Director Tanaz Eshaghian On Her Gay Iranian Transsexual Doc Be Like Others
An unlikely mashup of two of today's biggest headlines (the Iranian election protests and Chastity Bono's sex reassignment), the timely new documentary Be Like Others addresses a loophole that's begun booming thanks to Iran's inhospitable treatment of gay men: the sex change industry. Faced with a society that outlaws homosexuality and promises often-fatal punishment, gay Iranians like Anoosh (pictured above right, with boyfriend Ali) are turning to Tehran doctor Bahram Mir-Jalali and his transsexual counselor Vida in order to become women, a process sanctioned and practically encouraged by Iranian law. We talked to director Tanaz Eshaghian about her eye-opening film, set to premiere on HBO2 June 24.
Vida is so interesting -- after getting to know her as this fabulous transsexual den mother, she bluntly says, "I don't like gay people."
Oh, that's totally the norm.
Is that sort of cultural dissonance a survival instinct, or what?
It's absolutely cultural. People would be coming into get the operation and they'd still say they weren't gay. It's completely internalized and shameful. They see it as a behavior that someone is choosing to become willfully, that they're choosing to become a degenerate. Whereas with transsexuality, they've created a different discourse around it. It's out of their control, it's kind of like cancer, it'd medical so they can't be judged for it.
Dr. Mir-Jalali notes how curious it is that the government outlaws homosexuality yet gives so much encouragement to transsexuals. Why do you think that is?
Well, in terms of the way it's rationalized, homosexuality is considered a crime in the Koran. It says it flat-out, so it's not a debatable point. Transsexuality, though, clearly is a modern operation. The founder of the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, was once confronted by an individual who wanted to have a sex change, and he was very moved. He said, "You were born in the wrong body and this is a medical issue. It has nothing to do with issues of sin or being a degenerate. Clearly, this is something for a doctor to look into. You're allowed to have your body match your soul if it's done medically."
Of course, Mir-Jalali also asserts that true homosexuals won't undergo the surgery -- only transsexuals will. Be Like Others would seem to indicate that this isn't necessarily the case.
Well, those are the questions that the film raises.
Do you think that were these men not in Iran, they would even consider having the surgery?
The only thing I'm able to do as a filmmaker is really look into the environment and the emotional and cultural landscape these men are in when they're making this decision. I can raise questions, I can wonder. But also, in Iran, if someone is diagnosed and they get that piece of paper saying that they're a transsexual, it is just assumed that they'll get the operation. Whereas if you live in the west, there's all these nuances. So would they focus on a sex change if they came here? Maybe not. But would they consider themselves transsexuals? Well, maybe. You can't necessarily say for sure, but what you can look at is the environment within which they're choosing.
Were they interested in Western attitudes on the subject?
They didn't really care in the sense that they had absolutely no desire to move. They love their country. They feel connected, it's their homeland. There's a scene before Ali-Askar gets the operation where he goes, "I hear that in the west, two guys can marry. What's the point of that?" It doesn't make sense in his traditional frame of mind. Certain thoughts you don't have until you see or experience them, and that's not in their frame of reference.
Were you surprised by the level of protests we're currently seeing in Iran?
I definitely got the feeling that people were not happy with Ahmedinejad, mostly because of his economic policies. That's how he got there in the first place: he promised to bring the oil wealth to the table of the poor, and he didn't. So it seemed like there was no way they were gonna reelect him again. The fact that he won by a landslide, or claims to -- it's not surprising that all this has happened. There was no way that people were going to vote for him again -- it's too offensive. That's what you're seeing, a population offended.
What's interesting about how the protests have used Twitter and the internet is that I think it's revealed to the wider world that there is a progressive youth movement happening in Iran. It sort of mirrors what happens in your documentary, where these more progressive attitudes butt up against established dogma.
You know, that's interesting. I didn't think about it that way. I had originally read about these sex changes in the paper, like so many documentary filmmakers. [laughs] And I was amazed that this was actually happening in a country like Iran because I know how traditional it is. I thought, "This would way to be a fantastic way to look at gender issues in a traditional society." Or, quote/unquote, "not fitting in," or bumping up against Islamic attitudes.
As far as their being a gay or trans subculture in Iran...
There is one. I didn't hang out in it, but I know from friends who go back and forth from Iran that there is a gay subculture, especially in Tehran. But as you would expect, it's more of a middle-to-upper-class scene. The boys you're seeing in the film are from rural areas, they're in more conservative, religious, traditional parts of the country. They're the ones that really don't have the power that comes from the other classes where you can do what you want secretly or be who you want. Although, you can still get busted [despite being upper-class], don't get me wrong. I just heard of a gay couple living in a fancy Tehran area, and the landlord saw them being physical with each other and said they had to leave. And the two men said, we'll pay you, anything, just don't make us leave. And the landlord took their money and then reported them. It is a very homophobic society, but regardless of that, there is a small gay subculture.
Were your subjects worried about appearing on camera?
You have to realize that these guys have hit rock bottom. They don't have much to lose; their families have disowned them, they often prostitute themselves to survive. In the case of Ali-Askar, I think he was also suicidal. It's very, very hard and tragic, and I think that when they came into contact with me, they thought this would be a forum to express what they were going through.
Have there been any interesting postscripts since you shot the film?
Yes, you remember Anoosh, who had the hot boyfriend Ali?
Yeah -- Ali really seemed to lose his desire for Anoosh after the latter had his sex change surgery.
Well, they got married.
I think the pressure of [Anoosh's] mom won out -- she said, "Now we have a girl, and she can't just go with you when you please, Ali." [laughs] I was surprised, too! I got this call, "We got married! And I even got him to sign this pre-nup saying that if we get divorced, I get this, this, and that." ♦