Dir: Tamaz Eshaghian. USA, Canada, Iran, 2008. 74mins
Be Like Others , a documentary on a topic that seems almost like the start of a joke -- did you know that in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death, but sex-change operations are not only sanctioned by the governing clerics but almost actively encouraged' -- turns out to be a thoughtful, touching, and at times even wrenching study of sexual and religious hypocrisy in that troubled land.
Directed by the Iranian-American filmmaker Tanaz Eshaghian, who was born in Iran in 1974, this would make a fascinating addition to any festival. It also promises to enjoy a robust life on DVD and in ancillary markets, and may even be a candidate for theatrical release in selected sites in North America and Europe.
The film is efficiently and dramatically structured around the build-up to, and the aftermath of, several transsexual operations. In some cases, it's clear that young men and women who feel alienated from the sexual identities that nature (or God, as they uniformly put it) has given them, gain an overwhelming sense of liberation once their gender has been properly re-engineered.
But in other cases, however, people who in almost any other country would simply be (perhaps grudgingly) accepted as homosexuals are forced to undergo the operation to accommodate sexual desires they have no control over.
Much of the film is devoted to what turns out, somewhat surprisingly, to be almost always the crux of the matter: the acceptance or non-acceptance of the procedure by the transgendered person's family. Director Eshaghian was lucky enough (or clever enough) to be on hand to film one family's tortured but eventually heartwarming journey from outrage to full acceptance. On the other hand, the most moving story in the film is that of the suicidal young woman, formerly a man and now a prostitute, who has been utterly rejected by her family and bitterly regrets opting for the operation.
Along the way, we meet other central players who provide riveting testimony. One, the imam who is the government's semi-official 'expert' on sex-change operations, argues that whatever was not labeled a sin in the Koran, which was written in the 8th century AD, cannot be considered a sin now either. Since, not surprisingly, no mention is made in the holy book of transsexual operations, unlike homosexuality, there's no problem.
Logically speaking, the obvious attraction of the operation for Islamic clerics is that the sexual activity that results afterward is now 'properly' aligned. The result is that some 450 are performed in Iran every year.
Some of the people the film follows, however, remain tragically stuck between two worlds, and discrimination and violence are ever-present, especially in the villages. In any case, director Eshaghian always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and the editing, constructed for both maximum illumination and maximum drama, is superb.
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