aGLIFF Polari 2012 Preview: Facing Mirrors

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Facing Mirrors

A dramatic film about transgender issues in Iran seems unlikely. A positively sympathetic Iranian film about a young woman desperately trying to secure gender reassignment seems impossible. And yet here is Facing Mirrors, made in Iran by a first-time feature director, Negar Azarbayjani, dealing with that very subject in a sensitive way almost unthinkable in an American film. The Austin Film Society is co-presenting a screening of Facing Mirrors as part of aGLIFF Polari on Thursday at 6:45 pm at Alamo Drafthouse Ritz.

Thanks to the 25th annual fest, we are reminded that global cinema presents a rich array of people so very different from the two-dimensional stereotypes shoved into our brains by "the news" or TV programs and movies. For at least 25 years, wonderful films have been coming from Iran, visually rich, humanistic, and profound, despite the socio-historical absurdities spouted by some of the leaders of that complex, ancient land. This 2011 feature is the most amazing recent one because of its subject matter and treatment.

At the heart of Facing Mirrors are two women. Rana is a young mother, forced to surreptitiously drive the family car as a gypsy cab to earn money while her husband is in prison for debts. The young couple had dreams of owning their own business, but an unscrupulous business partner stole the money and left Sadegh (and thereby his wife Rana) with a debt which might take 20 years to repay.

One passenger Rana picks up is Adineh, a young woman who prefers to be called "Eddie." Tempted by the offer of a huge amount of money to drive the mysterious Adineh/Eddie to a distant town, Rana is shocked to eventually learn that the young woman intends to become a man after an operation in Europe. She instantly stops the car and orders Adineh to get out. She is repulsed, horrified and confused.

But, almost as if ordained by fate, a sequence of events brings Adineh ever more closely into Rana's life, and the dutiful wife and loving mother begins to understand the complex problems young "Eddie" faces. As we look through the front windshield at a series of beautiful shots of the Iranian countryside with snow-covered, towering mountains, we hear Adineh describe her life in voiceover: "As long as I remember, I was never like other girls. Although there were many girls in our family, I only played with my brother Emad and my cousin Babak [to whom she has been forcibly betrothed]. We were a team of three that no one could be a match for ... neither in fights, nor in games.... The male who lived inside of me grew stronger by the day. Sometimes I was even scared of him myself."

Without a mother around to understand and help her, Adineh has had to contend with her unbending, traditional father, a rich man with powerful political and social connections, ashamed of his daughter and convinced she is delusional in her insistence on wanting to be a man. He will suffer no embarrassment or dishonor brought on his name and family. Consequently Adineh is to get married to her cousin ... right away, no matter what. It is almost as if the patriarch believes that by getting her married, she will forget about this "delusion." Certainly that hackneyed "solution" would sound familiar to many people, no matter the country, religion or customs. Like all the others before him, this father will not listen to reason or other points of view.

But he hasn't realized how close Rana has become to Adineh. Despite her devout and traditional views, Rana has become her strongest advocate. The showdown between Rana and Adineh's intolerant father will give you chills and make you want to cheer.

So, how can such a humanistic film come from such a theocratic nation? According to a BBC report, Iran carries out more sex-change operations than any country in the world except Thailand. In a country in which gay men and women have been imprisoned or, in extreme cases, executed, being transgender is completely legal and religiously sanctioned. This remarkable and surprising law began with a fatwah (edict) issued in the 1970s by the Ayatollah Khomeini allowing the operation for "diagnosed transsexuals."

However, and this seems to be the catch, once sexual reassignment has been requested, one must go through with the operation or be branded as gay/lesbian, thereby subject to harsh laws, including capital punishment. There is no "in between" sexual identity in Iran, no grey areas. Consequently, ignorance about homosexuality continues to garner headlines every time President Ahmadinejad mentions the subject.

However, despite the complete legality and financial support for gender reassignment surgery in Iran, problems for the transgendered individual inevitably begin after the operation. Adineh knows she could have the operation in her beloved homeland, but she also knows that being loved and accepted by family and most friends as a man would be impossible. Thus, her need to go to Germany and begin a whole new life.

Unfortunately very little has yet been written about the production of Facing Mirrors, other than a mention that it took 1.5 years to gain official permission and government financing. One can only guess how difficult it must have been. No matter what the legal view of transgenderism, Iranian society as a whole has certainly not embraced gender reclassification. I would love to know how this movie was received in Iran.

Both director/writer Negar Azarbayjani and producer/writer Fereshteh Taerpoor are amazing people, women who have confronted their society by making such a controversial, powerful film. Various awards at film festivals in other countries prove that Facing Mirrors is finding a global audience.