‘Prison’ offers insight
into Iranian jail life

"Women's Prison"
Playing at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at Dole Cannery 10 theater

Review by John Berger

Remember those old low-budget WIP (a k a "women in prison") movies? Women of the "Charlie's Angels"/bikini model type would get stopped for some trivial infraction and end up behind bars and at the mercy of sinister, big-bellied men or mannish women jailers.

Well, "Women's Prison," the 2002 Iranian film, isn't that kind of party.


What director Manijeh Hekmat intended to say about the treatment of women in Iranian prisons can't be analyzed here since the advance copy of the film, provided for review by the Hawaii International Film Festival, was dubbed to a tape too short to hold the 106-minute film. A prison official had just asked a youthful male impersonator to explain the circumstances of her incarceration when the tape ran out. Oh well.

Even without the final scenes, "Women's Prison" is a fascinating look at life behind bars in Iran, and the rapport that develops between the no-nonsense warden (Roya Taymourian) and one of the prisoners (Roya Nonahali). Young Mitra Shaker (Nonahali) is doing time for murder and is considered a potential troublemaker when prison official Tahereh Yousefi (Taymourian) arrives in 1984 with orders to take charge of the filthy facility and tame the rebellious female prisoners.

In the 17 years that follow, Yousefi has some success in improving conditions. Yousefi also reassesses her opinion of Shaker, and eventually recommends that Shaker be released despite the fact that Shaker is unable to post the "bail" required.

It is a long journey for both of them, and, except for the cultural setting, the prison story seems similar in many ways to mainstream American prison movies. Shaker killed her abusive stepfather but is otherwise not a troublemaker. One of the other women was imprisoned for doing something with "a boy." A third apparently violated laws enacted after the overthrow of the shah in 1979 and the establishment of the Islamic republic. (The grainy white-on-white subtitles are sometimes illegible, so much of the information in Farid Mostafavi's screenplay is lost.)

The cells are searched and contraband confiscated. There's an air raid. A woman is taken away to be executed. Another commits suicide after being raped by the dominant lesbian. Babies are born and given up for adoption, although the cellblock population also contains some kids that look old enough to be preschoolers. And at least one child born in the prison eventually returns as an inmate.

Expatriate Iranians may well enjoy "Women's Prison" as a well-made Farsi film. Mainstream Americans will find it a fascinating glimpse at life in modern Iran. Yes, the film is a selective look at Iranian society, but such cultural minutiae as the long black robes worn by the warden and her staff, and head coverings worn by the inmates outside their cells, transcend any concessions to drama or telling a good story.


Hawai'i International Film Festival

When: Through Sunday on Oahu
Schedules: Pick up copies at Dole Signature Theatres and at Starbucks and Blockbuster locations;
Theaters: Signature Dole Cannery, the Doris Duke at the Academy, Consolidated's Waikiki Twins 2 theater and Blaisdell Center
Tickets: Per film, $7 general; $6 (children, military, students and 62 and older); $1 discount for matinees
Call: 528-4433

Neighbor islands

When: Friday through Nov. 10
Locations: Kauai Community College Performing Arts Center (808-823-8444); Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Castle Theatre, Maui Community College Ka Lama No. 103 and Ritz-Carlton Kapalua (808-573-4242); Kaunakakai School on Molokai (808-553-3455); and University of Hawaii at Hilo Campus Center, Palace Theatre and Keauhou Cinema on the Big Island (808-969-9412 in East Hawaii and 808-322-2323 in West Hawaii)

HIFF Web site
HIFF screening schedule

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calendars and events.

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