The Day I Became a Woman

This morning I watched a film which I’ve been meaning to see for ages, called “The Day I Became a Woman“. It’s an Iranian film, directed by Marzieh Meshkini, and it presents three short stories, each of which describes a certain moment in a woman’s life in Iranian society.

The first story is Hava’s; Hava – having turned nine years old – is no longer allowed to play with the boys in her street who were formerly her buddies. She is now a woman; she must wear a veil; and it isn’t considered proper for her to play with her friend Hasan anymore.

The second story is Ahoo’s; Ahoo is taking part in a cycling race. Her husband pursues her on horseback, imploring her to abandon the race and to return home with him. When she refuses to turn back and continues to cycle, her husband brings a mullah along who divorces them, and then a stream of male elders and relatives harangue her, until she is eventually forced to dismount from her bicycle, whereon her brothers (I think) eventually confiscate it.

The third story is Hoora’s; Hoora is elderly and has inherited a lot of money. She enlists the help of local boys to assist her with buying all of the material things she never had during her married life. She arranges this newly acquired stuff on the beach, where she waits for a boat to come and take her away. She ties pieces of cloth on her fingers (shown at the top of this post) to remind her of all the things that she wanted when she was younger and poorer, and uses these reminders and the help of the boys to purchase new pots and pans, a washing-machine, a bath a fridge, and so on.

These stories – even just as text – say a lot about lived female experience within Iranian society; however what is really outstanding is how images and sound are used in this film to bring us closer to the realities of these women’s lives. The textures and tensions of pivotal moments for Hava, Ahoo and Hoora are vividly bought to life through the sensitive employment of environmental sounds and light; microphones and lenses linger on the things and places which variously surround, empower, and constrain them. The resulting impressions are simultaneously ordinary and monumental, and humble things – sticks, bicycles, bits of string – acquire a kind of epic, symbolic quality through how they are presented. After watching this film I will remember Hava, Ahoo and Hoora for a long time in the material details of how their stories were told, and in the ambient sounds which located them within a specific society and distinctive geographies.

Watching this film I was really struck by how time was treated throughout. The film communicates through short incidents presented fulsomely, rather than through long or complex story lines condensed artificially through jump-cuts. What this means for the soundtrack is that long, uninterrupted environmental sound recordings can add huge amounts of information and atmosphere to the main action, and music doesn’t need to signpost emotions and chivvy the stories along. The moments of these women’s lives in which important realisations are dawning on them can be heard almost in real time, and there is no syrupy music over-determining what you should be thinking or feeling in each case. This ambivalence is really refreshing; it presents the intricacies and conflicts each character experiences around heritage, tradition, identity and personhood in relation to their gender in a rich and complex way. The result is intelligent and questioning, and the film has a sort of restless sadness which shines through the precise and careful handling of the content.

There is a sparse, musical score composed by Mohammad Reza Darvishi, but this – like the sound recordings – has been done very carefully. There is a strong sense of place in the field-recordings, and the instrumentation and vocal arrangements in the music reflect this; where the sounds used in the soundtrack speak of the distinctive geographies where each story is set, the music locates the film culturally, utilising vocal styles and instruments distinctive to Iran. (Mohammend Reza Darvishi’s extraordinary accomplishments include writing an Encyclopedia of the Musical Instruments of Iran as well as being a musician and composer.)

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Hava’s ambivalence towards “becoming a woman” is conveyed through the image of her measuring time with a stick placed in the sand. When she learns she must wear a veil from now on, and not play with the boys in the streets, she pleads to be allowed out to play for just one last time, reasoning that since she as born at noon, she won’t technically be nine until noon, so it would probably be OK for her to go out playing at 11am, to enjoy her last hour of girlhood. Her Grandmother begrudgingly grants her this hour of freedom, teaching her that when the stick casts no shadow, the sun is in the centre of the sky, which means it’s noon, and she must return to the house and enter the new phase of her life.

