Is it Enough to Just Be Bold and Raise Questions?
A Reflection of Gender and Sexuality in Iranian Cinema
Contributed by Azadeh M. Kangarani
“In the Name of God, sex change is not religiously problematic if authorized by reliable physicians. God willing, you will be safe, and hopefully, the people you mentioned will be mindful of your particular situation.”
(a translation by Mostafa Abedinifard)
This was the renowned fatwa (a legal opinion on a point of Islamic law) by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1986, after his meeting with Maryam khatoon Molkara, a woman who was born a male, and known for negotiating for the rights of transgender surgery in Iran for several years.
Since then, while the question of transgender rights seemed to be legal in terms of jurisprudence, it hadn’t yet been accepted by mainstream society. People were in denial about the existence of such a reality. As a result, this law was released in Iran at the same time that homosexuality was prohibited. Up until today, sexuality and gender identity remain severe issues within the country.
In 2007 Maryam Khatoon Molkara founded and ran the Iranian Society to Support Individuals with Gender Identity Disorder. While this was a big deal, it signalled only one small step in the right direction. In Iranian society, there is still a lot of pressure on gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer people. The condition has been so harsh that most of them prefer to either keep truth hidden from the public or try to flee the country.
The authorities and a majority of society label individuals struggling to align with heteronormativity as cases of sexual prevention. Cross-dressing has also been strictly prohibited and officially banned. Despite the legal permission of sex reassignment surgery, transgender and homosexual individuals remain ousted in the sphere of disorder and pathology.
Despite the country’s harsh circumstances, the question surrounding gender and the larger LGBTQ spectrum has been reflected in varied cultural forms such as literature, poetry, painting, and cinema. As more directors address queer themes through their work, social acceptance has an increased potential to grow. However, when it comes to queer topics, many filmmakers allow themselves to merely focus on the nature of rebellion to address identity issues. As a consequence, many films exploring LGBTQ issues lack valuable artistic elements and considerations. LGBTQ related films are made both in and out of Iran, and amongst the Iranian diaspora – all carrying their unique messages and agendas.
Below are a few of the most influential queer films from Iranian cinema history:
Snowman Snowman (Davood Mir-Bagheri, 1995)
Directed in 1995 by Davood Mir-bagheri, Snowman tells the story of a male character, Abbas (played by Akbar Abdi), who disguised himself as a woman to get a US visa. The film was banned for three years after its premiere in Fajr Festival in Iran, but finally got permission for screening in Iranian cinemas years later.
Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006)
Offside is the story of a group of girls who disguise themselves as boys to enter the stadium and see Iran vs. Bahrain in the qualifying soccer match for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. The film was shot in Iran on location during the actual day of the match, but was ultimately banned from being screened in the country. The film not only questions existing gender issues and inequality in Iranian society but also intelligently offers brilliant humor in the real bitterness of social conflict. It won the Silver Bear at Berlin International Film Festival and was in the official selection of TIFF and at the New York International Film Festival in 2006.
Facing Mirror (Negar Azarbayjani, 2011)
Facing Mirror is Azarbayjani’s first feature film as a director, and was the first movie to feature a trans male (formerly female) character. It was written, produced, and screened in Iran, and portrays how a trans person suffers from their surrounding society, particularly from members of their own family. It pictures the encounter of two main characters from the film, a trans woman who wants to run away to Germany for reassignment surgery, as her father fails to accept her daughter’s true needs and attempts to force her into an arranged marriage with her cousin. Her character runs in parallel with a story about a religious and moral woman who’s husband is jailed because his business partner has betrayed him. She has to work as a taxi driver as her second job at night to be able to handle her family expenses. These two characters meet at some point and affect each other’s outcomes.
The first half of the film has a strong, well-structured narrative, which unfortunately weakens once the two characters meet. As the director attempts to establish a relationship, the narrative structure loses its coherence; the film goes from puzzling and action-based to lose and sentimental. Despite this change, the film establishes a manifesto for the advocacy of transgender identities in Iranian society. It was awarded and nominated in various LGBTQ and international film festivals as well as at the 29th Fajr International Film Festival in Iran.
Circumstance (Maryam Keshavarz, 2011)
As mentioned earlier, films tackling themes related to gender and sexuality conflict have been developed by members of the Iranian diaspora. One of the first films made after the Islamic revolution was Circumstance by Maryam Keshavarz.The film follows two girl friends in their twenties, who have been in love since they were teenagers. Atefeh is from a wealthy and open-minded family, and Shireen is an orphan living with her uncle. The two lovers try to keep their relationship under wraps amidst the most challenging of circumstances. Shireen’s older brother, and former drug addict fresh out of therapy becomes very religiously Islamic, and tries to manipulate the loving relationship.
