Saturday, 13 April 2013

Facing Mirrors at the LLGFF

Facing Mirrors 
آینه های روبرو 

Directed by Negar Azarbayjani
Full production details on imdb

Simple but moving tale carefully constructed to promote
understanding of what it means to be transgender in Iran 

Facing Mirrors is director Negar Azarbayjani's first feature film and the first film about transsexuality to receive a mainstream release in Iran. The film follows an episode in the lives of Eddie (Shayesteh Irani), a rich transgender man fleeing from his oppressive family and Rana (Qazal Shakeri), a cis woman who is struggling to support her family by driving a taxi. Their worlds collide when Rana accepts Eddie's money in exchange for driving him to Tehran from where he plans to fly to Germany for sex reassignment surgery.

The project which became Facing Mirrors started when Azarbayjani and producer Fereshteh Taerpoor met and discussed their two separate story ideas they had each been mulling over. Azarbayjani had personal reasons for being keen to tell the story of a transgender person - as a teenager one of her best friends was a trans woman, who was "a very very nice person to me, one of the best people I've known." Azarbayjani had struggled to understand why people couldn't accept her friend, even her own family. In Iran transsexuality is not illegal, and the state does not consider transgender people to be "against God" - Azarbayjani wanted to spread this message through the religiously conservative country.

Taerpoor on the other hand was formulating an idea about a female taxi driver. A woman whose life is a simple struggle to care for her son after her husband's imprisonment for his business partners debt. Living in a man's world Rana is disrespected as a taxi driver, and she hides her vocation from her family. In the film we see richer, less religious women scorn her, and the parallels between her life and Eddie's are obvious. In the context of Facing Mirrors, Rana is constructed to be an 'everywoman' character. She is religious, she has an obnoxious mother in law, she isn't wealthy, and her concern is simply the desire to create a good life for her son. And this is the whole point - Rana is meant to be the character that the intended audience relate to. "They are similar to Rana," says Azarbayjani, "that kind of religious audience can relate to Rana first, and through her relate to Eddie." When Rana and Eddie first meet, Rana quickly gets very confused by Eddie's transition, just as the religious audience is expected to be. As their relationship grows and changes, so the audiences attitude to Eddie is meant to change, and by proxy, their attitude to others like him. It took a long time to cast Rana, particularly as Azarbayjani wanted to avoid any famous faces, in order to keep the character relatable. She eventually asked Qazal Shakeri the set and costume designer of Facing Mirrors to play the role, after seeing her dressed modestly with hijab when they visited a prison as part of their location scouting. "When I saw her [in the prison] I realised she was Rana."

When casting Eddie, Azarbayjani was very keen to cast someone transgender in the role. However, the foremost concern was to cast an actor, and she struggled to find any trans actors. It was her brother that recommended Shayesteh Irani, who had previously appeared in Jafar Panahi's 2006 film Offside. Azarbayjani had concerns at first, as, unlike Offside, in which Irani's character must pass as a man in order to attend a football match in Tehran, she "really didn't want anyone to 'pretend' to be a man, but really 'be' a man. ...In real life [Irani] looks so feminine!" After the first read through it was clear to Azabyjani that Irani completely understood the character, and she subsequently invested a lot of time getting to know some trans volunteers, learning "how they act, how they walk, how they talk."

Azarbayjani spent a lot of time researching - it took a year and a half to write the script, as she interviewed a lot of Iranian transgender people, in various stages of transition, and their families, wanting "not just to understand, but to feel what it's like... to write a character that is believable and accurate." But this care and attention to detail wasn't just to make convincing characters, but because she aimed to "inform Iranian people about this... cultural taboo" it was important to "tell them the story in a way that doesn't offend them" something they will "relate to and stay to the end." 

Facing Mirrors aims to address the disconnect between Iran's legal and cultural attitudes toward transsexuality. In Iran transsexuality is legal and funding is available from the state for sexual reassignment. It is important to note that while this is a great step for transgender rights in Iran, transsexuality must be accompanied with with sexual reassignment in order for it to be recognised, and hidden if it is not, and homosexuality remains illegal. There is still a lot of stigma around transsexuality in Iran, with people in transition facing discrimination, and people post transition encouraged to keep their past hidden. Facing Mirrors was created with the permission of the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance - without which it would have been impossible to distribute - and for the Iranian release it did suffer the censorship of one line of dialogue at the end of the film, (highlight to see spoiler text)  in which a line of dialogue between Rana and her returning husband indicates that their relationship had been adversely affected by Rana's friendship with Eddie. Azerbayjani insists this was the only thing the Ministry objected to, and that rather "the audience is the red line," that creating a film that would keep the general population of religious conservatives watching and learning was a more important source of self censorship.

Facing Mirrors is a carefully constructed piece of educational propaganda designed to help conservative Iranians understand what it means to be transgender in modern Iran. It is made by people who really care about the issues it addresses. Each character has been constructed with care and it is touching and, at times funny. The state approval of this film meant that it could be filmed in Iran, and uses beautiful and real locations around Tehran. The location, low budget, traditional soundtrack and lesser known faces gives the film an air of realism. 

But is the film pointless outside of Iran? Facing Mirrors is moving and nicely made, and its simplicity definitely works in its favour. If nothing else it raises awareness of the difficulties facing trans people in Iran. However, in its setting at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival perhaps the roles of Eddie and Rana are reversed. Perhaps a film designed to create an understanding of issues facing gender minorities by religious conservatives may induce an understanding of religious conservatives by London's LGBT community - through the plight of Eddie we come to understand the world that Rana comes from. 

The LLGFF are running a campaign about whether to change their name. In this years festival Facing Mirrors is just one among many films which wasn't just about strictly lesbian and gay issues. It would be ridiculous to exclude it from the LLGFF as the festival is an important platform for films about transgender people and issues - and a packed auditorium of people waiting for the post screening Q&A late on a Sunday evening is testament that it is indeed very welcome. Maybe it's time to recognise this in the festival's name. LLGBTFF anyone?

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