Her last hour as a girl is spent mostly trying to engage her friend Hasan in play. He has been locked indoors by his sister and told to do his homework. Being nine, he is I think unclear of the momentous ramifications of missing this important and never-to-be-repeated time with Hava, and doesn’t seem to understand her growing anguish as the shadow cast by her stick dwindles. Hava and Hasan end up sharing a lollipop through the bars of his locked window; they pass it back and forth and the photography lingers on Hava’s glistening black hair, while the microphone rests on the innocent sounds of the children passing the lolly back and forth and loudly, unselfconsciously taking turns sucking on it. We know Hava’s hair will later be covered with a veil and never shown again in public, and that sharing sweets with a boy is being transfigured by the laws of Hava’s society into something which – after these last moments of girlhood – will be seen in the future as sinful and transgressive.

Somehow hearing the sound that takes place while which this societal reconfiguration is occurring in Hava’s life is poignant, and listening to the uncomfortable sucking sound of that sticky lolly passing back and forth between shy, laughing hands, it is hard to imagine that any composed music could produce anything comparably complex or so uncomfortably tactile.

Ahoo says very little; the camera focuses on her face and the myriad emotions that pass across it while she participates in a cycle race, under increasing pressure from male relatives and tribal leaders to give up this activity and return to her husband and her home. The scene begins with Ahoo’s husband riding furiously through the arid landscape on his sweat-slaked horse, his loud calls for “AHOO” startling nearby deer away, and delineating him at once as a sort of hunter. Eventually he reaches a large group of women clad head to toe in black and cycling silently, the only sounds being the occasional breathy sounds of their physical effort, and the spinning pedals of their bicycles. Ahoo’s husband shouts at her in a disturbing monologue; “why don’t you come home/why are you being rebellious/I told you not to come on this race/I will divorce you” his menacing, domineering stance underscored by the relentless rhythm of his horse’s hooves. The scene unfolds with carefully orchestrated field-recordings reflecting the inner, emotional landscapes of the characters involved; the more avidly Ahoo is pursued, the more determinedly she cycles and the faster her wheels spin. The sound holds a kind of fragile triumph as she repeatedly outraces her pursuers, yet also seems to grow more tired from the effort this takes in the scorching sun. As her husband is joined first by a mullah, then by other male relatives and leaders (also on horseback) the sounds of the horses’ hooves grow ever louder, a din which threatens both Ahoo’s freedom and her ability to participate in the race. Silently, she continues to ride her bicycle, the loud pedaling becoming somehow symbolic of a wish to not only to remain in the race, but to break free from the constraints which threaten to overwhelm her.

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In the inevitable show-down between Ahoo and her male pursuants, a very disturbing sound comes from a rival cyclist listening to music on her headphones. We hear her music as she hears it, in bursts that bluntly cut us off – as she is cut off – from all the drama happening in this moment for Ahoo. Because of the music, she cannot hear or comprehend the conflicting sounds of the bicycle vs. the horses. The rival cyclist is therefore oblivious to the significance of what is occurring. Nothing in this film is sadder for me than this sonic blindness, and the way that the headphone music blasting into the rival cyclist’s ears renders her insensible to the sufferings of her comrade. It is a lonely and unsporting moment.

I cannot imagine a piece of music which could express the isolation of Ahoo more poignantly than this grainy bit of in-headphones-pop-music on her rival cyclist’s headphones.

(I love this photo which shows the horses’ hooves being recorded during production.)

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Hoora’s story creates an extraordinary tableau; the new domestic appliances and objects purchased with her inheritance pile up on the beach where she awaits a ship to transport her and all the swag away. There is some sense of triumph in her decision to buy all these items for herself having gone without for so many years, but the act also seems weirdly selfish and redundant, as some younger women (from Ahoo’s cycle race) question her need for so many things, and disrespectfully observe that since they are not yet married, their need for these items is greater than hers. The emptiness and ineffectual nature of Hoora’s massive spending spree is best expressed in the sounds of the shopping centre. We see the large plate glass windows and hear the shiny surfaces of this place where human voices are dimmed by the acoustics to a gentle hubbub. There is a massive contrast here between the sterile, glittering palace of commerce described in the sound recordings, and the worn scraps of fabric tied around Hoora’s fingers, representing her earthly desires.