Despite advancing a strong social commentary, examining the root of religious authoritarianism in the patriarchal control of women, and addressing police suppression on Iranian society, the film fails to show a proper setting in Iran. It was shot in Lebanon, and fails to make the family dynamics of Atefeh reflective of an actual Iranian family living in Iran. The narrative of sequences is not joint in a fluid manner, and the exaggeration and lack of development in almost all of the characters instills a sense of over-dramatic indulgence that pushes the film to an unnecessary sentimentalism. The extreme focus and camera lingering on the beauty of the two lovers also makes the audience too self-aware and diminishes any natural romance between the lovers. The voice of the director is present throughout the whole film, disallowing the audience to be taken into the world and the convention of the story. This film grabbed international attention because of its controversial theme but unfortunately came with a loss of artistic and cinematic values that lost audiences yearning for a more realistic film with such a topic.
Appropriate Behavior (Desiree Akhavan, 2014)
Written and directed by the Iranian-American Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior tells the story of Shirin, a bisexual Iranian-American girl from a well to do Iranian family in Brooklyn who left Iran after the Islamic revolution in 1979. She lives with her first love, which is another woman, and after their breakup, Shirin moves out from their shared flat. The film doesn’t focus on the particular issues in their relationship, but what is evident is that Maxine, Shirin’s partner, is annoyed by the fact that Shirin doesn’t tell her parents about the reality of their relationship.
This romantic-comedy film depicts Shirin’s emotional and sexual experiences after her breakup and, at the same time, her struggles to come out to her parents. Akhavan, who also plays the role of Shirin in the film, is bold enough to show what she wants to say on the screen. It is evident that Akhavan, as an Iranian-American, knows both cultures and applies them well in her movie. Most of the dialogues are written in a way that suits the situation each character is in. She introduces cultural aspects of Iranians, and does so in a way that makes contextual sense.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhavan, 2018)
The latest film from Desiree Akhavan depicts a group of teenagers in a catholic conversion therapy camp. They are told that their homosexual sexual desires are premature and are educated to be straight. The film emphasizes how systems are miseducating teenagers about their own sexual self-discovery and acceptance.
This film mainly centers around the life of Cameron, an orphan teenager being raised by her aunt. After being caught with her girlfriend, Cameron’s highly religious aunt and uncle send her to God’s Promise camp. Through her story and those she encounters, Akhavan encourages audiences to think about how authorities are able to cause real damage to others. The film is the only on this list that has no connection to Iran in its plot.
Tehran: City of Love (Ali Jaberansari, 2018)
Tehran City of Love (2018) is the first feature film by Ali Jaberansari, a bitter-sweet comedy depicting the parallel stories of three people living in Tehran and searching for love. One of the characters Mina is a fat woman who works as a secretary in a beauty clinic. From time to time, she pretends to be a beautiful and charming woman over the phone, and messages handsome guys who come into the clinic where she works. Another character is Hesam, an ex-bodybuilding champion who is now a trainer in a gym, and the third character is Vahid, a funeral singer who hardly smiles. Jaberansari arranges an encounter among these three people with others that potentially throws them into emotional relationships.
As these three stories move forward, intertwined, and in parallel, the question of homosexuality is rasied very subtly. It does not become a bold plot point of the film, and does not consume the development of the other character. Instead, we are able to witness the emotional journey of these three characters, their hopes, and failures. Since its release, the film has been in several festivals and won the award for Best Actress in Beijing.
No Hard Feelings (Faraz Shariat, 2020)
Most recently, No Hard Feelings made its international premiere at Berlinale. The debut feature of the German-Iranian, Faraz Shariat, the film is about a German-Iranian young gay man who, as a consequence of shoplifting, is sentenced to work in a refugee camp in his hometown in Germany. There, he befriends Iranian siblings and finds himself in a new emotional relationship that unfolds fragile questions about his identity.
The film is partly based on Shariat’s life experience, which are smartly embedded with layered questions about identity, gender, racism, queerness, and real loving relationships. It captures the struggles of a second-generation immigrant, and sexual exploration, while pulling from two very different cultures, so honestly. One noticeable fallback which made the film less believable was the casting of the Iranian siblings in the refugee camp. The actors speak Farsi with a strong German accent, which, by default, distracts Iranian and Afghan audiences. Despite this, the film strung together a strong script, layered characters, and a beautiful cinematography – making for a solid queer film. No Hard Feelings received the Teddy Award for best queer feature film; the Teddy Readers Award, and came in second place for the Audience Award within the Panorama section at Berlinale.
The films mentioned above make up only a few examples of strong LGBTQ+ feature films from the Iranian film industry over the years. In briefly reviewing themes of gender and sexuality conflicts through film, we come to realize the relationship between the contemporary history of Iran with explorations of particular events before the eyes of the audiences. From cross-dressing to more recent questionings of sexuality, Iranian queer films evolve around, reflect, and encourage changed perceptions on taboo topics that continue to be culturally and systematically suppressed. I champion the filmmakers that have braved intimidation to tell these stories, and look forward to seeing many more in the years to come.