(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
THE REELER: Can you share some background about Be Like Others and how you came to this story?
TANAZ ESHAGHIAN: It is about Iranian men undergoing sex-change operations. I read an article about it and was immediately fascinated, because I was initially very surprised that it was allowed at all. I wondered how it could be possible that an Islamic country would OK such a operation. Just having grown up in Iranian culture, I knew it was a very traditional, conservative culture and society, so I wanted to go see how it was being played out in such a society and in the lives of people who are actually participating in it -- how they feel about it, how they're understanding it, how others are understanding it, what their concerns are, what their motives are.
R: Freely making a film about sexuality and gender issues in Iran is also something that most outside observers might find difficult to conceive. How did you approach that part of the project?
TE: I was very fortunate. I applied for official permission from the government. They have the UN permanent mission here in New York; I went over and asked them to request permission for me, and it was granted because this is legal and allowed and it's something that I would think they feel shines a different light on Iran; "We are modern, and we are taking part in modern times."
R: What about locating the subjects and persuading them to participate?
TE: I showed up to the most well-known doctor's clinic -- really the center for this operation -- and I just hung out in the waiting room. I'd spoken to the doctor and his assistant, and they'd had crews there before; they'd had news items done, so they were open to being filmed. That was never an issue. I showed up and I just loitered. That's how you get any film done: Loiter.
R: How about the sex-change subjects themselves, not to mention their families and significant others?
TE: Basically, the one who had the operation was there without his family; they refused to acknowledge the whole thing. They were in total denial. He was sort of adopted by another [post-op] character, Vida, who was just sort of at the clinic, where they met. They were without family, and they were a bit more open. I just started talking to them and being friendly with them. It's not like here, where you say, "Excuse me, do you think I could...?" You just start talking and filming. But there were plenty of people when I was there with a camera who said, "I don't want to talk to you; get your camera away from me." I filmed the ones who let me film. Interestingly enough, they were the ones who were not from Tehran; they were more often from the rural areas.
R: There are several stories here, but the story of Ali Askar / Negar -- who is abandoned throughout -- feels especially poignant and ultimately heartbreaking. Did you ever consider paring the film down to one subject or another?
TE: Well, they all had different stories, and on another level the film is about having family support -- especially in traditional societies where the family is your main source of support throughout your life. It's what keeps you surviving, as opposed to here, where we turn into individuals. With the subject Anoosh, her mother did not disown her. In Iran, you can get through anything as long as you have your family behind you, and that's the contrast I was trying to show.
R: This is your third film -- after I Call Myself Persian and Love Iranian-American Style -- to address specific issues of Iranian identity. What is it that draws you back to the subject, and how do you see yourself revisiting it in the future?
TE: I honestly have no idea. For some reason, when that issue is a part of something I'm endlessly fascinated. I find it really fascinating when you don't fit in, you know? Whether it was like in my last film, where I was too Americanized and I couldn't fit into the expectations of my family, I'd become kind of a black sheep. I saw that again with these people; Iran is a culture and society that doesn't allow much room to be anything other than a man or a woman. These people just didn't fit in, and when you don't fit in, as a result you push up against the logic of a culture and show what that logic is as you're not fitting in. Everyone else takes it as common sense, but not fitting in shows what common sense is.
R: What's your previous Sundance experience, and what are you looking forward to this time around with Be Like Others?
TE: I went for fun back in 2000, and I had a really good time. I'm just hoping that I have a good time this year; I've been working so hard, and I just want to have some fun. I've haven't really thought it through past that. I know all my screenings are sold out, so I'm pretty excited. I'm just hoping that people like the film and are moved by it, but at the same time don't try to put American labels on my characters. Try to understand them in their own context. That's really my only hope.
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