Rana (Qazal Shakeri), a conservative young mother, has been secretly driving a cab to support her family since her husband went to jail. When she picks up Adineh (Shayesteh Irani), a young woman from a wealthy family who is fleeing an arranged marriage and the country for a transgender operation, it’s a clash of class and belief systems. But soon enough, an unlikely alliance forms.
IRANIAN FILM FESTIVAL AUSTRALIA: Just as you think you’ve managed to get a handle on what is and isn’t allowed in Iranian filmmaking under the nation’s dictatorial theocracy, along comes a film to surprise. Facing Mirrors is the country’s first feature to examine the theme of transexuality.
the country’s first feature to examine the theme of transexuality
The fact of its screening in this year’s Iranian Film Festival Australia means it must have gained a degree of approval by a state-owned distributor. Yet the directorial debut feature for Negar Azarbayjani (co-written with Fereshteh Taerpoor) is hardly coy about its subject matter. Clearly its sympathies lie with its transgender character, someone born female who is planning to leave Iran for Germany to have a sex-change operation to male.
It may seem natural to assume that sex change operations are verboten under the clerical regime, but as its transsexual character, Adineh (Shayesteh Irani), explains, it’s now legal to have a sex change operation in Iran and loans are available. Whether the procedure is likely to meet widespread approval from society in general or the individual’s family is another question – one the film explores with insight.
The title seems to refer to the two main characters, in some ways opposites who nonetheless find much in common. Conservative young wife Rana (Qazal Shakeri) is driving a cab to make ends meet, apparently a daring thing for a woman in Iran, while her husband is in jail for unpaid debts incurred as a result of being betrayed by his business partner.
Her life takes a dramatic turn when she stops to give a lift to what looks like a young woman running down the road in a rural district to escape a carload of sexually harassing hoons. The stranger, Adineh, quickly offers Rana a million Tomans to drive her to a remote location.
At a rest stop, Rana is mystified when Adineh disappears into the men’s lavatories, and further intrigued when she witnesses a cop asking after her. (Viewers have already seen something unknown to Rana – that her passenger is on the run from the law as a result of skipping bail after a traffic accident in Tehran.)
When Adineh reveals she’s a 'trans" who was born female but plans a sex change to a man, the unworldly Rana panics and drives into a bus. Waking in hospital she discovers Adineh has paid her medical bills and arranged to get her damaged cab repaired. For a period this unlikely couple is destined to stick together.
The performances are terrific and the casting for Adineh particularly inspired – this viewer wasn’t sure if Irani was a male cast because of her effeminacy, or a woman cast because of her masculine qualities. I think it’s the latter but I wouldn’t swear to it, so persuasive is the character’s sexual ambiguity.
Adding to the acting heft is Homayoun Ershadi (best known in Australia as the star of Abbas Kiarostami’s Cannes Palme d’Or winning Taste of Cherry) as Adineh’s father, Pedar, a traditionalist patriarch hell bent on forcing his 'daughter" into an arranged marriage with a man.
The increasingly desperate attempt to escape from Pedar’s wedding plans lends a narrative tension, but Azarbayjani largely eschews thriller elements to explore what these two very different people find they have in common – both individuals prepared to stand against social convention. Yet again, the humanistic values that exemplify Iranian cinema shine through without a trace of sentimentality.