SOUND BITE | Women Without Men

Noise as narrative. By Louis Rogers


Women Without Men begins only with sound: the Adhaan (the Islamic call to prayer) splitting the darkness. Then the film cuts to its opening shot: the stark silhouette of a woman – Munis, one of its four protagonists – against a fierce blue sky. Beneath the Adhaan, the distant roar of protestors becomes subtly but unmistakably audible. From these first moments, director Shirin Neshat deploys sound with a consummate precision that betrays her background in installation art. In this intricately woven film, it is the aural layers above all which unite the narrative strands in both harmony and dissonance, and which transport the film between lyricism and atmospheric abstraction.

As many critics observed, Women Without Men treads a distinctive line between realism and fantasy. Underscoring this delicate balance is its compelling juxtaposition of visuals and sound: the cinematography is desaturated and washed-out – alternately suggesting sun-stained historical documents and feverish hallucinations – while the sound design is lush and vivid: birdsong, prayer, roaring crowds, rushing water, clinking crockery, wailing mourners. They sound hyperreal against the drained and ethereal images. Neshat often guides our focus with this disjunct between sound and image: a dazzling cut to a domed ceiling flooded with light is revealed, gradually, to belong to a bathhouse as the echoing ambience of water, bodies and talk fade in. Then, when Zarin (another protagonist) begins to scrub herself obsessively, those sounds disappear as Neshat zooms in sonically on nothing but the almost unbearable rasping of hard cloth on skin.

It is sound – both its presence and absence – that drives the narrative: Munis listens avidly to news of the US-backed coup on the radio, and its confiscation finally prompts her suicide; Munis’s whispering voice guides Faezeh to the place where she is buried; and Fakhri’s passion for singing is emblematic first of her new-found freedom and then, melancholically, of the world about to be lost to authoritarian rule. These moments, in concert with the subtle, propulsive sound design and judiciously minimal score (by Japanese master Ryuichi Sakamoto and Iranian composer Abbas Bakhtiari) compel us to listen in both literal and metaphorical senses. This is a film that leans in close to the lives of four variously unheeded women and hears them. Its achievement is to draw the same profound sensitivity from its viewers. 


Women Without Men is available to stream as part of TANK’s season Beyond Varda. Subscribe for just £3 a month for access to 40+ films throughout the year.