Thursday, November 12, 2009

Transsexuality in Iran: An Interview with Sharareh Attari, Director of 'It Sometimes Happens'

By Sasan Ghahreman

Ms. Attari, before we begin, please tell us a little bit about yourself and your experience with work, study, and life

In the Name of God, my name is Sharareh Attari. I am 33 years old, and I still live with my parents, honoring the same traditional and religious ideals from my youth. Though I had dreams of becoming an astronomer, when I was 17 years old, I unexpectedly discovered film. From age 19 to 21, I studied film directing at Jahad University, after which I went to Professor Samandarian’s azad (free) workshopfor acting. After studying theater, I worked an additional two to three years in that field. It was then that I became a senior assistant director and worked in planning, management, and production of film and television. In 2003, I made a fictional documentary-style film on Ashura (the religious ceremony commemorating the death of Imam Hossein).

When and how did you come upon your idea for the film It Sometimes Happens?How did you find and select the actors for your film?

In 2004, I was invited to the house of someone I did not know to see a musician friend. The owner of the house, Amir, was not there, but my friend was, along with a few other people, one of whom was a man by the name of Mehrdad but who everyone called “Shide.” Although his clothes and appearance were male, Mehrdad’s behavior was female. His hair was perfect, his makeup precise and thick, and his eyebrows plucked. Years ago I had seen people similar to him and had run into quite a few around Shahr Theater, but I had always avoided contact with them. Seeing them had made me sick with visions of sexual deviance. Mehrdad was friendly and kind, but I was not. I was angry that I was there, I felt it beneath me, and I was unwilling to even look at Mehrdad. But it was not God’s will that the situation remain tense. Mehrdad put all of his effort into winning me over. With behavior unique to a woman, he drew me in and began to confide in me. Then came the tears…and after the tears, “Shide” was the only way I could see her. She told me so much about her life, and after some time, I realized I had taken her hands into mine, saying, “I understand, I understand.”That was the seed for this film. That was how it all started.

I learned that Amir, the owner of the house, was scheduled to have a sex-change operation a few days later. That is when I made my decision. I thought that maybe I could make a film that could transform society’s views and prejudices into a fair and reasonable perspective. Just as I was embarrassed at my initial behavior, I wanted others to notice their own prejudices. There was not much time before “Rima’s” (Amir’s feminine name) operation. I said to myself, “Here goes nothing,” and began. Amir was the focal point of the film: Amir’s life, before the operation, the actual operation, and her life after. Mehrdad (“Shide”), Ali (“Hilda”), and Shahin (“Sharmine”) were three other transsexuals who appeared in the film, along with Amir’s mother and sister, a sex-change specialist, and an Islamic cleric.

How would you describe the film?
Because of financial difficulties, it took three years to complete the film and still it was not perfect. However, the result, with all of its shortcomings, was very rewarding. Because it took so long to make and because Amir set out to live his life, the film took on a fictional quality. But, in fact, it is 100 percent documentary. As far as I know, when I started, no one had discussed this subject in Iran. At the time it was considered crazy. Everyone told me that the film would just collect dust in my house. But I thought that even among people who come to my house as guests, the film could be influential and worthwhile. This project would not be in vain. By the time I finished, three years later, several films with similar themes had been made. When it was ready, I took the film to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Without a single “powerful connection” or bureaucratic difficulty, I was given permission to show my work, but only in domestic and international festivals. Interestingly enough, even though I was given this permission, most domestic festivals declined to screen the film because of the sensitive nature of the subject. It Sometimes Happens was only accepted by a large annual celebration of Iranian Cinema where it was nominated for an award for best documentary and for best documentary director.

How many times were you able to show this film? What attitudes, debates, and controversy surrounded it?
Until now, the film has been shown four times. We have had two scheduled private screenings of the film and, in both cases, we held an additional screening. There was some commotion in the first screening on June 27, 2006 in Khane-ye Honarmandan (House of Artists.) One or two viewers, who found the film inappropriate, protested and questioned the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s authorization of such a film. As it turned out, there was no need for me to answer or defend myself, because the rest of the audience answered on my behalf.

The film was shown a second time just a few days ago in Khane-ye Sinema (House of Cinema) in a theater that was so packed that there was no standing room. There were just as many viewers outside as those admitted into the theater. The only thing we could do to accommodate them was to schedule an additional screening.

The audience’s attitude was very rewarding, as the majority claimed that their views on the subject had changed. I was grateful because that was precisely what I had hoped for. Many of those who attended were theater and movie actors and actresses, musicians, and writers. The second showing also brought in many people from various embassies as well as United Nations staff in Iran.

In a question and answer session, one woman remarked that a few days prior she had seen a film by a famous female filmmaker that had a minor transsexual character and that it had made her laugh in the theater. She went on to say, “I repent right here in the presence of God that I made fun of those people and laughed at them that day.” One famous actor noted that, “I have always seen those people, and even once or twice I played the role of one, but never understood them.” One Danish gentleman said that in spite of living in a free country where these issues are not taboo, It Sometimes Happens had changed his view. When he returns to his country, he will address this subject with others. I am so happy that the film was able to encourage viewers to gain more insight and develop a fairer attitude in regard to this subject.

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