Frameline 32: Sex changes

Pub date June 17, 2008
SectionFilm Review

TAKE ONE In Iranian director Tanaz Eshagian’s Be Like Others, fear hovers over a whole nation, leading to schizophrenic behavior. By concentrating on three different individuals before and after they went through sexual reassignment operations in Iran, Eshagian reveals an incredibly sad and asphyxiating society — one where homosexuality is banned and punishable by death but changing one’s sex is legal.

No matter how progressive the act of changing one’s sex might sound, Be Like Others proves that it has conservative and oppressive connotations in Iran. Most of the people considering surgery in Eshagian’s film do so because they feel that it’s their only alternative to a gay male or lesbian identity that involves disrespect, harassment, and the possibility of a horrible death. Yet instead of finding acceptance post-operation, many are even more alienated.

The reason for this insanity, as explained by one official: being gay or a cross-dresser allegedly disrupts the “social order.” In other words, gender-bending blurs the distinctions between the sexes, making Iranian social role-assignment — largely determined by sex — a confusing task.

Mind-boggling and utterly scary, Be Like Others is a great comment on people’s obsessive need to label and compartmentalize, and a statement about our disgusting fear of anything that lacks clear delineation. At first, Eshagian’s documentary might make you feel lucky to live in a country where measures against homosexuality are not as extreme. But as it sinks in, it will make you question how far removed the situation in Iran really is from that in the United States. (Maria Komodore)

TAKE TWO At first the Iranian laws that make Tanaz Eshagian’s movie necessary seem not just cruel, but absurdly and arbitrarily so. How could homosexuality be illegal and punishable by death, while the government not only sanctions sexual-reassignment surgery but acts as its facilitator?

In Be Like Others, the answer comes from Cleric Kariminiya, a so-called Theological Expert on Transexuality, during an information session for prospective patients and their families. While Islamic law explicitly forbids homosexuality, he explains, there is no such explicit restriction on changing one’s gender.

In other words, the binary sexual politics of Iranian authority are undermined by the existence of queer citizens, whose mannerisms or predilections suggest a continuum. Eshagian’s powerful film follows a few citizens who, too visibly close to the middle of that continuum, are forced to decide between the suffering and danger of their current lot and an abrupt surgical introduction into social legitimacy.

The decision-making process these individuals face is extremely difficult viewing. Those people who successfully transition often have no other option but sex work to survive. Suicide is rampant.

Eshagian’s project is exceptional because it leaves the viewer enlighteningly confused about Iranian attitudes toward gender and law. The most fascinating character in the film is a transgender woman dedicated to the care of patients in transition. She is supportive, devoted to her patients’ well-being, and fully entrenched in the traditional Iranian views of men and women. (Jason Shamai)


Mon/23, 7 p.m., Victoria