The first image in director Marziyeh Meshkini’s The Day I Became a Woman is a makeshift raft’s empty mast – two sticks tied together without a sail filmed against a cloudless blue sky. But the film soon weaves its own sail with a touching plot and beautiful scenery.
Meshkini’s episodic tale of three Iranian women is a fresh, powerful shot of wind, sending the audience on a journey far from the man-bashing Thelma and Louise stereotypes of feminism. Meshkini’s depiction of the first taste of womanhood, however bitter or sweet it may be, leads rather than pushing the viewer down the unpredictable path each character must travel.
The journey begins when the round-faced, show-stealing Havva (Fatemeh Cheragh Akhtar), learns that turning nine years old means she can no longer play with her friends. Havva’s grandmother (Ameneh Passand) and mother (Shahr Banou Sisizadeh) tell Havva it is her day to “become a woman,” meaning she must trade in her toys for a floor-length black shawl that covers the head and limbs of most Iranian women. And instead of playing with boys she must avoid them.
Havva pleads for her grandmother to let her play until noon – the official time she turns nine. An emotional whirlwind descends upon the young Havva as her last hour of childhood whittles away.
The next story follows Ahoo (Shabnam Toloui), a competitor in a women’s bicycle race. The determined Ahoo pedals onward as her husband (Cyrus Kahouri Nejad), rides alongside her on horseback, threatening divorce if she refuses to get off her bike and come home. Her friends and in-laws also pursue Ahoo as her black shawl stretches out with the wind. Ahoo pushes herself farther along the island’s coastline, traveling farther from her obligations as a woman.
The final story is that of Houra (Azizeh Seddighi), an elderly woman who travels by airplane to Kish Island, a blue-skied, white-sand setting in Iran where each of the three stories takes place. Houra hires a local boy to push her around in a wheelchair and help her on a shopping spree for things many people her age already own: a queen-sized bed, teapot, gas stove and lipstick. These are things she never had the chance to own.
Set entirely in Kish, the movie is a visual delight. The bare-boned beach setting and plain-speaking characters create a subversive simplicity and uniqueness that make the movie a joy to watch. When Ahoo rides her bike along the ocean, the waves break violently, adding to the internal tension she feels. When Houra, the elderly woman, sets up her newly acquired possessions on the beach, each object is starkly outlined against the skyline. The beauty of the possessions pale to the beauty of nature itself.
The performances, mostly by amateur actors, are as pure and untainted as the island’s blue sky and white sands. Seddighi is captivating as Houra. It is hard to take your eyes away from hers, as they widen at the sight of each new thing she buys and squint as she tries to remember what she’s truly searching for. The youngest star, Cheragh Akhtar, who plays Havva, and Kahouri Nejad – one of the movie’s few professional actors – who plays Ahoo, both exude innocence and desperation with deftness and subtlety.
If it were not for first-time director Meshkini’s vision and a script written by her husband, noted Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf’s (Gabbeh, Tales of Kish), the talented rookie actors would have little to work with.
The Day I Became a Woman possesses a unique and subdued grace. There is little music in the film, but when it comes, it hits like the quick beating of an excited heart. There is a fable-like magic to the film, and it does something that most movies today have trouble doing: it tells a story.
Showing April 6 at the Cineplex Odeon Foundry as an entry in the Georgetown theater’s biannual Shooting Gallery Film Series, The Day I Became a Woman invites American film audiences to an area of the world they may have only seen in newscasts.
The film looks under the black veils of three women from Iran, and watches as they become important by simply being themselves. It watches them live and travel along each path they face. This film is both the beginning and end of something. It is a journey; and it is wonderful.
The Day I Became a Woman is now in theaters