Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014
Feminism has shared a long and difficult relationship with religion. The latter’s overt patriarchal ideologies, in almost all their forms, have been issues feminism has been long fighting against. Islam, with its necessity of physical manifestation of religiosity and a long-standing reputation of treating women as mute subjects who are forever entrapped in the clutches of patriarchy, has had a vexed relationship with feminism. The idea of an autonomous will for women seems a long, distant dream for the Muslim woman. Seen from our secular, progressive lens, the Muslim woman covered in veil seems to be situated at the lowest rung of emancipation. Seemingly far removed from her bra-burning cousins, resembling them neither in her demeanour nor her methods, she clearly elicits sympathy from the progressive and secular. Or, what is even worse, pity.
Or maybe not.
The Iranian-American film director Ana Lily Amirpour sets her film in Iran, the same country that had erupted into a revolution in 1979 after the infamous regime of the Shah and which had further contributed to building the reputation of Islam as we know it today. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, somewhere in Iran, whose walls still bear the vestiges of a revolution long forgotten. A half-deserted city feeding on isolation and intoxication, the city comes alive in the night, where a cat knows more than the humans and a girl (who) walks home alone at night. In such a city, everyone seems to know each other and is reliant, strangely, on the other for her/his wants.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a delightful and twisted cross between the diverse universes of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2000) and Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight (2005). The suggestion may sound ludicrous, but it is not flippant. The vulnerability suggested by the title of the film is squashed by Ana. She takes the hijab, a garment which is essentially symbolic of patriarchal imposition, and re-appropriates it. The girl who walks home dons the hijab, which, contrary to our secular perception, does not rob her of her agency. Contrarily, it lends her one. The bodily act associated with docility and modesty is completely subverted as Ana lets her protagonist wear it as a garb, akin to the cape of a superhero while divesting the garment of its patriarchal allegiance. The girl becomes the redeemer of Bad City, aware of the city’s vices and also entrusted with the responsibility to redress them – to make the city less bad- while engaging in “very bad things” herself.
What Ana ends up creating is a vampire who is a concomitant redeemer. She is closest to the Marvel heroes, except that with the veil on, she does not lose her subjectivity. Unlike a cape which demands a Bruce Wayne of a Batman, the veil allows her, even enables her to maintain her subjectivity. Amirpour not only subverts the genre of superhero films—an essentially male domain—but also alerts us to the very narrow definition of feminism that the west harbours and expects to achieve. She creates her own brand of superhero(ine) who does not bear too high a moral ground, who would suck the blood out of a dastard, as well as threaten a seemingly innocent looking kid to make him promise to be good with equal ease, and look innocently at her love even as the blood of her last victim remains smeared on her lips.
Amirpour describes the film as an “Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western” and lives up to her claim. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could easily have been a whodunnit, a very good one at that, but what it eventually achieves is striking- reminding us to not consider the girl who walks home alone at night as powerless. For she is not.
– Ishita Sengupta