WOMEN’S PRISON (Manijeh Hekmat, 2002)

The place, we are told, is without hot water and is crawling with lice. It is so dark inside the Iranian prison depicted in Manijeh Hekmat’s strong though not quite powerful Zendan-e zanan that the female inmates seem buried alive. Their heavy garments, in nearly all cases covering everything but a trace of face, add to this suffocating impression, along with the black and browns that dominate the film’s palette. When a prisoner is released into the street at the film’s conclusion, it comes as a shock that she and the others were all so close to urban life all the time.
     Farid Mostafavi’s script is very contrived. It covers eighteen years, all post-Islamic Revolution, from which three are selected—1984, 1992, 2001—to provide episodes that encapsulate the prisoner’s progress of midwife Mitra, incarcerated for killing her abusive stepfather, in relation to her sister inmates and the initially vicious warden, who over time perhaps begins to rue her gung-ho participation in the Revolution. Mitra exemplies a feminist independence and spirited pursuit of self-determination that the Revolution crushed under the weight of its imposition of shariah law, in a sense making of all Iranian women and girls prisoners of the state. One point of contrivance: an in-prison birth that Mitra handles results in an inmate’s daughter who is herself incarcerated there seventeen years hence.
     This film, then, is more adept visually than it is dramatically, and one wonders why Hekmat didn’t strengthen her cinematic hand by veering more sharply toward a pseudodocumentary presentation. Still, the prison’s dungeon-like environment, with its ironically dreamy, semi-delirious, sensuous dark colors, vividly projects a politically charged world-inside-the-world. Ripping through this is an all-too-real event: the sexual assault and suicide of an inmate—a tragedy that Mitra tries her best to divert.

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