The first concerns Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar, in her acting debut), who awakens on her ninth birthday to be told that she can no longer play with boys. Under Islamic law, she is now considered a woman, and interaction between the sexes is tightly regulated. The spirited child notes that it is only 11 a.m., and, as she was not born until noon, she still has one hour in which to enjoy her childhood. Over the objections of a strict grandmother ("Hide your hair," the old woman scolds the little girl. "Don't sin"), her more understanding mother allows her a final hour of unrestricted play.

It is no accident that "Havva" translates as "Eve." Director Meshkini, who was born in 1969 and is married to the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf (The Pedlar, The Silence, The Door), means for her young protagonist to represent all women. The final shot of this cinematic short story reveals Eve's mother, chador in hand, walking up to her daughter on the beach where the youngster has gone to play.

The second segment opens with a man on horseback thundering across the countryside in pursuit of some two dozen women who are participating in a bicycle race. With their dark chadors whipping in the wind, these smiling, laughing women could be a group of French nuns on a weekend outing to the seashore. The horseman catches up to the one woman in the group who is not smiling and yells at her to return home. Soon he is joined by other members of the same tribe, entreating Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui, one of the few professional actors in the film) to stop riding or face expulsion from the community. As Ahoo (gazelle in Farsi) furiously continues pedaling, her eyes register an increasing sense of desperation.

The third segment concerns Houra (Azizeh Seddighi), an old woman who has come to the film's island setting to purchase luxury items that it's difficult to imagine her ever using. A touch of surrealism descends upon the film as the young boys whom she has hired to carry her new possessions spread them out along the beach and cavort there with a washing machine, which is miraculously spinning clothes, and a refrigerator stocked with food -- both without benefit of electricity.

The Day I Became a Woman is a spare film, with little dialogue but a lot to say. Shots are long and lingering, with minimal activity within the frame and few camera movements.

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Jean Oppenheimer