Four Wives—One Man Directed by Nahid Persson

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2007 , 76 minutes, color. Produced by Women Make Movies , 462 Broadway, 5th Floor, New York, NY 10013 , http://www.wmm.com

Four WivesOne Man is ostensibly about a polygynous family in rural Iran. It opens with two written statements: “The Quran: ‘Marry two, three, or four wives if you can afford [sic] it,’” and “In Iran polygamy is found mainly in rural areas.” These are followed by a spectacular scene of women and children joking and playing on a golden hill of recently harvested grain. The film continues with photographic shots of each of the four wives, accompanied with sound bites of their own voices introducing themselves. Finally, we see the husband, Heda. Standing next to him is his son, subtly parodying his father's stance, but there is no accompanying sound bite to introduce him. Instead, we hear his old and feisty mother criticizing her son as only interested in sex. Denying Heda the formal introduction afforded his wives is a clever cinematic put-down of an unpleasant character and a reversal of the usual practice of introducing men, but not women, by name.

The film's message appears to be the universal problem among polygynous households—a man who marries a second wife tends to lose interest in his first wife. As the wives continue to compete for Heda's attention, the second wife and third wife each blames her unhappiness on the next wife, as if she herself had not upstaged an earlier wife. Repeatedly, they scapegoat each other. The fourth wife praises Heda as a good husband and declares, “I don't regret having married Heda, but I do regret having married a man with three wives.” Only Heda's mother and his first wife blame him for behaving irresponsibly. Heda is physically and verbally abusive, relentlessly teasing and arguing with his wives, and threatening to marry yet again. He treats his children roughly. But we also see him taking his family on a picnic, tenderly cradling a young sleeping child, playing with his toddler, and being affectionate with his fourth wife.

In spite of their unhappiness, the women are not presented as passive victims. The second, third, and fourth wives were divorced when they met Heda. They explain their initial reluctance to marry an already married man. Only the second wife was pressured to marry him by her parents. The other two married Heda against their parents' wishes. All of the wives stand up to their husband when they feel necessary. The first wife has no problem letting Heda know of her annoyance with him. We hear his wives scold him for his financial mistakes and for ignoring his children. One wife defends her daughter's dress when Heda accuses her of immodesty. Although the wives complain loudly of Heda's multiple marriages, daily life among them includes scenes filled with laughter and mutual support as well as bitter disputes.

Technically, many parts of this film are visually stunning. Its strength as ethnography lies in its depiction of rural domestic life. Material culture fans will delight in its extraordinary footage of baking bread, family meals, carpet weaving, home furnishings, livestock care, a family picnic, and women singing their frustrations as they work. An important thread running through the first half of the film is the incessant bawdy humor among family members, including Heda's elderly mother. Not only is this funny, but it humanizes its subjects and provides a rare glimpse into the frank banter and humor that is so common within families in the Middle East. The assertiveness and behavior of the women contradict common stereotypes of the Muslim woman as victim (cf. Laila Lalami, “The Missionary Position,”The Nation, June 19, 2006). On several occasions, Heda's wives openly question his financial judgment. Ziba asks Heda to set the table while she smokes a water pipe. On another occasion, he helps himself to tea. Clearly, his four wives do not always serve him.

The film's major problem as a contribution to visual anthropology discourse and a teaching tool is its lack of contextual information. Its opening shot takes a Quranic verse out of context, with no indication that polygyny, while permitted, is considered problematic in Islam and in Iran (see also Azizah al-Hibri, “Muslim Women's Rights in the Global Village: Challenges and Opportunities,”Journal of Law and Religion, 2000–2001:37–66; “Iran Lawmakers Reject Proposal to Ease Polygamy,”International Business Times, September 8, 2008. Electronic document). The viewer is given no information on the subjects. How typical is this family? In Iran, as elsewhere in the region, polygyny is not common, and it is not universally sanctioned. We hear the third wife saying, “Seeing other women in the village with normal families … it saddens me.” Is this, then, the only polygynous family in the village? What do the neighbors and community leaders think of Heda's behavior? Why did these strong women marry an already married man? What were their other options?

Examples of internal critique of polygyny are provided in brief clips scattered throughout the film. For example, a male guest obliquely chastises Heda for his multiple marriages, saying that one wife is sufficient. A woman reprimands her mother-in-law for spoiling her sons to the extent that they marry multiple wives and “don't take responsibility for their children.” The fourth wife blames the first, saying, “A real woman would not have let her husband take more wives.” But there is no systematic effort to use this material to illustrate local discourses surrounding polygyny.

Furthermore, no other men are featured in this film. Is the intended implication that Heda is somehow typical? As he is portrayed, he would be impossible to live with even if he had only one wife. The overuse of voiceovers is also problematic. One hears the voices of the subjects while we see them doing other things, often not talking at all. This further decontextualizes their words and serves to distance and exoticize the subjects themselves. Most important, this disconnect between words and facial expression and stance reduces the viewer's ability to judge the dialogue's credibility.

While the first half of the film presents a consistent, yet nuanced view of domestic life, there are serious problems with the editing and sequencing of events in its second half, rendering it confusing and further compromising the film's usefulness in the classroom. The latter half is disjointed and poorly edited. Unconnected and unexplained activities are tacked on to each other. Earlier footage is reused with new dialogue. We first hear of Heda's “intentions” to take a fifth wife as he walks away from the camera in a pasture scene that we saw previously. He then “continues” the same dialogue in different clothes.

Toward the middle of the film, the mood suddenly changes from one of laughter and light to darker images and low, ominous music. In the first half, Ziba repeatedly praises Heda's kindness and affirms her affection for him. Her deepest sorrow lies in her lack of children. Suddenly, and with sideward glances at the camera, she begins to talk of her unhappiness with Heda and previous attempts at suicide. This sharply contrasts with the personality we have seen in the first half of the film, and the portrayal of her relationship with her husband, which simply questions the film's credibility.

Heda begins to talk relentlessly about taking a fifth wife, with no indication that this would be forbidden in Islam and impossible in Iran (the maximum limit of wives a man can have at one time is four, and there is no indication of Heda's divorcing one of his other wives). Other scenes that are clearly scripted include two women whispering in the courtyard, Ziba's visit to a shrine, a woman walking toward the gate and complaining about her daughter who is supposedly locked up next door, and the entire sequence of Heda's improbable courting and then marriage to what appears to be a fifth wife.

This change and inconsistencies in the two parts of the film may be due to the change in filmmaker. According to Alissa Simon, writing for Variety, Nahid Persson was banned from Iran midway through the film's shooting and “filming was completed by her daughter” (“Four Wives—One Man,”Variety. Electronic document, http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117936340.html?categoryid=31&cs=1, accessed December 3, 2008). It is possible that Persson's daughter, Setareh, wanted to present a more zealous indictment of polygyny and its problems. Whatever the reason, these techniques not only lead to reduced clarity, but also seriously compromise the film's credibility, serving to further exoticize its subjects. Consequently, it would be difficult to use this film in undergraduate classes on gender or the Middle East. However, the stark filming contrasts between the first and second halves may ironically render it a useful resource in visual anthropology classes, where it can generate discussion on the importance of contextual information, problems of credibility, and issues concerning the portrayal and exoticization of subjects.

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