Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Facing Mirrors: No, being a trans Iranian is not a bowl of cherries

Eddie on the Run

Facing Mirrors is part of the exciting new Iranian cinema which is flourishing and offering subtle social criticism despite being created within the shadow of religious fundamentalism. First time woman director and co-writer, Negar Azarbayjani, has woven a powerful and sometimes even humorous  tale which, like the recent Iranian masterwork, A Separation, deals with complex intertwining issues of women's roles in society, familial bonds and craziness, class structure, crushing bureaucracy, manhood and religion. But at the core of Facing Mirrors is the story of Eddie, a trans man who can no longer live in his country, especially under the crushing impact of his powerful, wealthy father, who is disgusted by his trans son and wishes to marry him off (as a woman) to a cousin.

Rana wonders about her strange passenger

Eddie's life becomes intricately woven with that of Rana, a single mom whose husband is in prison for the long haul after his embezzling business partner left him with insurmountable debts. She supports her son and herself by driving a cab (she only picks up women customers), a gutsy and pretty much unheard of occupation among Iranian women. Eddie (sometimes also known by his birth name of Adineh) is on the run from his dad and older brother, and gets picked up by Rana as he's escaping from a fight. He flashes her a ton of money to drive him to a border city away from Tehran where he can wait for his passport to be processed. He intends to return to Germany where he lived for a while, began his transition and was previously on T before getting lured back to Iran under false pretenses and trapped by his father. Rana clocks Eddie as a scary female thief. (he's is mostly dressed in vaguely homeboy style with closely cropped hair) She wonders where he got all his money and expensive jewelry (which belonged to Eddie's late mom and he sells to fund his transition and escape) and his very "unladylike" behavior. While Rana is a rebel in her own way she's, at heart, of a lower, likely less educated and much more conservative class than Eddie. The first half of the film is a kind of harrowing yet sometimes funny road film, with Rana and Eddie as opposites each, in their own way, societal outcasts and alternately annoying and learning about one another.

Eddie's version of a hijab

The second half of the film returns to Tehran and, without giving too much away, further involves Eddie's attempts to leave Iran and escape capture. He lives with Rana and her adorable son, who is much taken with the surrogate dad (who he, however, obliviously refers to as 'auntie'). Eddie also tolerates Rana's tart mother-in-law who makes his life miserable with endless misgendering. Facing Mirrors expertly captures that moment in binary transition when one isn't one nor the other, being called out for one's birth gender with all-around general suspicion that a freak is in their midst. It captures the pain and longing for escape from body, past and place. How there is "no one to go back to yet no clear destination either." Eddie is ultimately sad that, despite his money, he hasn't experienced any of the love Rana has in her life and the kind of profound connection she has with her husband.

Director Azarbayjani (l) and actress
Shayesteh Irani "Un-Edied" (r)

Ms. Azarbayjani and the film's producers were in attendance at the screening I saw and said the core of the story came from a trans woman the director knew when they were teens but that she developed the script with a trans man at the center of it and merged it with a script the co-writer, Fereshteh Taerpoor, had about a woman cab driver. The two lead actresses, relative newcomers Qazal Shakeri as Rana and Shayesteh Irani as Eddie are both brilliant (Shakeri, the producer's daughter, was originally and continued to be the set designer as well!). No, Irani is not trans and, as the director was very eager to point out, looks totally different in real life (in other words, she's a 'regular' woman). They are very nearly matched by Nima Shahrokh Shahi as Eddie's brother, giving a brilliant performance of a man torn apart by intense familial obligations and his love for his younger sibling.

There are a few soft spots in the film. At no point do the filmmakers mention how, in Iran, in order to have SRS one legally requires the permission of one's family (even if you transition as an adult). Eddie seemingly has zero contacts with other trans or queer people in Iran. For a gutsy, upper-class person who grew up in Tehran, he seems a little too isolated. There were also a few points of melodrama towards the end where I thought the film veered into a slightly simplistic "poor lonely transgender guy" sentimentality while it tried hard to have the audience's sympathy. But these are minor complaints for a film with so much emotional truth. If nothing else, it shows how trans people are not "widely accepted" (as the Internet trope goes) and their lives are very much as difficult as gay men and lesbians encounter in a traditional Islamic republic.

Rana and Edie

The producer, Fereshteh Taerpoor, explained how the film has won numerous awards and accolades at the 10 film festivals at which it's played in Iran but has yet to be given a commercial release. They seemed hugely moved by the enthusiastic packed house reception the film received at Frameline 36 at San Francisco's Castro Theatre (it's coming soon to festivals in Utah, LA, Denver, Phildelphia, Dublin, Melbourne and Sydney). Facing Mirrors is a not-to-be-missed work which, while ostensibly doesn't contain any romance, is very much all about love, connection and the deepest kind of understanding.

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