In her last film, Love Iranian-American Style, director Tanaz Eshaghian placed herself screen-center and spent hours interviewing well-meaning relatives and commitment-phobic past boyfriends to paint a picture of her culture’s take on courtship. For her hotly tipped new documentary Be Like Others, she focuses her lens on the transsexual counterculture in Iran — where sex changes are legal, despite Über-conservative social values — by following a group of young men as they consider and eventually undergo sex-change operations. She spoke to Vulture from Sundance, where her film premiered on Saturday night.
How did you find your characters?
I went to the predominant sex-change surgeon in Tehran, and I just sat there in the waiting room. It was fascinating. The whole culture was being played out in these conversations in the waiting room. There was this one hilarious conversation where this mother was talking about her son and said, "But my son is now 24 and if he becomes a she, well, at this age who on earth is going to want to marry her?" It was so funny. The same concerns that my traditional family has, this woman is now having for her son who is going to become a girl.
Why did you call it Be Like Others?
When my characters were explaining why they want to have surgery, they would say, "I want to live like everybody else. I want to be like others. I'm not a weirdo. I'm not a degenerate. I'm not a pervert. I'm not corrupt. I'm not a homosexual. I'm not filthy." They were just so tired and so traumatized by being looked down on and being looked at with this gaze of, "Oh, well, you’re just a sexual pervert, that's all you are."
So they really don't identify as homosexual?
That's right. Being a homosexual is tremendously shameful, and it's considered something that someone is choosing to do because they have a morally corrupt character. They would tell me, "I'm ill and there's a cure. And you can't judge me because it's outside the realm of judgment; it's a medical condition."
The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa permitting sex changes, right? What compelled him to do that?
The anecdote is that a male who is now a female stormed Khomeini's compound and managed to get in front of Khomeini and opened up her top and was like, "I'm a woman, don't you see? I'm a woman and I need help." And Khomeini said, "Woman, put on a chador. Cover yourself. You're disgraceful." And he, who's now a she, claims it was the happiest moment of her life — when Khomeini called her a woman.
I've read that plastic surgery is actually massively popular in Iran. Why do you think that is?
It's a really vain culture. It’s like downtown New York City, I swear to God. I can make 60,000 films, but if I don't look pretty one day, my mom is very upset.