Three new documentaries explore the chasm between Iran and the West

[17 June 2009]

By Glenn Garvin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Her husband was billing it as nothing more than a prolonged vacation, but Farah Diba, the queen of Iran, knew it was much more. As she climbed aboard the royal aircraft bound for Egypt, the streets of Tehran were full of demonstrators chanting “Death to the shah!” She recalls thinking, “Is this going to be forever?”

Thirty years later, it feels like it — for the queen, for Iran, for us. The string of geopolitical firecrackers lit that morning just keeps exploding with growing ferocity — the two hostage crises, the Iran-Iraq war, the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, Sept. 11. Now we stand locked in confrontation with not just a nearly nuclear Iran, but the entire Muslim world.

The continuing fallout from the Islamic revolution that toppled the shah, ranging from the broadly political to the intimately personal, is the subject of three spellbinding documentaries to be televised during the next week. Watching them makes it depressingly clear what a vast gulf — of history, of politics, of culture, of elemental perception of human nature — exists between the two countries, and why American presidents as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton have found it impossible to bridge.

The most ambitious of the three is the National Geographic Channels “Iran and the West,” airing Monday, which in just 90 minutes of running time deftly sketches three decades of lethal political schism. Fashioning its story from a truly astonishing series of interviews with everybody from Jimmy Carter to former Iranian president Seyed Mohammad Khatami, “Iran and the West” tells a tale rife with diplomatic duplicity and dysfunction.

Neither side has ever dealt very honestly with the other. Iran’s persistent pledges to end its support for terrorism are inevitably followed by another round of kidnappings, assassinations or bombings. The Carter administration botched its own attempts at a peaceful settlement of the 1979 hostage crisis by feeding intelligence to Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s war against Iran. Countless promising diplomatic initiatives have been disfigured by domestic politics, with both governments promising more than they could deliver. In the end, the two nations have become so mistrustful that they can’t even make common cause for long against mutual enemies like Saddam or the Taliban.

But underlying all the double-dealing, “Iran and the West” suggests, is a fundamental clash of civilizations that makes the Cold War seem like a simple misunderstanding. Nothing illustrates it like former Iranian president Khatami’s explanation of why he was ousted from an earlier government. Iran’s religious establishment, he says, was outraged by his claim that “Islam can coexist with freedom, democracy and the modern world.”

Small wonder, then, that “Iran and the West” flatly predicts President Obama’s recent overture to Iran (“We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist”) will fail. Iran’s fundamentalist regime “rejects liberalism and secularism, principles that govern Western society,” the show concludes. “The many dead on both sides have reinforced this bitter divide. It will be very difficult for any new leader to shift the weight of history.”

By contrast, the HBO2 documentary “The Queen and I” is a story of reconciliation — but not between Iran and the United States. Rather, it’s a searingly personal encounter between Iranian exile filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani, who as a teenaged Communist militant helped topple the shah, and the deposed Queen Farah.

As a child in a dirt-poor Iranian household, Sarvestani nursed a fairy-tale fascination for the wealthy queen she followed on TV that turned to loathing as her politics turned left. But when the Islamic government that followed the shah’s executed her 17-year-old brother for passing out protest leaflets and Sarvestani followed Queen Farah into exile, her attitude wavered again.

Though “The Queen and I” starts as a traditional documentary, it soon turns into a personal confessional. “This film has a mind of its own,” says Sarvestani, admitting that she’s charmed by the queen — as most viewers will be. Though Farah faithfully carries out her symbolic duties as the last icon of the dwindling ranks of Iran’s exiled monarchists, in private moments she exudes a sweet quirkiness, sending her old iPod to a one Iranian stranger who has the temerity to ask for it, telephoning another who writes from Tehran that he’d like to talk politics and history with her someday.

Farah sidesteps some questions about the repression of the shah’s government, but Sarvestani admits it’s not so different than her own reluctance to contemplate what guilt she bears for luring her brother into the political activism that killed him. In the end, as Farah breaks into tears while discussing a daughter who died in a London hotel room of a drug overdose, the two women with such different politics are bound together by the heartbreak of exile and roads not taken.

Another sort of heartbreak figures in “Be Like Others,” young Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian’s startling film about Tehran transsexuals. In what seems like a strange glint of liberalism in Iran’s stark fundamentalist landscape, sex-change surgery is legal, even though homosexuality is a capital offense.

But as “Be Like Others” follows several patients through the surgery, it’s soon obvious that changing genders in Iran is like changing cells in a prison. Ostracism, not just by society but families, too (one young man preparing for surgery says his father calls every day: “He keeps telling me to come home so he can kill me”) and the only real profession open to the transgendered is prostitution under the guise of “temporary Islamic marriages” that last just an hour.

It’s not even clear how many patients seeking the surgery are truly transgendered — that is, born with different physical and mental genders. Some are almost certainly gays seeking to avoid execution for their homosexuality. Certainly most of the young people in “Be Like Others” would prefer to simply live on the undefined frontiers of gender rather than go through the painful, life-shortening surgery they’ve signed up for. Says one despondent young woman-to-be: “This is just the beginning of hell.”


8-9:30 p.m. Wednesday (June 17); repeating at 2:40 a.m. June 23 and 3 p.m. June 29

9-11 p.m. Monday
National Geographic Channel

8-9:15 p.m. June 24

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