Two days ago, Ghoncheh Ghavami was released on bail from prison in Tehran after five months of incarceration, when health complications arose due to a hunger strike. Her crime: having attended a male volleyball game. In October, four Iranian women had acid thrown in their faces for not being properly veiled. Also in October, Reyhaneh Jabbari, who had allegedly stabbed a man in self-defense while he sexually assaulted her, was executed by hanging. In Iran, death by stoning, albeit very rare, is still a permissible punishment for adultery. Yet in Iran, over 60 percent of university students are women. More than 70 percent of engineering and science majors are women. Oh, but also, in 2012, 36 universities in Iran banned women from 77 courses. In April, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, “We will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination.” A few days later, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that gender equality was “one of the biggest mistakes of the Western thought.”
On Friday, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, a semi-Iranian film about a female vampire who predominantly attacks men who have exploited women, was released in the US. It’s quite clear that women’s rights are an extremely murky issue, still, in Iran. It is not a country without protest or progress on the issue, and it is a place where women do vocally come forth and fight for agency. For that very reason, it’s hard, in watching A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, not to politicize its confluence of heavily loaded symbols. And it’s also hard not to see the film as a weak, if hypnotic, Lynch-meets-Jarmusch-meets-who-cares-meets-Silverlake pastiche if you don’t.
Yet Gawker published an interview in which director Ana Lily Amirpour, whose background is Iranian but who grew up in California, when asked if her film was “feminist,” replied, “Personally, I find that these philosophies are the disease for which they claim to be the cure. I am afraid of categorization in general.” In the same interview, Amirpour stated one of the fundamental purposes the film served for her: “I hate death… I hate it, I don’t want to do it. I also don’t like old. I don’t care how many fuckin’ Ansel Adams photos you take of old people and try to tell me it’s beautiful. It smells bad and shit’s failing. You’re rotting inside yourself, inside your own body. That’s what it is, in my opinion.” Now I wish I hadn’t read the interview, and am tempted to ignore it, because this film reads as so much more than a love affair with seemingly gerontophobic myths of immortality. Ultimately, as Amirpour also says in her interview, “people tend to see themselves in films. It’s the same way that a song makes you feel the way you feel. You feel that because it’s stuff you have in you, not necessarily the songwriter.”
On the poster, and in the film, the lead character, Girl — the perpetrator of mass murders that are displayed not-at-all-clandestinely in a pit just outside the Iranian/Californian town of Bad City — wears a chador. It should be noted that the chador, outside the film, has come to symbolize the shift in Iran’s gender politics since the 1979 revolution; those who sported religious garb were looked down upon before the fall of the Shah. Wearing a hijab or a chador actually inhibited women’s ability to climb the social ladder before the Revolution. As the Revolution gathered momentum (and in the beginning, it was just as much a populist movement, a form of rebellion against the Shah’s autocracy, as a religious one), women often wore the chador as a means of protest. It was even adopted by women who wouldn’t have formerly opted to wear it: it was seen as a statement in favor of a superior form of equality, for the agency to express oneself religiously. But as the Islamic Republic settled rapidly into a politics of gender inequality, the chador became seen, especially in the West, as the indication of a right that was taken away.
By dressing her central character in a chador-like garment, and coupling this image with the movie’s heavy reliance on Western cinematic tropes and a setting Bakersfield, CA, the filmmaker disrupts her Western audience’s knee-jerk reaction to the symbol. She sets the film in a vaguely Western (as in the film genre) environment, inviting the interest of a Western audience, then asks them to consider exactly how they consider the chador as a symbol. Because of our country’s complicated, often highly prejudiced affiliations with Islam, the chador automatically reflects our own condescending ideas about victimization. The fact that she’s the “Girl” walking home “alone,” but is also the predator, speaks to America’s strange tendency to read the chador as a symbol of both victimization and threat: the fearfulness of the shrouded “vampiric” figure also makes us consider Islamophobia.
But the film very quickly and very blatantly suggests the chador as a symbol of empowerment. Girl is not pious in the traditional sense: she’s a vampire, and there’s a piousness to her vampirism. She has a series of rules and codes she’s seemed to set for herself. She’s rigid in her morality, only inflicting pain and death on those who’ve done wrong by women (except the one time she breaks her own rules, while hungry, and feeds off a homeless man). The film therefore also suggests a re-appropriation of the chador as symbol — perhaps a return to its nature as a protest symbol, and a protest symbol that can simultaneously symbolize a tenet of Islam.
The film likewise boldly protests the censorship imposed on Iranian filmmakers. While censorship laws have greatly declined since the Iranian government realized the economic value of domestically made films, filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami’s works are banned in the country. Perhaps you’ll recall how Jafar Panahi, who was banned from filmmaking for 20 years, and who was under house arrest, smuggled his documentary, This Is Not a Film, out of his home on a flash drive hidden in a birthday cake. By filming the whole movie in Farsi and employing a predominantly Iranian cast, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night seems to raise a fat middle finger to censorship laws, making a film whose implied audience is Iranian, but whose existence would never be condoned in the country itself.
The film (which is, after all, presented by Vice) focuses on and mythologizes the beauty and alienated youth of its two leads in a rather conventional fashion — they’re bad-ass outcasts who find each other! They’re young! Their youth sultrily ricochets off of both of them to create tingling chemistry, especially when set to a delightfully vintage soundtrack! But, ultimately, I’d much rather read into its seemingly complex way of re-imagining Iranian gender politics, and also re-imagining the way Western audiences think about the symbols that go along with them, than to accept it as the gerontophobic ode to being young, attractive, and into good music that Amirpour claims it is.