With a washing machine, fridge and sofas scattered about, the beach takes on a skeletal domestic quality and the sense of a home bared to the elements and without protective walls. Despite her longing to own all these things, Hoora is still ambivalent about her relationship with them, and wants to return a teapot which is transparent and which she deems to be shameless and unfit for her kitchen – “my [old] teapot is better”. While she revisits the shop to return the offending item, the boys who have helped her to buy and organise all her things play havoc with them, jubilantly singing and dancing with the pots and pans, stuffing their faces with the fridge’s contents, dragging the bath into the sea to play with it, and doing their laundry in her washing machine.

There is a confidence and entitlement in their innocent play which one senses Hoora will never herself enjoy; the merry din of the pots and pans being struck with ladles and spoons forms a soundtrack for the boys’ antics as they parade in Hoora’s old Wedding dress, paint their faces with her makeup, and splash in her bath which they have dragged down to the roaring surf.

It is the sound of a boyish freedom which Hoora will never experience. We listen to this sound and watch the related schadenfreude, having enough time to comprehend the many layers of meaning folded within the scene.

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Quietness and order is restored when Hoora returns, and a rush to get all her things onto rafts follows. The boys are helping her to reach a ship; the tide is too low for it to come right into land, and so she must attempt to reach it further out at sea. There is something precarious in the spectacle of those household objects strapped onto floats with the water lapping quietly around them and Hoora seated in their midst.

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The sounds of the water and the repeated references to the tide recall the fragile sense of time in Hava’s last hour as a girl, before womanhood eclipsed her youth, and indeed Hava stands rather seriously on the shore in this scene, watching Hoora’s bizarre drift to sea from under her new chador, with a new seriousness, as if witnessing a formal rite of passage.

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I have been left by this film with a rich collection of thoughts and impressions, and my head will ring for days with sounds of bicycle mechanisms, lollipops, surf, heat, horses hooves’ and the hollow tones of the shopping mall where Hoora went to try and buy back some part of her life.

There is much to think about here, and – happily – much space left by the film-makers to think in.

The whole crew who worked on this have really allowed unprocessed location sounds to become part of how events are remembered, and how stories are told; they have approached musical compositions and field-recordings as the very voices of the place where the film is set. You can read about the whole production team here, but I want to do a shout out here for the Sound Designers for this film – Behrouz Shahamat and Abbas Rastgarpour – for doing such a beautiful job of bringing the worlds of Hava, Ahoo and Hoora alive through sound. I love how the sounds mix seamlessly with the music composed for this film, and how the work with sounds supports the Director’s aims for the film.

Lastly I wanted to share with you this amazing photo of Marzieh Meshkini on the film set, and a quote from her providing a context for this wonderful film she has made:

“The Day I Became a Woman” depicts the position of women for whom gender poses a social problem. The film focuses on the lives of women who are imprisoned in the house, not because they are hated but because they are loved – women who have to forego emotional attachments in order to win individual independence and active social positions.”

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3 Responses to The Day I Became a Woman

  1. Diane says:

    Thanks for sharing this.
    I bought this DVD a few years ago.
    These are truly lovely and touching short films.
    I think the story of the bikers is ever so powerful :
    the sounds and images left a great impression on me.

    • Thanks for commenting, Diane. Lovely to hear from you, as ever!

      I think the bike race story is the most memorable of the three short stories, and the sounds and images do, as you say, stay with you for a long time.

      I can still hear the dry high hiss of the desert and see the inscrutable set of Ahoo’s face as she powers forward. Something amazing happens when I watch it, too; the sound of horses hooves takes on a really threatening quality. It’s so beautifully conceived, this film… and I was so excited to find something which uses environmental, ambient sounds to such a powerful effect.

  2. jeannette Smyth says:

    a beautiful, well-written, thoughtful review, thank you. i am almost unable now to watch movies/TV with theme music, so intrusive — as this gifted director suggests — has it become. it’s so enlightening to hear a sonic review of mindful audio, thank you.

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