This film starts with a whimper and ends with a whine, yet, although one realizes it from the minute one buys it, it is indeed strangely engrossing. The chaos and filth of this Iranian women's prison, starting in 1984, with the Mullahs in charge already four years, extending all the way until 2001: we in the West can see how many women were suddenly considered "unIslamic" and therefore condemned to prison, if not death. What struck me is the horrific resemblance to old-style Catholic nuns, who did instruct us in a grammar school in San Francisco: their completely black outfits, their sternness and their lack of smiling or other expressions. A new warden arrives, aims for cleanliness and discipline, and she gets it, using the solitary cell and male-delivered lashings. There is a strong sense of sadistic pleasure emanating...
Meanwhile, the inmates seem to be mostly in for adultery or prostitution, because they are poor; our one main character arrives young and tough, having killed her stepfather when she saw him beat her mother. Her spirit is not completely broken, but we see her sadly becomes more morose and aged as the film proceeds, with a bemused look at the new young ones coming in, still high-spirited. They call her "Auntie Mitra" at the end, when her hair is turning white under the mandatory hejab.
The prison itself is 1800's-grim, with old brick walls, a large yard for exercise, hand laundry and dish-washing. The prisoners appear to make their own clothes, cook and clean, and wash clothes in small buckets. They do not wear uniforms, but normal street clothes, and only with a new warden do they really begin to use the hejab. They even have one proper long coat, all in the same print material, with which they attend their trials.
If you think that this is a dreary tale so far, well, yes, it is. But the sheer spirit and comraderie of these women impressed me. They sing, they dance, they stage mock weddings, they withstand blackouts, they do sports in the yards, have friends and cliques, and talk incessantly. They're usually in the long, wide corridor together, freely walking between the cells, unless the warden wants to punish them by locking them in for a day to their respective group cells, about 10 beds per cell. One might even say that they're having a pretty good time, except for being locked up. They even have their children with them, which all seem to keep an eye on. One baby, born in the prison in 1984, re-appears as a 17-year-old ringleader and cocksure thief, whose mother had been executed; our heroine Mitra had been trained as a midwife and delivered her in that cell, with a blackout going on. Mitra remembered her mother and told the eager girl about her; they became close in the prison.
One word of caution: I am laid up with an Achilles Tendon rupture, have to kill the time somehow with books and films, and so I watch almost anything. But I liked this film. The filmmaker was herself involved in Iran's women's prisons and tried to show exactly how things were in there.
Libraries probably carry this as "educational" and "banned in Iran!"