"Be Like Others": On the Fringes of Iranian Society By Matti Rämö

in 10th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival

by Matti Rämö

The holy books of many religions were written in an era which barely resembles the 21st century. Still the way that religious rules are interpreted may not have changed with the rest of the world. Such is the case in Islamic Iran’s stand on sexual minorities: following the guidance of the Koran, the Middle Eastern country considers homosexuality to be punishable by death. Yet, due to reform set by the late Ayatollah Khomeini, sex change operations have been legal for “diagnosed transsexuals” since 1983.

The coexistence of capital punishment for homosexuality and the possibility of sex change for transsexuals create enormous social pressure for Iranian homosexuals. In order to desire who they naturally desire without the risk of loosing their lives, they are pressured to transform themselves into something they are not. This is the sad dilemma Tanaz Eshaghian studies in her broadminded and intelligent documentary Be Like Others.

33-year old Eshaghian is an Iranian born director who left Iran as a child with her mother. Currently she lives in Canada. In Be Like Others, Eshaghian’s first feature-length documentary, her background seems to have helped in gaining the confidence of the characters: gay men and transvestites that have undergone sex change operation or are contemplating whether to do so. Eshaghian approaches the Iranian sex change phenomena from a critical point of view. Her criticism rises from the vast subject matter without underlining it too much. This is one of Be Like Others’ greatest strengths.

The central arena for the documentary is the waiting room of Dr. Mir-Jalali’s office. There the camera catches several open discussions between patients about their fears and expectations. The Paris-trained and Teheran-based doctor is Iran’s leading expert in the area of sex-change surgery. He claims to have done 450 sex change operations in the last 12 years. The overall number of sex change operations in Iran is only topped by Thailand.

The documentary has two main characters. Ali Askar, 24 at the time of shooting, is planning to change his sex under extremely difficult circumstances. His father has threatened to kill him, if he goes through with the operation. “If I didn’t have to operate, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t touch God’s creation”, Ali says. As he is, he feels he doesn’t have an identity.

Ali doesn’t feel comfortable amongst men who tend to harass him or ridicule him. But as a man he is unable to work with women. Despite deep difficulties leaving Iran is not an option for Ali Askar. “I am an Iranian. I want to live here and this society tells you: you have to be either a man on a woman”, he says and crystallizes the core of the problem. Iranian society is so keen on fixed categories that it is unable to see anything that doesn’t fit into them. The thoroughness of the sex change process reflects this attitude. The surgery itself isn’t enough but the authorities also change the birth certificate as if the first sex never existed.

For homosexuals, sex change presents itself as a way of avoiding shame and discrimination. But the cost of becoming a full member of society through surgery can be devastating. In Be Like Others, we can see this from Ali’s experience.

When he finally goes through with the operation and becomes Negar, his family disowns her. Deeply depressed Negar says she regrets the surgery. She feels emotionally amputated.

“When parents can kill the love for their own child inside themselves, I have killed love in my being. I will never fall in love”, she says, a year after the surgery.

For Anoosh, sex change brings a more positive outcome. As Anahita, she is able to get engaged to her boyfriend and get rid of the constant harassment by Iran’s morality police. Also her mother, who had earlier explained her disappointment in her son but had still been far from disowning him, is happy at receiving a daughter. “A boy will always just get married and leave his mother, but a girl stays”, she explains.

In Negar and Anahita, Eshaghian has found strong and outspoken characters. Eshaghian tells their stories in an understanding and natural manner. Even if there are several heartbreaking details about Negar’s life, the director doesn’t wallow in them. This gives Be Like Others a discreet tone.

With subject matter as strong as this, you don’t need to shout your message for it to stand out. Eshaghian’s documentary is also deeply emotional even without excessive sentimentality. Be Like Others is not very cinematic but, as an issue-driven documentary, it doesn’t rely heavily on visual terms.