[Movie Review] Women's Prison -- A Film Analogy of Post-Revolutionary Iran

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Women's Prison, the first feature film directed by Manijeh Hekmat (2002), presents the incarceration of women from all walks of life in post-Revolutionary Iran as a microcosm of the larger society. The film centers around the changing relationship between the dour, pious warden and a prisoner whose crime was killing an abusive stepfather. The film spans close to twenty years and is divided into three acts: the first is set around 1984, four years after the Revolution and during the Iran/Iraq war; the second act is set in 1992 when the country is slipping into severe poverty coupled with a psycho-social malaise that is raising questions about "Islamic reforms"; and the final act, set in 2001, after Khatami's attempt to soften the repressive regime.

As the film opens, the new warden (Tahareh) arrives right after a riot over the horrendous conditions in the prison. She promises improvement but it becomes clear immediately that improvement will not come until she "breaks" the spirits of the women she sees as the ringleaders of the prison's problems. This brings her into immediate conflict with Mitra -- awaiting a murder trial that never comes due to the backlog in the court system. Other characters -- including three different ones (played by the director's own daughter) appearing in each of the three acts of the film -- enrich the plot by allowing us to see the complex relationships that develop in the prison and the increasing effects of the failure of the Revolution.

Women's Prison functions on many symbolic levels. The setting -- the prison itself -- is transformed throughout the film and in some ways is barely recognizable in the final act as the chaotic prison overturned by rioting in the opening act. In 1984 the prison is dirty and infested with lice, with broken plumbing, no heat, little food that is not spoiled and virtually no comforts. By 1991 we see the prison facility has improved but it is now overcrowded and experiencing fights, drug abuse, same-sex rape and suicide. And in the final act, the film is so overcrowded with women incarcerated for seemingly any offense and legal system that can no longer keep up with the numbers of women being moved through it. The stasis of the courts becomes a metaphor for the implosion of Iranian society that seems inevitable.

The characters add another symbolic dimension to the film. Taherah is strong but colorless in the opening act, contrasted with the defiant and passionate Mitra. Over time, Mitra is "tamed" and Taherah is beaten down by the problems created by the stagnant governmental bureaucracy. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Taherah picks up a red lipstick that has been confiscated in a shakedown and applies it in front of a mirror, touching her face and seemingly not recognizing her embellished appearance.

Babies are born. Older children are sent to orphanages as they grow up. As time marches on -- in their lives and in the film's three acts -- so do blindfolded women go to their deaths as they are taken from the prison to the gallows. Their crimes are not clear and yet it doesn't seem to matter. What we do see is that the executions don't seem to be having the desired effect -- which is seemingly in part to reduce crime in the society, because the prison just keeps getting more crowded, its social problems multiplying ten-fold.

Women's Prison isn't a happy film -- in fact, it was banned by the Iranian government upon its release -- but it is a thought provoking film. It is an Iranian view of the declining situation in the so-called Islamic Republic that begs to question if you can imprison a whole society and still be considered a revolutionary success.