Over the last 12 years, Iranian-born Shirin Neshat (b. 1957) has produced a series of lyrical video installations that touch on such issues as gender politics, cultural self-definition and the authority of religion. Drawing on the artist’s experiences as a Middle Eastern émigré as well as more universal themes of identity, desire and social isolation, these works have garnered many honors, including, in 1999, a Venice Biennale International Golden Lion prize. Since 2003, Neshat has been engaged in an ambitious two-part video/film project based on (and titled after) the 1989 novel Women Without Men by the Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur.
The project’s five individual videos—Mahdokht (2004), Zarin (2005), Munis (2008),Faezeh (2008) and Farokh Legha (2008)—each of which centers on one of the female characters in the novel, have recently been brought together into a single multiroom installation. First shown in 2008 at the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum in Denmark, the composite work traveled to Faurschou Beijing Gallery in China and the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Athens. It will go on view at the Kulturhuset in Stockholm this fall, with other venues pending. In addition, four of the videos (all except Farokh Legha) were screened at last year’s “Prospect.1 New Orleans” biennial.
While making the videos (largely sponsored by Gladstone Gallery, New York, and Galerie Jérôme de Noirmont, Paris), Neshat also worked on a soon-to-be-released feature film. The movie, which spins off from both the novel and the videos, features a dreamlike narrative that interweaves the women’s personal stories with the political upheavals of 1953 Tehran, the setting for Parsipur’s book. (Alarmed by the nationalization of Iran’s oil fields, British and American operatives that year abetted a coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, reinstating the Shah.) To create the videos and the film, Neshat worked closely with her longtime collaborator, Shoja Azari, who coauthored the final script. The film version, shot in Casablanca in the Farsi language, primarily uses Iranian actors who live in Europe. It also includes a voiceover written by poet and art critic Steven Henry Madoff.
Over a series of weeks, I spoke with Neshat about the genesis of the “Women Without Men” project. We discussed its meaning to her, the challenge of translating Parsipur’s novel into moving images, the tricky task of balancing its poetic and political elements, and the differing demands of video and film.
ELEANOR HEARTNEY: How did this project come about?
SHIRIN NESHAT: At the time I was in Documenta in 2002, having made several video installations, I was beginning to feel very consumed by being in one big international show after another, making one work after another. I felt I needed time off to plan a project that would take a long time to realize. Then I got a call from the Sundance Institute, asking if I would consider developing a feature film project for their writers’ lab. At first, I thought I couldn’t, so I said no. Then, after Documenta, I thought why not?
EH: What did you discover about the difference between the art and film worlds?
SN: In the art world you are very free, but you end up making something that few people see. In the film world anybody can view your film for the small price of a ticket, but you are not as free. There is also a big difference between film producers and art dealers. Producers are extremely involved. Everything has to go through them, while an art dealer basically leaves you alone and remains uninvolved in the production.
What I wanted from the beginning was to create a feature film for theaters, in parallel with a group of related video installations for gallery and museum settings. I found out that in order to get funding for a feature film you have to have a quality script — and this was a new experience for me, since I had just storyboarded my past videos. My producers insisted that I work with the German script consultant Franz Rodenkirchen, so I started to travel back and forth to Berlin, eventually becoming a resident in 2003. Franz would read the script and offer his criticisms; I would revise and return for more discussions. This took a few years, and in the process I think we did over a hundred and fifty different versions, ending with a script that was co-written by myself and Shoja Azari.
EH: The film and the installations tell the story in radically different ways.
SN: Yes, they are very different kinds of constructions. The logic behind the editing of the video installations was to create a group of five nonlinear narratives, giving a glimpse into the nature of each of the five characters, as opposed to telling their entire stories. The idea was that the viewer would walk from room to room and, at the end, be able to put the story together. So in reality the viewer becomes the editor.
The logic for the movie version was to make a straight narrative, a more or less conventional film, while relying on my visual esthetics. The main challenge was how to fuse my artistic vocabulary with cinematic language. I realized that I had underestimated the difficulties of pacing, story development, dialogue and many other related issues. In a film, you must never lose the thread of the story, and at times beautiful imagery has to be discarded as too distracting. The issues of comprehension and clarity are very important, whereas in art practice, enigma and abstraction are encouraged.
In the end, I learned that the fundamental difference between cinema and art is the question of character development. In all my past work, such as the videos Rapture  and Passage , I had treated people sculpturally, devoid of any character or identity. They were simply iconic figures. But with this film, I had to learn how to build characters, how to enter their inner worlds, their mindsets. This was an entirely new experience for me. I began to appreciate directors like Bergman, who could keep you pinned in your seat, sometimes spending two hours merely with two characters in one room.
EH: Let’s talk about the story you chose to tell. Both the videos and the film are based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel Women Without Men. What drew you to this book?
SN: This is a very well-known novel that has been banned for many years in Iran. Parsipur herself spent five years in prison. I have always had an obsession with certain Iranian women writers, not just for their fantastic talent but also for how their lives and artistic work mirror each another.
Women Without Men is a quite beautiful but strange novel. I couldn’t have picked a more difficult book. It is written in a magic-realist style, which I was told later is perhaps the most challenging type of literature to convert into cinema. Even before I started, my advisors told me to be careful.
My attraction to the book probably stems from the fact that my own work comes out of a similar conjunction of influences. It is deeply personal and highly emotional yet equally political. Like Parsipur’s novel, everything that I have ever made concerns the intersection of contrary elements: personal/social, global/local, spiritual/ violent, masculine/feminine. My work is all about opposites and parallels. Parsipur’s tale follows the coup d’état that took place in Tehran in the summer of 1953, when Iranians struggled for political freedom against imperialism, while also tracing five women as they go on their own quests for personal freedom.