Women without Men
In a recent screening of our film “Women Without Men”, during the question/answer session, a viewer asked Shahram Karimi how he approached production design, as a trained painter. His response was “I treat film like a canvas, I simply paint it.” This explanation not only beautifully describes Karimi’s relationship to the art of production design in cinema; but also demonstrates how he has for years been so fluid in transforming his painterly manner into more than one form.
Aside from being an internationally acclaimed painter and production designer; Karimi has seduced us with his tremendous written poetry, lyrical video installations, short documentary films, fashion and accessory design, and most recently he is contemplating designing furniture.
It appears that Karimi approaches all forms, including visual art, video installations, cinema, poetry and design with equal sense of ease and passion. What ultimately seems to tie all of this artist’s many expressions together is the sense of poetry which offers us an emotional urgency whether it is through a film set, a line of poetry or a painted canvas.
When I look back at many of Karimi’s production designs for my video and film based work; a few projects particularly stand out for the strength of their art direction including “Toob,” “Mahdokht,” “The Last Word” and most recently my first feature length film
“Women Without Men.” In all these projects, Karimi tackled the sets as if they were paintings or art installations, by the way he applied color and texture, or positioned objects. These sets not only heightened the emotional and psychological dramas of the characters, they led to magnificent visual tableaux.
In “The Last Word,” (2004) a surrealistic trial of a female poet who arrives to face her interrogator; the piece’s central concept was to establish the great divide in between the poet who represented the people of creative imagination, versus the interrogator who represented theocracy and the people of power. Here, the art direction became critical to communicate this fundamental emotional and political tension. Karimi designed a long table that separated the defendant from the interrogator. On the one side, as the woman sat alone in darkness; behind the interrogator we faced a group of white shirted bureaucratic looking men, absurdly moving around piles of books, documents which were beautifully inscribed with Farsi Calligraphy by Karimi himself.
“Tooba,” (2002) became Karimi’s most sculptural set design by the way in which he carved a female body inside of a tree’s trunk; “Mahdokht” (2003) resembling the image of ‘Ophilia’ from Greek mythology became his most painterly set design. In my film “Women Without Men” and in “The White Meadow” directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, Karimi not only faced the challenge of creating sets for a fully narrative film as opposed to a video installation; for the first time he had to create sets for a historical film where great deal of attention had to be paid to depict the period. There are numerous outstanding scenes in both films suggesting the masterful work of Karimi, again not as a conventional production designer, but as a visual artist who applied his painterly and poetic approach to every single set while maintaining the narrative and historical values.
In “Women Without Men” one recalls the memorable bath house sequence which ultimately seems to borrow from the classic orientalists’ paintings; the brothel scenes resonating a melancholic yet intensely lush and sensual atmosphere; and finally the highly stylized, and choreographed epic shots of streets’ protest which Karimi and his team worked diligently to resonate an unusual mixture of archival accuracy together with pure aesthetic exercise. In “The White Meadow,” the fierce beauty of each frame underscored the power of this touching allegorical film.
It is hard to predict what turn Karimi’s artistic career would take next, but what remains absolutely clear is that he would continue to surprise us with his nomadic yet consistently powerful imagination. For the moment we are left to believe that this artist’s motive is not to build many careers; but to live every second of his life as passionately and creatively as possible.