Three stages of womanhood in Marzieh Makhamalbaf’s triptych ‘The Day I Became a Woman’

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Through three vignettes— told through a series of powerfully simple images— writer and director Marzieh Makhamalbaf explores womanhood in Iran, complete with its yearnings and losses. The stories are so sparse and well crafted that I feel haunted by them still. (AEL: 4.5/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Amelie Lasker

This triptych was Marzieh Makhmalbaf’s first feature film. The stories, taking place in one Iranian seaside town, show three characters with complicated relationships to their womanhood. The first shows a little girl finding out what it means to be a woman. The second illuminates a wife furiously tries to escape her family. And the third highlights an older woman celebrating having aged out of the restrictions of being a wife. The movie begins and ends on images of tiny sailboats, ones made by young boys out of barrels and scrap wood. At any moment, one of the women might simply get on and float away from it all.

The title story really got me. A little girl, “Hava” (Fatemeh Cherag Akhar), wakes up on her ninth birthday. Her friend, “Hassan” (Hassan Nebhan), wants her to come out and play, but her grandmother (Ameneh Passand) won’t let her. She’s a woman today, her grandmother explains, and she can’t play outside freely anymore, especially not with boys. Hava’s mother (Shahr Banou Sisizadeh) and grandmother measure a headscarf for her small head and shoulders, two older generations bestowing and imposing womanhood on the younger. But Hava just wants to play. Since she was born at noon, her grandmother agrees that she can go outside for one last hour until she is officially nine years old.

Time moves painfully in this story. The hour passes too fast, but it’s filled with excruciating pauses: Hava lingering in a doorway as her mother calls her over and over; Hassan delaying coming out to play because he has to do his homework.

Makhmalbaf’s skill as a storyteller shines in her ability to condense meaning into an image or snippet of dialogue. Each of Hava’s child-like enjoyments stands out in this extraordinary context because it very well may be the last: borrowing a fish toy from some boys at the beach, sharing a lollipop with Hassan. Hava has a branch to use as a sundial so she can tell when noon comes. She keeps putting the stick on the ground and watching the shadow shrink. It’s one of the most affecting images I can remember ever seeing.

The following two stories have premises that are just as emotionally resonant as heartbreakingly simple. In the second vignette, a crowd of women race on bikes. Their headscarves and dresses flow in the wind as they rush over the sandy road. Over what seems like hours, men on horses catch up to the bikes, shouting at one woman—“Ahoo” (Shabnam Toloui). Her husband demands she get off and come back to the family; he even brings an officiant who divorces her while they’re still in motion, and still, she keeps going. She speeds forward, getting visibly exhausted. Surrounded by the pack, it feels like she’s winning, but when she’s out alone ahead of the race, her pedaling feels increasingly futile. 

The third vignette is more light-hearted. An older, widowed woman, “Hoora” (Zazizeh Sedighi), wants to spend her inheritance on all the things she “never got to have.” She shops around a mall in a wheelchair pushed by a young boy (Badr Iravani). She’s reveling in this activity, expressing fondness for him, imagining that he could be her grandson. Eventually, she has so many purchases that a whole team of boys is needed to follow her with loaded carts.

As the stories accumulate, I find myself wondering if they’re all the same woman at different stages of her life. Then, in the last vignette, the previous protagonists reappear. The little girl watches the older woman with all her items, perhaps considering her own future; some young women, the biker’s peers, recount her story with a kind of admiration. A sense of community of women forms as they watch and advise each other navigating womanhood.

© Amelie Lasker (11/16/20) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Shabnam Toloui as “Ahoo.”

Middle Photo: Fatemeh Cherag Akhar as “Hava.”

Bottom Photo: Zazizeh Sedighi as “Hoora.”

Photo Credits: Maysam Makhamalbaf

Q: Does The Day I Became a Woman pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes.

In the first story, the mother and grandmother talk to Hava about womanhood itself: they tell her what she needs to do and why it’s so important.

Tags: FF2 Media, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film

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Amelie Lasker
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Amelie Lasker joined FF2 Media in early 2016 after graduating from Columbia University where she studied English and history. She has written plays and had readings for Columbia’s student-written theatre company Nomads, edited the blog for Columbia’s film journal Double Exposure, and worked on film crews and participated in workshops at Columbia University Film Productions. She spent junior year abroad at Cambridge University, where she had many opportunities for student playwrights to see their work produced. 
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