Cyrus Neshvad's The Red Suitcase and the symbolism of veiling and unveiling
One could swear that the Iranian short film The Red Suitcase is a horror film, a dystopian one, but it is not. It is a life-inspired realist film that reminds us: Patriarchy is horrifying.
While women in Iran struggle under the draconian governmental imposition of veiling, women in France struggle to wear their hijabs.
"The Oscar-nominated The Red Suitcase has rivetingly succeeded in capitalising on what should be an undisputed fact: only women can decide how they dress"
Held hostage between two opposed narratives that are both trying to minimise their agency, women’s fight against patriarchy is global.
The Oscar-nominated The Red Suitcase has rivetingly succeeded in capitalising on what should be an undisputed fact: only women can decide how they dress.
Cyrus Neshvad is a Luxembourg director of Iranian origin. He has directed several short films including The Orchid (2012), Antoine (2014), Son (2016), and Portraitist (2019).
Collectively, these films have officially been selected in over 300 festivals, over 30 of them Oscar-qualifying.
Portraitist qualified for the Oscars in 2020 and won 55 awards including the Letzebuerger Filmpraïs 2021 in Luxembourg. Currently, Cyrus Neshvad is developing his first feature film Le Refuge [The Shelter] supported by the Film Fund Luxembourg.
The New Arab met Neshvad to talk about Iran, women's rights, and his passion for filmmaking as a language of his own.
Choice is dignity
Although the film is short, it summarises decades of patriarchal oppression in Iran.
The film focuses on a 16-year-old Iranian girl's harrowing journey to flee an airport undetected by the much-older man she is being forced to marry.
In one of the film's most important scenes, the young girl removes her hijab for her safety while trying to start a new life. Although the scene can be perceived as an orientalist take on unveiling, the most important spectator of the unveiling in the film is the protagonist herself.
The actress Nawelle Ewad breaks the fourth wall as the protagonist stares at a mirror, the key perceiver of the unveiling is the girl herself. The act of unveiling in the film is a form of disguise to evade the patriarchal gaze of inspection that would allow her husband to identify her.
For Cyrus Neshvad, his film’s nomination to the Oscars makes him proud because it might garner attention to the plight of Iranian women.
Cyrus told The New Arab that he was first inspired to make this film after his mother, who is Iranian, informed him that women who did not wear the hijab correctly were disappearing in Iran.
"The Red Suitcase’s release coincided with the recent female-led protests in Iran. The symbolism of veiling and unveiling in the film allows the audience to imagine an alternative life for Mahsa Amini and others"
He decided to create a short movie based on this issue and felt compelled to do something about it since nobody outside of Iran was keeping up with the problem at the time.
The Red Suitcase’s release coincided with the recent female-led protests in Iran. The symbolism of veiling and unveiling in the film allows the audience to imagine an alternative life for Mahsa Amini and others.
Cyrus emphasised the importance of the woman's free will and decision to remove her hijab. He wanted to express that it should be a personal decision to put it on or take it off.
In Iran, women are not given the choice, so Cyrus decided to give his protagonist the simple grace of choosing whether she wants the hijab or not: “Choice is very important, choice is dignity. I remember when my grandmother visited us in Luxembourg, she kept her hijab because it was her choice to wear it. I also have photos of relatives who were wearing the hijab even before the Islamic Revolution. But compelling women to wear it is something else.”
For Cyrus, visual language has been his companion since his family moved to Luxembourg as they escaped the Islamist Revolution in Iran: “When my family moved to Luxembourg, I was five years old. The first difference I noticed was physical, everyone else was white!
"Then I noticed the language. I took the first two semesters in Iran and the third one in Luxembourg, I could not communicate with my classmates because I did not know the language yet. I started drawing to express myself, so I ended up with entire storyboards. That is how visuality became a language for me.”
"Choice is very important, choice is dignity. I remember when my grandmother visited us in Luxembourg, she kept her hijab because it was her choice to wear it"
Stifling patriarchy in Iran
The different kinds of fear and constraints that the protagonist of The Red Suitcase experiences are all bound together by the filigree of patriarchy; one that is so violent that the film’s director is certain he would be assassinated if he goes to Iran.
The film succeeds in demonstrating how assertive and infiltrating patriarchy can be in its domination over simple daily acts.
The possessions that the protagonist carries in her red suitcase show that she is someone who grew up being used to having a little of everything. For her trip to a new country, a new life, she carried some clothes, tremendously beautiful paintings of her own creation, and a few money bills that equal 30 euros after conversion.
Vestiges of the life she is trying to escape are recurrent in the form of messages from the father who had given her away to an older man without her consent, the hijab she was forced to wear, and the crippling fear of losing her chance to freedom.
Globally, the situation is dire for women who wear the hijab whether they do so by choice or not. The film alludes to this when the police officers interrogate the protagonist. Her hijab and her disorientation, mainly because she does not understand the language, both collude to present her as a suspicious passenger.
"Vestiges of the life she is trying to escape are recurrent in the form of messages from the father who had given her away to an older man without her consent, the hijab she was forced to wear, and the crippling fear of losing her chance to freedom"
The poignance of the film is brought to the fore when the husband manages to deprive her of her red suitcase which has her paintings. That is what patriarchy does, after all, it takes away from women.
The film’s closing scene is a powerful reminder that it does not matter which country we are talking about, women all over the world are being contorted to fit some patriarchal scenario or another.
The film ends with a slow closeup on a poster advertising a skin serum, as the shot focuses on the model, her features slowly shift from a smile to a tearful expression of distress.
The contrast between the phallic-shaped bottle of serum and the woman who is being commodified and fetishised to sell products serves as a poignantly powerful reminder, whether it is by socially imposed covering or denudement, women are being used.
“We are equal. We are the two wings of a bird," said Cyrus, sharing the essential message of the film with The New Arab. "The wings have to be symmetrical; they must be equal for the bird to fly. With equality, we will fly very high.”
Ouissal Harize is a UK-based researcher, cultural essayist, and freelance journalist.
Follow her on Twitter: @OuissalHarize