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« Ellar Coltrane and the Burden of the Iconic Role | Main | 6 Questions. Best Actress / Supporting Actress Races »
Wednesday
Sep302015

HBO’s LGBT History: Be Like Others (2008)

Manuel is working his way through all the LGBT-themed HBO productions.

Last week we looked at Bernard and Doris, which gave us a chance to wax on about two underrated actors, Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes. This week, we look abroad as we pause to think about Tanaz Eshaghian’s documentary Be Like Others (also known as Transsexual in Iran). More...

Be Like Others (HBO)
Written & Directed by: Tanaz Eshaghian

“In the Islamic Republic of Iran, sex change operations are legal.
Homosexuality is punishable by death.”

So begins Eshaghian’s doc. The paradox that exists within these two statements is what fuels much of the film, which paints a portrait of how a segment of men in Iran undergo sex-change operations so as to avoid being dubbed “homosexuals” and attempt, instead, to live a healthy heterosexual lifestyle. It’s a particularly hard concept to grasp, especially given our Western approach to gender and sexuality (and liberal rhetoric that continually reminds us that never shall the twain meet). Of course, doctors and patients alike assure us (and themselves) that actual gay men rarely go through the operation (and, in fact, openly spout homophobic abuse at those who choose to use their male bodies “alternatively” to pleasure other men).

“Iran today is one of the global leaders in sex-change operations. It performs more surgeries than any other country in the world. Except for Thailand.”

Given the mostly American-centered stories we have been tracking in this series, it is refreshing to be reminded that cultural clashes need not be sanded down but instead explored within their own borders. It’s easy to dismiss this practice as another example of gender normativity and homophobia but Eshaghian’s documentary unpacks many of these contradictory threads, finding advocates for all sides. “I am treated better when I wear women’s clothes,” Anoosh, a man thinking of going through with the surgery says, “Why can’t I just do that without the surgery?” “Because the Islamic law doesn’t allow it.” Much of the debate throughout questions the gendered pressure that promotes sex-change operations which is both hugely progressive and yet mired in retrograde thinking. Thus, you have men hoping to get the surgery saying it’s the only way they’ll find their identity, while others attack the rigid gender norms which force effeminate men to forgo their sex to fit in with society.

It’s an eye-opening documentary on a very buzzy topic (with a decidedly dour ending) and one which tackles very tricky territory, from the ways sex-change operations square with Islamic religious practices and the way this cottage industry is booming in a country better known for its oppression of women, to the personal toll discrimination has on transgender people. While it covers the same territory as Middle Sexes (which we looked at a few weeks back), its focus on the personal stories behind the surgery and the biology, make it a more engaging doc than Thomas's own.

 Fun Awards Fact: Eshaghian’s documentary was screened as part of the World Cinema - Documentary slate at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. The documentary winner that year in that category is one we’ll surely be talking about a lot these coming months: James Marsh’s Man on Wire, which profiles Philippe Petit and "the walk" which is at the center of Zemeckis’s latest razzle-dazzle of a film.

Next Week: Since NYFF is taking up a lot of my time, we’re gonna keep it short and sweet, by looking at Curb Your Enthusiasm and the episode a couple of you pointed out when we discussed HBO comedies: “Larry vs. Michael J. Fox” (HBO Go) where we meet a “pre-gay” kid.

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Reader Comments (1)

An incredibly absorbing and wrenching film - even though I saw it in the middle of a festival marathon, it left quite an impact and there are so many moments in it that still stand out in my memory seven years later. One of that decade's strongest documentaries. Should be much better known

September 30, 2015 | Unregistered Commentergoran

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