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With the relative relaxation of the censor during the late 1990s and early 2000, Iranian directors who had already begun to tackle a wide variety of subjects related to the lives of women and reveal the human and cultural consequences of patriarchal obsessions, began to examine some of the most controversial issues in the lives of Iranians in general and women in particular. Tahmineh Milani, for instance, offered a revisionist history of the early years of the revolution in The Hidden Half, (2001)reflecting on how obsession with ideologies leads to widespread victimization of individuals and how rather than negotiating a more inclusive space for future, the dominant discourse suppresses the unwanted past in order to create homogenous presences. Or Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten used digital camera and a non-interventional style of directing in order to show women in a variety of relations from the most obsessively sacred to the most reflecting on the relativity of human relationships and the consequences of having or not having attachments and dependencies.
As a feature debut of a well-known producer and cultural activist, Manijeh Hekmat’s Women’s Prison (2002) was made during such an era and offered insight about one of the most silenced aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The film which managed to balance itself on the edge of the red lines of censorship and tolerance in Iran, addresses the consequences of a legal system that can easily interpret youthful transgression or self-defence as criminal activity and incriminate those who have high potential for becoming responsible human beings. With the protagonist and the prison guard functioning as the eternal fixtures that offer continuity to the three periods, we move from the 1985 when most of the prisoners are between the ages of 25 and 50 with criminal and a few political cases to 1991 when most of them are women entangled in financial and familial problems and then 2001 when most of them are teenage or youthful girls with social cases. The spectator is, therefore, exposed to a panorama of the Iranian types occupying various spaces within the prison and suffering the dire consequences of the injustice that permeates the legal systems of all countries.
The convincing narrative of the film also moves the spectator from one cultural era to another reflecting on the changing pattern of Iranian identity in its various forms. Thus Tahereh’s revolutionary zeal, the ideological fiction that has formed her identity, is gradually tested and transformed so that she is increasingly more in touch with the reality of human needs and suffering. The prison is, therefore, a microcosm of the country, which, like many countries where the majority of the people are young, but the socio-political structure has not yet managed to find ways to be more inclusive towards them, faces huge problems with direct or indirect political dissent, poverty, prostitution, addiction, petty crimes and so on. Hekmat’s success in depicting these problems in three post-revolutionary time frames is immense, but her success finds a more striking relevance if we remember that, as the Persian saying goes, she needed seven pairs of iron shoes and seven iron walking staff to get the permissions to start and at various stage continue her filming inside the prison. In fact, if it weren’t for the occasional help of the more enlightened members of the Iranian political structures, it would have been impossible for the film to be made and then screened in its censored version.
Amir-Ebrahimi, Masserat,(2008), ‘Transgression in Narration: The Lives of Iranian Women in Cyberspace’ in Journal of Middle East Women's Studies - Volume 4, Number 3. Fall 2008: 89-115.
Naficy, Hamid, (1999), 'Veiled Visions/Powerful Presence: Women in Post-revolutionary Iranian Cinema' in Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker (eds), Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema. London: National Film Theatre. 44-66.
Simon, Alissa, (2002), ‘Manijeh Hekmat and Women's Prison’, in Senses of Cinema, at http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/23/hekmat.html
Manijeh Hekmat was born in 1962 in Arak, Iran. During the 1980s, she worked as an experimental filmmaker and since then she has worked as an assistant director for 25 and as production manager for 10 feature films. In 1995, Hekmat founded her Bamdad Film Company which established her as a major producer for women-related films. Since then she has been the producer of 6 feature films and the producer and director of 8 documentaries. Among her famous production works are such award-winning films as Dokhtari ba Kafshhai-e Katani (The Girl in the Sneakers, 1999) and Yek Mosht Alaf (A Bunch of Grass, 1999). Her directorial debut feature, Zendan-e Zanan (Women’s Prison, 2002) has been screened at more than 120 international film festivals and received numerous prizes. Between her first feature film and the second, Seh Zan (Three Women, 2008) Hekmat made several documentaries, including Man, Otagham va Doostanam (Me, My Room and My Friends, 2004) Zanan az Khaneh Biroon Miaiand (Women Come out of the House 2006). The first documentary deals with the condition, desires and dreams of women in a mental asylum and the second with the impediments and aspirations of NGOs in Iran. Manijeh Hekmat is married to the director Jamshid Ahangaran and their daughter Pegah Ahangarani is a successful actress who has appeared in some of her films.
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