You’re not allowed to know the Iranian Woman. Not truly, anyway—not personally, and don’t even think about intimately. Not in public. In public, you must treat her with “respect,” which apparently means pretending she doesn’t exist—you mustn’t make eye contact. As a female tourist in Iran, you spend all your hours outside, walking, breathing pollution, baking in the sun and avoiding half the population because they happen to be of the other gender. It takes some getting used to, to say the least. Then you step into the Iranian Woman’s apartment; off comes the headscarf or chador, and with it a whole psychological barrier of repression, the face she must wear to avoid being hassled by the Basij. Forget the lipstick she wore today; it’s her body language she must learn to control, much more dangerous than those few centimeters of Dion red-orange bloom.
Under the protection of her family’s roof, the Iranian Woman’s smile is breezy and genuine, and you’re happy you’re there to see it. Her lipstick: now innocuous, a random, pretty detail. She takes a deep breath and laughs, telling you to make yourself at home while she prepares the afternoon tea, not passing up the chance to gossip about the cantankerous neighbor whom you encountered in the hallway. She briefly leaves the room and you may take a second to get over yourself, relief awash, body overtaken by giddiness. Releasing your pent-up emotion makes you feel downright silly; you’re not quite sure what to instruct your facial muscles to do and you figure you’re downright grotesque to look at right now, and all because you’re embarrassed by the intimacy of what is otherwise a completely normal moment. There is no discernible reason why such moments must feel so awkward, so overtly intimate. But given the circumstances—when life in the private sphere and the public sphere has been forced into an Us-vs-Them binary, when the private moments are so enriched with freedom and expression and communication—it’s no wonder that, occasionally, upon re-entering reality, actually talking to the Iranian Woman is almost too much to bear. You’re a preadolescent shoplifter shushing your BFF’s giggles, braving your best poker face as the mall cop walks by. This is what it feels like to step into her house. Every. Single. Day.
There is only one public space left for the Iranian Woman where she might feel as free as she does now, at 4:15 p.m., in her warm kitchen with the fragrant herbs on the window sill, where she makes you the strong dark red tea you like so much. Yes, it’s a public space, but only technically public, because strangers sit beside each other, but they do not look at each another. Nor do they speak to each another. There is little acknowledgement that other people even exist, for all attention is focused on a screen in front of them. The movie theatre. The Iranian Woman can be herself in the movie theatre. As the movie’s ingénue travels the last leg of her journey to the city where her lover is imprisoned, the Iranian Woman forgets about the physical space around her, the redolent floral perfume of someone near, chewing gum still squishy with saliva wadded-up under her seat, the air-conditioned temperature of the theatre—several degrees too cold—her bum numb from ergonomically unfriendly seats that have seen better days and better bums. Like in her cozy kitchen, where the Iranian Woman can hum any tune at any volume to her heart’s content, the theatre allows a modicum of freedom where she can completely immerse herself in a reality that is not hers, that of the embracing, diegetic world of film.
In the end we have gained only an acute understanding of the emotional reactions of these unidentified Iranian Women to a melodramatic love story—which is exactly what Kiarostami wants us to understand.
What does film do to us? For Jean-Louis Baudry, the cinema is an apparatus; it can be conceptualized ideologically, like Althusser; metaphysically, like Plato and his Cave; and psychoanalytically, like Freud’s dream screen. In The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema, Baudry compares Plato’s prisoners in the Cave to the movie spectator, who temporarily accepts the images in front of her as real, even more real than real. She is not the chained, poor feral creature that is Plato’s cave prisoner, because after two hours she can leave the cinema, grab a cup of coffee, and cognitively she will understand that the visual advertisement for the coffee and the cup she holds in the hand are two very different things. But during those two hours, her conception of reality oscillates between that of her physical being in space, and that of being completely absorbed into the film. This impression of reality so uncanny in the moving image is exactly what attracts us to it, says Baudry, and he takes it one step further to suggest that this desire for an impression of reality is actually Freudian in nature, for we are actually trying to return to the dream state, to the unconscious state, to Freud’s oral phase. When we dream, our logical faculties are powered off to let us hallucinate; when we watch movies, our logical faculties let us follow the narrative, but occasionally we let them go and almost believe the film is real—especially when emotion overtakes us.
Abbas Kiarostami made Shirin because he understood that the true face of the Iranian Woman could only be filmed in the movie theatre. Kiarostami makes us watch several different Iranian women (and Juliette Binoche, wearing a headscarf) as they themselves watch a film adaptation of the ancient Persian love story Khosrow and Shirin. We never get to see this film, though we do get to hear its theatrical tawdriness. This goes on for 90 minutes, and in the end we have gained only an acute understanding of the emotional reactions of these unidentified Iranian Women to a melodramatic love story—which is exactly what Kiarostami wants us to understand. Iranian directors filming scenes in the private sphere must begrudgingly ask their actresses to keep their chadors on, despite the fact that most Iranian women take them off the second they step through the door. This has made directors, including Kiarostami, refuse making films involving domestic scenes. It’s unrealistic. And so the Iranian Woman remains unknowable. In the Kiarostami-verse, this was true even before the revolution—most of his films are oriented around male youth experiences. The Iranian Woman is nothing more than a reticent smile in most Kiarostami features. But in the 2000s, the director tried something new. The strong female lead in Ten spends the entire film in Kiarostami’s favorite film setting, the car—which can be argued as liminal private and public space, because she must wear the chador and yet is free to argue passionately with her son.
With Shirin, Kiarostami goes wayside experimental, but the film is actually a secret protest, a subtle critique of the onscreen chador. We get to know the Iranian Woman in the movie theatre in a similar fashion that we would get to know her in her home, where she is free to express her emotions as she sees fit. The Iranian Woman is not hallucinating or unconscious but fully immersed in the film, ignoring the camera, her emotion more easily read than the top letters of an eye exam. It’s a cynical portrayal of the onscreen chador. We may get to know the Iranian Woman in public, Kiarostami tells us, but only silently, by proxy, lopsidedly, and solely through facial expression. Technically, the Iranian Woman doesn’t have to hide her true self, but only if the world in which she is engrossed is nothing more than a hallucination, an impression of reality.