More shocking than any of their stories, however, is the setting for this taboo-breaking documentary -- not in decadent Berlin or Times Square -- but in a Tehran park.
The Ladies' Room ( Sept. 17, 8 p.m.) may be one of the most surreal visions of Iran yet offered in the High Museum's Iranian film series, which, for the weekend of Sept. 17-18, focuses on gender issues and three films made by women directors.
The Ladies' Room offers a vision of the schizophrenic nature of the Middle East with its mix of paternalistic protection of women and exploitation of them; a more extreme mirror on the West's own double-edged views. There are many revelations in The Ladies' Room on the order of wake-up docs like Larry Clarks' Kids and the film about Seattle homeless children, Streetwise. But Afzali's film often astounds on visuals alone, as women draped in what has become the Westerner's equivalent to a nun's habit -- head-to-foot black chadors -- complain about how the glimpse of a painted toe can get them in trouble with the religious authorities, even as they practice prostitution seemingly right beneath society's nose.
On a double bill with The Ladies' Room is another frank, albeit less earthshaking documentary, Women Like Us (), which focuses on a cross-section of Iranian women: a religious student, sheltered rich girl, farmer, journalist, defiant single woman. Director Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri is so intent on offering a diverse population of women, some of the film's content is diluted. She questions the five women on issues of the veil, the Iran-Iraq War, marriage and religion, and they give answers from the banal to the profound. As would be expected, their opinions are startlingly different, though most suggest a kind of melancholy resignation following the Revolution of 1979 and its restrictions on women's rights.
The tone is more soap opera in the engaging narrative feature The Fifth Reaction ( Sept. 18, 18 p.m.), but the film's desire to air the dirty laundry of women's issues in contemporary Iran makes it a worthy follow-up to The Ladies' Room and Women Like Us. Director Tahmineh Milani's controversial film also emphasizes the camaraderie and warmth Iranian women offer each other as solace in the face of oppression. A group of teachers happily meet for lunch to console the recently widowed Fereshteh (Niki Karimi). But the pleasantries of the afternoon soon give way to the women's frank discussion of the true nature of their relationships with their husbands: cads who take second wives, become drug addicts and cruelly restrict their wives' freedom. In a surprising rejection of the sexist underpinnings of Islam, one of the women complains, "I think surrender is the faith of us all."
What begins as a lipstick and coffee drama soon takes on a Thelma & Louise bent when Fereshteh discovers her father-in-law (Jamshid Hashempur) intends to invoke an ancient law, allowing him to take her two young sons away to be raised by his family. Fereshteh and her girlfriends hatch a plan for her escape with the boys. The widow embarks on a wild ride through the Iranian countryside often touched with humorous elements. But the film taps into a wellspring of female outrage at male claim to not only their lives, but those of their children, a deep anger Milani appears to partly mollify with the increasingly light tone.
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