Independent Lens: Arusi Persian Wedding

“I wasn’t ever on a mission to marry an American woman or a woman who looked like Heather. It’s just what happened.” On its face, the romance of Alex Tehrani and his wife Heather (nee Weeks) seems storybookish: equally charming, pretty, and willing to articulate their feelings, they embrace one another’s different backgrounds. When they decide to travel to Iran in order to have a second, Muslim wedding, their goal seems simple, as Heather phrases it: “I think the really important part of this trip,” she says, “is for Alex’s dad to have completion of our wedding.”

Alex’s father is Reza, his mother an American, Sharon. Though she’s deceased, Sharon appears as a kind of nostalgic marker in Arusi Persian Wedding, Alex’s sister Marjan Tehrani’s documentary of the journey, preparations, and ceremony, airing as part of PBS’ Independent Lens. Snapshots show Sharon and Reza in their optimistic youth. “In 1968,” Marjan narrates, “Our dad took our mom to Iran to have a Persian wedding.” Back then, she recounts, Iran and the U.S. were “great allies,” the U.S. having supported the coup d’etat that ousted popular Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh and installed the Shah, the latter willing to hand over large portions of Iran’s oil profits to the Americans, reversing the process toward independence that Mossadegh had initiated.

While the wedding provides compelling visuals and some minor melodrama (concerning Heather’s decision to convert, on paper, to Islam from her vague Christianity, as well as her dress, as the one she brings along from the States must be replaced, according to her new relatives and family friends), the film is most interesting as it integrates its personal stories within a broad historical context. If Marjan’s account of shifting U.S.-Iran relations is cursory, if critical of the U.S., and the archival footage familiar, the layers of background this provides for the wedding are complicated and subtle.

Midway through Arusi Persian Wedding, Alex and Heather arrange for their fathers to meet — both residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, they have never made the effort themselves, despite their children’s eight-year relationship. The encounter is alternately tense and superficial, as Reza does his best to smooth over political disagreements between Duane Weeks and Reza’s current wife, Parvin. “So,” she asks her guest, “How do you feel about the policies of this [American] government in the Middle East?” the camera shows Heather sipping her drink on the sofa as her father responds, “I agree. I think President Bush was very wise in doing some of the things he has done in Iraq and Afghanistan.” He pauses, “Iran is a whole different situation, it’s not clear.” Reza steps into the film frame, suggesting, “You should try some of this fish.”

Parvin persists, filling in details about Saddam Hussein. “The U.S. supported him during a period of 10 years,” she points out, “When he was using the weapons of mass destruction. The Americans helped him fight the Iranians. Now that he doesn’t have weapons of mass destruction, they decide all of a sudden to attack him.” Duane, whose son was deployed to Iraq, is feeling nervous about Heather’s upcoming trip — the American news about Iran suggests the place is dangerous. “I disagree,” he tells Parvin, “He had the capability to threaten the United States.” Reza smiles, “Looks like everyone needs a drink!”

The scene ends on a not-so-reconciled note, as Duane observes, “We’re all fortunate to be able to live in this country.” This much is confirmed, mostly, by the ensuing trip, which ends up a celebration of the beauty and tradition of Iran as it simultaneously suggests that cultural, legal, and political limits on personal freedoms can be at least inconvenient. The film uses Heather as a stranger-in-a-strange-land sort of guide — she is briefly troubled when Alex suggests that she needs to replace her pink head scarf with “a simple colored scarf.” After all, he assesses, “You’re not Jackie O at the bazaar.” Heather smiles weakly and agrees to go with Reza to the market, where, he promises, they will find all sorts of scarves for 15 cents each.

This episode goes nowhere (no blow-ups, no looming doubts), but it does point out the anxiety Alex feels being back in his native country following 25 years away. Worried about what people think, he’s disinclined to hold Heather’s hand on the street (she points out that another couple is doing it, though they are not interracial). At the same time, Heather is impressed by the warmth and friendliness of all her new relatives, while Alex and Marjan both recall the “nastiness” of comments about Iranians in the States, beginning during the hostage crisis and carrying through to now. Even as he tries to recover his past — he’s lost the Farsi he spoke as a child, but offers a local newspaper his services as a photographer for free, hoping to contribute and feel “part of” the current culture — Alex comes to understand that his own, mostly western experience makes him as nearly as strange in Tehran as Heather.

Alex worries that his wife will feel out of place, but comes to realize he is also strange here. “I want you to like this,” he says, “but I’m not even sure if it’s working for me. I can’t communicate and everything in this country is about talking to people.” A road trip — marked unimaginatively by a map on screen — takes the couple and film crew out into the country, where they appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the more relaxed attitudes of non-urban communities. Here they feel less pressured, more like tourists. Their sense of relief away from the wedding preparations per se seems less specific to Iran and more generally applicable to how weddings create all kinds of impossible expectations.

RATING 6 / 10