The 16th Utah Film Center’s Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival will feature a world premiere of Gracefully, a documentary by Iranian filmmaker Arash Eshaghi, which has been banned in Iran.
The Utah Review was privileged to screen this documentary, as mentioned last week in the preview of the film festival, which is set in rural Iran and focuses on a drag artist, 80, whose dance movement and handsewn costumes define grace in its most elegant aesthetic. Before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, he could perform freely without worries about repression, censorship or worse. Working as a cow farmer, he struggles to find the most discreet opportunities to express his art, worried that it will be forever lost.
The film also touches on a curious double standard in Islamic society, as men are permitted to portray women in religious-themed plays. Eshaghi’s visual presentation of dance scenes resonates in the film’s theme of the fragility of memory and cultural preservation during a time of intense suppression and censorship. It is a rare glimpse for American audiences into the lives of Iranians who live in quiet rural areas far from Tehran.
Part of the festival’s slate of 23 feature-length films, Gracefully will screen July 13 at 11:30 a.m. in the Black Box Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. The film runs an hour.
Eshaghi, 43, is a major Iranian documentary filmmaker. His work has screened at festivals around the world and has won numerous prizes.
In the first in-depth interview about the film’s premiere, Eshaghi agreed to answer questions by email. The responses open the vista into this exceptional documentary and the director articulates a theme that permeates many of this year’s Damn These Heels film offerings.
TUR: I would like to know about the conception and development of this project.
AE: Characters in my films are dissatisfied; they protest against the cumbersome rules of the society and they are after a refuge to be happy and in peace, but peace cannot be achieved easily. In Donkey, which I made in 2012, a man takes refuge to the world of donkeys. In Kharabat, a man prays in a corner. And, in Gracefully, a man resorts to dancing to tolerate life. What is important in the film is the idea and ideology of the director, not the subject. Subject is only a form and a vessel for the idea and lacks any significance alone. The idea of my film is that one must fight grief. Nietzsche says those who are not joyful must not enter his room. But to enter this room, one must pass a hard route and I show that route in my film.
TUR: How did you locate and decide on this particular subject?
AE: As dancing is a symbol of joy and happiness, I looked for a character whose life was all about dancing. It was obviously very hard to find such a character because dancing was forbidden after the 1979 Revolution, and this character was one of the few remaining pre-revolution dancers.
TUR: What were the challenges of filming?
AE: As I mentioned, dancing is forbidden in Iran and it is very hard to work on forbidden subjects. It is much harder about women dancers, so I looked for a man who played a woman’s role. Dancing among women was considered very improper and deplorable and women were not allowed to display themselves. Therefore, men replaced women in many cases and it happened in dancing, too. Men would dress like women to dance in ceremonies and gatherings. But dancing was banned after the 1979 Revolution not only for women, but also for crossdressing men. I was faced with a forbidden subject and a character who’d been depressed because of this ban. To convince him to make a film was very challenging and after the film was made, the film and its screening were banned in Iran.
TUR: This film establishes a close rapport with the subject. How were you able to secure the trust and willingness of individuals to be interviewed for the film?
AE: It wasn’t hard to gain trust, because unlike the rulers, most of the people do not deem dancing forbidden. However, the film’s character and his family were, at first, afraid of facing problems, because by appearing in front of the camera, they would express their disagreement with the dancing ban, and one could imagine what a hard thing it was to do. But when they realized I thought like them and I too disagreed with the ban, they accommodated me bravely. The finale of the film bears witness to that.
TUR: Indeed, the title of the film Gracefully conveys his dance artistry. He moves so convincingly with a feminine elegance and his costumes are outstanding. I also noted the unique visuals of how you decided to present specific dance sequences. Any discussion about your creative decision on this would be greatly appreciated.
AE: Kheraman means to walk gracefully, or to move charmingly, and I chose the word ‘gracefully’ for it. Most of the eastern and Iranian dances are charming and coquettish and they are done with slow movements. Iranian dance has various forms and Amir mentions them in the film. Dancing has a history of several thousand years in Iran: hunting dance, harvest dance for reaping the wheat or picking grapes, etc., but as they have been banned for centuries, they also have been repressed and forgotten.
I have inserted the dances in the film according to every theme. The film’s character first dances for his cow’s childbirth; the cow he loves. His second dance is for the old people who are dying, as if Amir does not want to believe the death of joy. And when his family do not understand him the way he expects, he takes refuge to dancing again. Each of the dances has been designed with colorful dresses and in various styles.
I must add that the film’s character dances in a dark corner in the yard at night. I emphasize this, in darkness, so nobody will find out he is doing something forbidden. It seems he has designed a basic and simple stage in the corner of his house and it is tragic.
Please bear in mind that the character is 80 years old and performing some dances were hard for him.
TUR: There is this permeating sense that this could be a lost art form. Are there individuals from younger generation who strive to emulate his dance artistry either in Tehran or elsewhere in the country?
AE: Women are not allowed to display themselves in the traditional and Islamic societies, and in many cases, men have monopolized the women’s roles. The contradiction I tried to depict was that why in a religious ceremony like passion play, a man, who has dressed like a woman, can show himself but not in dancing.
I created this question in the film to challenge those who are against dancing. The answer, however, is obvious. Because dancing and merry-making are not approved by religion and they are forbidden, but mourning, crying and grief have no problem in their opinion. I know it is hard to grasp, but what is bitter is the denial of woman and womanliness in both the passion play and dancing.
TUR: I would appreciate your thoughts about how you would like to see American audiences absorb and appreciate this excellent documentary. You have provided a glimpse into ordinary Iranian life that is so rare to see here in the U.S.
AE: My film is not about the LGBTQ community. It is about someone who does not think like others and he has been isolated for his belief. Gracefully is about the death of sexuality; about the death of womanliness. The film is about the death of happiness, death of dancing and merry-making and the dominance of mourning, as if grief and sadness are values and happiness is a sin.
I hope an American does not have to ask for permission to be happy and can see how some people must tread on a hard path to be simply happy. I’d like all audiences to accompany me in the finale so Amir will not be alone.
For tickets and more information about Damn These Heels, see the center’s Damn These Heels page.