Set amidst the political tumult of Iran’s 1953 CIA-backed coup d’état, Women Without Men is an allegorical film that follows the intersecting destinies of four disparate women as they retreat to a mystical orchard that brings them self-determination, solace and companionship. In her feature film directorial debut, Iranian-born, photographer and visual artist, Shirin Neshat, partners with Viennese cinematographer and producer, Martin Gschlacht, to visually translate Shahrnush Parsipur’s surreal novella.
When a project that he planned to shoot was postponed, Gschlacht was called to work with Neshat on her art installation, Zarin, which was based on the prostitute character from the story. An Iranian cinematographer had pulled out of the project at the last minute. Within two weeks Gschlacht was shooting both the installation and Zarin, the first episode of the film.
“Like most of the time it happened by accident,” says Gschlacht. “I knew about her work. It was an interesting offer for a cinematographer. Shiri was happy with the work I did. It was a wonderful time working with her. We decided to do the whole cinema project together.”
Gschlacht masterfully uses gradations of color to contrast the orchard refuge with the turmoil raging in the city. As the story progresses and the safety of the country retreat is breached by outside forces, the palette for the colorful oasis changes to one drained of color and life. That decision to go with a de-saturated look evolved as Gschlacht and Neshat planned the shoot.
“For me as a cinematographer the main issue was to combine the style and work that Shiri is famous for with what I call an art-house cinema film,” said Gschlacht. “Most of the things she had done are strong photographs and installations in black and white. We thought about doing the film in a mixture of black and white and color – to use the black and white for the city and do the rich color for the garden, orchard and dream sequences, but during the last two or three weeks of preparation for the film, I had the feeling it would be too much visually. So we decided to have a very high grade of de-saturation for the city and political scenes and to have partly de-saturated and partly very rich colors in the dream sequences and orchard.”
Lack of money and time kept the filmmakers from doing much in the way of special effects. One exception, the shot where Zarin is sitting among brilliantly colored flowers, was digitally enhanced. The look was primarily achieved using a regular film-grading suite. When famed cinematographer Vilmos Zigmund saw the film at the International Camera Film Festival in Bitola, Macedonia, he was so amazed by the color correction that he invited the young cinematographer to come to finalize his next film.
From the time he read the book, Gschlacht understood that a very stylized and visual metaphor would be needed in his composition. “It is a very surrealist piece of art,” reveals Gschlacht. “From the very first moment it was very clear to the both of us that we had to follow that in the visualization of the film. I tried to work it out in preparation, seeing how far we could go. It looks pretty much what I had in mind from the very beginning.
The biggest difficulty for the film was the length of the schedule. “You can answer this question always with a yes,” laughs Gschlacht. “If you shoot four weeks or twelve weeks, you always run short of shooting time. There were only seven weeks of shooting for a complicated period story that takes place in Iran. It was not only the feature that we shot. We also shot four installations for the art world covering every female character. To shoot an installation, you need other shots than in a feature.”
Because of the political climate in Iran, and the fact that the director is not allowed in the country, the film was shot in and around Morocco, including Casablanca, which resembled Tehran in the 1950s.