[17 June 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
I’m not used to having other people decide what I can and cannot film.
—Nahid Persson Sarvestani
“It was very difficult thinking, ‘Will this be forever?’” remembers Queen Farah of the day she and the Shah of Iran left Tehran in 1979. “We were leaving our country and all that was dear and meaningful to us. We were leaving everything behind and going to an unknown future.” As she speaks, you see what looks like home-movie footage: the royal couple boards a plane, only their lower bodies visible in the awkward, handheld frame. From a shot of the plane taxiing away, The Queen and I cuts to a raucous image of crowds in the street, fists raised in celebration, voices loud: “Thanks to Khomeini, the Shah is gone forever!”
The story continues, of course. The revolution in Iran does not turn out as so many of its participants imagine, as the Ayatollah, deemed Supreme Leader, initiated a regime based on Sharia. As filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani narrates, “Khomeini promised us a secular democracy where every group could have a voice,” but in practice, “Everyone opposing him or theocracy was silenced.” The ensuing mass executions included her brother, Rotsam, “only 17 years old when he was hanged.”
One of the revolutionaries who took to the streets to cheer the Shah’s banishment, Sarvestani notes the irony of her own experience. Targeted by the Ayatollah’s regime, she escaped to Sweden, where she pursued a career as a documentary maker. Now, in an effort to understand her own journey—from a child who admired the queen on television to a committed revolutionary, and at last, to an exile accused of being both a communist and a royalist—Sarvestani asks Farah if she might film her (“Something about her still intrigues me”). To her surprise, the queen agrees. And so Sarvestani boards a plane for Paris. “I have mixed feelings about going to the house of my former enemy,” she says in voiceover while riding the metro. “What am I going to tell my friends who suffered under the Shah’s regime?”
At the queen’s home, Sarvestani makes her way up the long staircase, her shoes clunk-clunking on the marble floors. She slips off her backpack in order to sit, surrounded by ornate picture frames and elaborate draperies. Sipping tea, Sarvestani faces doubts: “And now she makes me wait,” she fumes quietly. “If it weren’t for my film, I would get up and leave.” And then Farah enters, all self-conscious grace and reserve. “What would you like to be called?” asks Sarvestani. “Your majesty.”
Thus begins a difficult relationship, one the filmmaker questions and reassesses repeatedly. The queen is acutely aware of her public role. When Sarvestani suggests she follow her to he hairdressers’ Farah refuses: “I have an image to maintain and I’d rather preserve that,” she says, arranging for a visit to a cemetery instead, a site more conducive, apparently, the royal obligations and appearances. At first, Farah appears not to know much about her new acquaintance; when her secretary learns of Sarvestani’s “leftist, anti-Shah background,” however, the queen decides against the film. Standing at the cemetery where they were supposed to meet, Sarvestani is irritated all over again. “They’re all the same,” she determines. “As soon as you don’t agree with their ideology, they cut you off.”
Still, the film shows Sarvestani’s investment in the project—not only to document the queen’s present life, but also to work through her own childhood interest in the royal family. Surely, as she points out more than once, her experience was absolutely different from Farah’s. Where the queen lived a opulent, “unreachable life of legend” that sheltered her from the hardships her husband’s rule imposed on others—the incarcerations and executions—the filmmaker’s mother raised eight children by weaving carpets 15 hours a day, her own husband dead of tuberculosis when Sarvestani was just nine years old. Unable to shake her fascination with the queen, Sarvestani puts together a trailer for the film that might be, “to show her I’m not going to make a bad film about her,” the queen watches the trailer and agrees to the project, again.
This scene, where Farah views the trailer, appears in The Queen and I, which suggests that she reenacted it for Sarvestani once she and her crew returned to Paris. It also underscores the very careful construction of the film’s drama, along with somber soundtrack music over shots of a pensive Sarvestani looking out windows or riding in cars en route to meet with the queen. She points out her discomfort on some occasions (receptions held by royalists who look forward to the monarchy’s reinstatement in the form of Farah’s son Reza: “It’s odd that the only person I feel comfortable with in this crowd is Farah,” says Sarvestani, alternately standing apart from well-appointed guests and smiling among them). And yet, the film also includes scenes where the women are enjoying each other’s company, shopping for sweets and visiting Parisian galleries featuring work by Iranian artists. They share stories of grief (the queen lost a daughter, Sarvestani her brother) as well as conversations about what it was like to be the Shah’s wife, which entailed enduring his betrayals (“If he had an affair on the side to make him feel better,” she reasons, it was a minor concern in relation to “my place in history”).
As they become what she calls “friends,” Sarvestani comes to appreciate Farah’s complicated life and admire her persistence under duress, even to like her. She finds that they “share a profound longing for the Iran we both love and dream the same dream, to touch its soil again.” The trick here is parsing the “Iran we both love.” While both women deplore the ongoing rigid religious rule and efforts to keep citizens—especially women—ignorant, they remain split on the efficacy and benefits of a monarchy.
Sarvestani is surprised to find she has anything at all in common with the queen, but her film also draws lines between them. In part this has to do with questions unformulated—to maintain access to her subject, Sarvestani has to be careful of what she asks and how she asks it. In her narration—which serves as a kind of confession as well as commentary on the evolving relationship—Sarvestani worries that she hasn’t gotten to the issues that matter most to her, namely, the horrific violence of the Shah’s regime.
When at last she asks Farah, “Don’t you think it would have been better if we were given more freedom of expression?” the queen nods. “Of course it would, in hindsight.” Her responses are measured, ever premised on her acute awareness of her “place in history.” As it sets up a contrast between Sarvestani’s worries on display and the queen’s controlled self-performance, The Queen and I is, in the end, a very “good film,” precisely because it isn’t only about the queen.