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Case Number 11326: Small Claims Court

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Women's Prison

First Run Features // 2002 // 106 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // May 3rd, 2007

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger compares and contrasts this political feminist study with Jess Franco's seminal women-in-prison film 99 Women.

Editor's Note

Our review of Bad Girls Of Film Noir: Volume 2, published February 9th, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

"Cheers for Aunti Mira!"

The Case

International film buffs live for films like Women's Prison. This raw, uncompromising movie highlights the plight of Iranian women by using prison as a metaphor for women in Iranian society. This social commentary extends to the literal level as a straightforward expose of conditions in women's prisons in Iran. Remarkably, veteran filmmaker Manijeh Hekmat is perfectly clear on both levels while retaining sympathy for her subject.

No ordinary women-in-prison film, Women's Prison is documentary-like in its dissection of prison life. Tahereh (Roya Taymourian), a devout, imperious warden who fought in the war and supports the Revolution, butts heads with Mitra (Roya Nonahali), a young midwife who killed her abusive stepfather. Over the course of three vignettes set in 1984, 1992, and 2001, the complex relationship between the warden and her spirited prisoner morphs. A key to their conflict in each time period is a trio of young prisoners, all played capably by Pegah Ahangarani. Ahangarani's trio of vulnerable delinquents represent "the changing situation of young people over the past 23 years" according to Manijeh Hekmat (as quoted in the fabulous essay "Manijeh Hekmat and Women's Prison" by Alissa Simon). As the essentially good-hearted Mitra grows ever more institutionalized, the essentially well-intentioned warden grows more cynical and harried. Yet both retain their fiery personalities and keep each other exposed to different viewpoints.

Hekmat's story is engrossing for its sheer anthropological detail. The culture of the prison changes dramatically in the three time periods, but shocks permeate each decade. Be it the emotional intensity of a prison birth, the psychological toil of sodomy, or the heart-wrenching plight of the children we watch grow up behind bars, Women's Prison spares us no pain. Next to these generation-leveling inhumanities, subtle details like the political "crimes" of each decade or proper headgear might seem insignificant. But such details bring home the massive cultural thrust of Hekmat's story.

Hekmat effortlessly bends the reality into a meta-discussion of Iranian society. Manijeh Hekmat is an ideal spokeswoman; as a veteran "assistant" director and producer, she had to lie to obtain a filming permit to make this debut feature film. By emphasizing simple facts about life in a fictitious prison, Hekmat throws the absurdity of Iran's culture into high relief. Should innocent women be denied freedom simply on the word of ruthless husbands? Should political activists be cloistered with serial rapists and hardened murderers just because they are women who speak out against an ideology? Must women cover their heads even when secluded inside a prison rampant with lice? Hekmat adroitly asks these questions and leaves little doubt about her answers.

Shot with a minimalist, astute eye, Women's Prison offers the occasional high-style still. Tahereh's black chador often merges with the blackness of the prison itself, while Mitra's shaved head is incongruously open to the sky. A woman walking her last mile leaves a trail of soil in her wake, with horrified inmates arranged in a sickle at the bottom of the frame. Sadly, First Run Features offers their usual grainy, non-anamorphic, washed-out transfer with thin, warbling sound quality. There is a brief director bio and some supplements on a DVD-ROM.

The leading trio of ladies effectively conveys a complicated emotional entanglement. With a glance or a set of her lip, Roya Taymourian expresses totalitarian impatience or periodic human connection. Roya Nonahali crafts an exhaustive character arc through posture and expression, while Pegah Ahangarani quickly sketches out three very different—but linked—characters to represent the outside world. The rest of the cast is serviceable but unremarkable.

Women's Prison succeeds as pure exploration of Iranian culture, feminism, and prison life. That it works on a highly complicated metaphorical level is a bonus. Women's Prison might be most interesting simply for being made at all and shown to the world, birthed despite the world's most oppressive culture. Don't let the lackluster DVD presentation dissuade you if you're up for a dose of sobering reality. By the time Women's Prison wraps, you'll have experienced an otherwise unknowable culture and been taken down disturbing emotional paths.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• 1.66:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Iranian)
• English (burned in)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Director Bio
• Trailers
• DVD Rom Info

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