Facing Mirrors

Published on September 28th, 2012

By Laurence Barber

Director: Negar Azarbayjani
Writers: Fereshteh Taerpoor & Negar Azarbayjani
Starring: Sheyesteh Irani, Qazal Shakeri, Homayoun Ershadi, Hengameh Ghaziani, Saber Abar
Length: 102 min.

It comes as a shock when watching Facing Mirrors to learn that sex reassignment surgery is a legal practice in Iran. In fact, the country’s government will even fund up to half of the operation’s cost. Under a fatwa from Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, Iran has become a country with the second-highest rate of sex reassignment in the world, after Thailand, and recognises a change of sex on the person’s birth certificate.

This revelation creates a fascinating contrast with the country’s civil rights record in other areas, particularly its treatment of women and LGBT people, who are still potentially subject to the death penalty under Shari’a law. Facing Mirrors, however, is content to explore this multi-faceted aspect of Iranian society through a deeply human story of unlikely friendship between Rana (Qazal Shakeri), a mother with a young son, and Adineh (Shayesteh Irani), a female-to-male transsexual who goes by the name Eddie.

Rana’s husband was swindled by a business partner and jailed for his inability to pay his debts, which has led her to become a taxi driver. On a quiet side road one day, she comes by Eddie, who is fleeing from an arranged marriage and a father who does not understand his plight. Rana agrees to drive Eddie to Kajoor where he will await the delivery of his passport, allowing him to flee the country, the stigma surrounding his transitive gender, and a father whose misguided attempt to “fix” him have only led to his deepening despair.

When Eddie’s secret is revealed Rana reacts with creeping horror, and in her confusion her car is hit by a truck. Upon waking she finds that Eddie has arranged care for her child, covered her medical expenses and had her car repaired, and Rana begins to discover the humanity of someone she has been taught to expect none from. Shakeri’s performance is nuanced, sweet and tragic in equal measure; her tic of wrapping her scarf around her like a shield to the world is a small but telling piece of acting.

Irani as Eddie, however, is the true revelation. Powerfully conveying the weariness of a person whose place in the world has been taken from them, his quick wit, compassion and depth make him a quietly terrific representation of a transsexual person in film. A teary scene between Eddie and his brother late in the film is particularly notable for being stunningly shot and rife with symbolism without ever being cloying or overbearing.

Playing a subtle role, Turaj Mansuri’s cinematography communicates the bitter beauty of Tehran and the simplicity of Rana’s life with a son but without her husband. The excellent script dwells on its characters but never lets the plot lose significance. A voiced-over sequence along a winding mountain road detailing Rana’s situation and Eddie’s hollow upbringing is stark but powerful in a film full of such moments.

In her debut feature, Azarbayjani has crafted a film that benefits hugely from treating a queer story as a human one, forgoing romance for an intimate friendship and overt politics for muted commentary. While Facing Mirrors occasionally errs on the side of clunkiness, it coalesces into a moving humanistic drama about difference and belonging in a world where such virtues are difficult to come by.

Facing Mirrors is screening as part of the 2012 Iranian Film Festival. See here for more details.

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