Real to Reel 

The U of M presents "Women, War & the Art of Resistance."

Screening one time only this week as part of the University of Memphis' ongoing "Women, War & the Art of Resistance" project, Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani's Two Women (not to be confused with the Vittorio De Sica film of the same title) is another compelling missive from what has become over the past decade or so one of the world's most fertile film scenes.

A scene from Two Women

According to varying reports, it took Milani seven years to obtain approval for the script from Iranian censors, yet the filmmaker was still arrested by her country's "Revolutionary Council" and charged by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Court with using her films to support "counter-revolutionary grouplets." Milani faced execution in 2001 but was eventually released after the intervention of Iranian president Mohammad Khatami and an international declaration of solidarity signed by many members of the world's film community.

Like many recent Iranian films, the deceptively simple Two Women can be seen as an allegory for the state of modern Iran. The film opens in the present as Tehranian professional woman Roya (Marila Zarei) receives a phone call from old college friend Fereshteh (Niki Karimi), whose husband is in the hospital. As Roya drives to the smaller town where Fereshteh lives, Fereshteh's story is told through flashbacks from the perspective of each woman.

The two women meet in math class, where Roya struggles but Fereshteh flourishes. The two become fast friends when Roya hires Fereshteh to tutor her, though they don't have much in common. Roya comes from a liberal, well-off background. The brilliant Fereshteh comes from a more modest and rural background and clearly sees college as a way out. "If you were born in America or England, you'd be doing cartwheels at Harvard or Oxford right now," Roya marvels. To which Fereshteh demurs: "Then it's good that I was born in Iran, because I don't like cartwheels."

The limits Fereshteh faces become clear when she is harassed by a stalker seeking her hand in marriage. When the stalker's advances turn violent, Fereshteh is accused by her father of "disgracing the family" and is forced to leave college and return home, where an even more unfortunate turn of events forces her to choose between jail or an arranged marriage, which ends up to be not much of a choice.

Some might see the title Two Women as misleading, since the film focuses on Fereshteh, but the symbolic value of the juxtaposition is crucial. As in so many modern Iranian films, this seemingly personal story is symbolic of larger societal concerns. Royaembodies the possibilities of modern, liberating forces. Fereshteh, forced into a domestic prison, embodies the potential of a society that is never allowed to flourish. And this subtle condemnation of life under patriarchal and theocratic rule explains why the ayatollahs found Milani to be so dangerous.

Also showing this week as part of the "Women, War & the Art of Resistance" project are a couple of hour-length documentaries. In the Lebanese film The Women of Hezbollah, filmmaker Maher Abi-Samra ventures into a rarely seen world, focusing on two women involved in the controversial resistance and/or terrorist organization that has found favor among Lebanon's Shiite community.

The attitude of the film neither endorses nor condemns Hezbollah itself, but it does look on in wonderment that mothers would accept, and even encourage, their sons' martyrdom in suicide attacks.

The other documentary that will be screened is No Man's Land: Women Frontline Journalists, an engaging film that explores the lives of women war correspondents on the frontlines of conflicts from WWII to Bosnia. The central subject is American reporter Janine di Giovanni, who covers Sarajevo for London's Sunday Times, and Lyse Doucet, who covers Afghanistan (this is before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001) for the BBC. The film explores the role of empathy in war reportage and how that differs between men and women and the tough life choices (generally no marriages and no children) that reporters on the frontlines face.

The film series is part of "Women, War & the Art of Resistance," a year-long project produced by the Center for Research on Women, the Women's Studies program, and the Women's Consciousness Raising Group at the University of Memphis. Two Women will be screened 7 p.m. Thursday, February 19th, at Studio on the Square. The Women of Hezbollah and No Man's Land will be screened at 2 p.m. Saturday, February 21st, at the Power House art space in the South Main Arts District. All screenings are free and open to the public.

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