The filmmaker talks about the need for honest depictions of sex, race and gender, as her acclaimed debut feature screens at SBS On Demand.
Jessica Minshall

23 Oct 2015 - 4:20 PM  UPDATED 23 Oct 2015 - 4:52 PM

Desiree Akhavan ’s Appropriate Behaviour tells the story of twenty-something Brooklynite Shirin (played by Akhavan) dealing with a messy break-up to Rebecca Henderson's Maxine.

The film begins with Shirin collecting the last of her belongings after moving out, and the question of what to do with the now unwanted gift of a golden strap-on. Shirin is brash and awkward and still in love with Maxine.

This is a comedy, but a sly one and at Shirin’s expense. And it has just earned Akhavan a nomination in this year's Gotham Awards for independent filmmaking, in the Breakthrough Director category.

‘My elevator pitch was always that Appropriate Behaviour is a gay Annie Hall in a lot of ways. But it’s about a girl who is trying to win back her ex-girlfriend while come out as bisexual to her Iranian American family,” Akhavan says, speaking to SBS Movies from her London home.

“I don’t really think a joke is earned or funny unless it’s kind of laced in despair."

The Iranian family is a rich source of humour in the film. There’s the scene where her parents are visiting the then-happy couple’s home for the first time, with Shirin explaining that she and her ‘roommate’ share a bed simply to save money and that they are just being ‘very European’. As well as lovely moments of sibling rivalry.

The film is not Akhavan's life, but it is very much drawn from it and it is hard to imagine a similar level of authenticity if it wasn't someone who was Iranian-American and gay telling this story. This authenticity is important to Akhavan.

“I do feel slightly allergic to watching people represent marginalised communities that they don’t belong to, because it’s a quote-unquote ‘interesting story’,” she says.

“It’s not a hard and fast rule. I feel like Paris is Burning is made by a white woman and it’s an incredible documentary, so if I were to say across the board ‘no,  you must belong to that community to depict it’ then that film wouldn’t exist and I think it’s an incredible piece of work.”

Akhavan says she was partially raised by television, despite not seeing herself reflected in what she was watching.

“I don’t just mean that in the superficial sense of ‘no-one had my skin colour’ or ‘I never saw or heard of bisexuality’, also as a person - no-one had my sense of humour, my view of the world, the things I find funny. I felt very alone in that.”

One film Akhavan watched growing up which had a tragic and comic tone that rang true for her was Muriel’s Wedding.

“I don’t really think a joke is earned or funny unless it’s kind of laced in despair. Unless it’s Lucille Ball,” she says.

Ahkavan is well versed in acerbic comedy, her web series The Slope about two ‘superficial, homophobic lesbians’, which predated Appropriate Behaviour, was also very successful.

If it seems like Ahkavan is using her comedy to say certain difficult things about the communities she’s a part of, you wouldn’t be mistaken.

“If I’m not going to skewer myself and the communities I belong to and really hold up a mirror to that, then what’s the point?”

But she says, her work isn’t necessarily intended to be political.

“I was asked recently if I was an activist and I think I am the world’s laziest activist. I don’t come to this from a place of activism or changing people’s minds, but I also think that the best stories have something to say that people should be hearing. It should continue a dialogue basically,” she says.

“Iranians depicted on screen are victim or villain, and homosexuals on screen are either victims or jokes. And I’m not interested in either of those depictions.”

Appropriate Behaviour review
Quirky indie gives Persian perspective on Brooklyn.

Akhavan also appeared in Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls in season four, playing one of Hannah’s classmates in the writing program. The story is that Dunham offered Akhavan the role because she loved Appropriate Behaviour so much.

“Iranians depicted on screen are victim or villain, and homosexuals on screen are either victims or jokes."

Both Dunham and Akhavan write and cast themselves as sexually frank, sometimes unlikeable women trying to get some of how life is for them into popular culture. But Girls was heavily criticised for its lack of diversity. 

“I’ve turned down projects that I’ve felt like ‘oh man, this is just white people having white problems’. And it’s not even a commentary on the skin colour of the characters that will be cast, it has to do with the story," Akhavan says.

“In terms of Girls though, I do not think Lena has an obligation to cast a Benetton ad, the world according to how it should be… Her show should exist as she’s sees fit and also there should be more shows made by more racially diverse directors who are telling more racially diverse stories.”

Girls has also been criticised over the missing condoms in all of the casual sex scenes. There’s also a lot of casual sex in Appropriate Behaviour, and no condoms.

“There’s only one opportunity where you watch the sex begin. Like in the other scenes you enter the scene in the middle. It’s not like there’s an opportunity to put one on or take one off, there’s never like a Distinct Condom Moment. It would be superfluous, to be like a character being like ‘I’m so glad I’m wearing a condom right now’,” Akhavan says.

“However there’s one scene, the first time she has sex in the movie and we did stage, it was actually really important to me, I was like 'I want him to put on a condom'. I know it’s boring empty space screen time but that’s how people have sex and I want to depict that.”

While the moment was later left on the cutting room floor, Akhavan says honesty in sex scenes is important to her.

Akhavan’s currently working on her next project with Appropriate Behaviour producer Cecilia Frugiuele, writing a feature film based on a young adult novel.

“I see it as a modern day ode to The Breakfast Club and John Hughes’ films. But of course it’s not literal, that ode.”

She’ll also star in a British TV series, “a comedy about a lesbian who comes out as bisexual in her thirties and starts dating men for the first time”.

You can watch Appropriate Behaviour now at SBS On Demand.

See more SBS Movies news

The Lobster review: An achingly dystopian rom-com
Being single is criminal in black comedy.
SBS On Demand: Loving Queer
To mark the release of 'Holding the Man', we've compiled a list of 10 favourite movies celebrating sexual diversity in our SBS On Demand collection.