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Friend or Foe? Iranian Filmmaker Confronts Her Past with “The Queen and I”

Friend or Foe? Iranian Filmmaker Confronts Her Past with "The Queen and I"

“I went back to Iran to film ‘Four Wives- One Man’ and [they] arrested me for two months and took my passport and they accused me of being a royalist,” said “The Queen and I” director Nahid Persson Sarvestani on the genesis of her documentary, which spotlights the exiled Farah Pahlavi, the wife of the late Shah of Iran. “The idea of the film came while they interrogated me.”

Being called “royalist” was something of a bitter irony for Sarvestani, who as a teenager, joined the demonstrations along with her brother in the 1970s that eventually led to the Shah’s overthrow and the installation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which continues to this day.

Growing up poor, Sarvestani said she had marveled at the wedding of Farah to the Shah “as if it were a fairytale.” In 1967, the Shah crowned Farah empress, and despite early rumblings that the regime had only shaky support among the public, the two seemed destined for a life of absolute privilege.

Sarvestani, like many young Iranians, became increasingly disillusioned by the monarchy which was seen as corrupt. She joined the communist faction of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, which eventually deposed the Shah, sending him and his family abroad, moving from country to country in an effort to dodge the new Iranian regime’s demand that the imperial family be returned for trial.

Back in Tehran, Khomeini, who established himself as “Supreme Leader,” betrayed his promise for democracy, and imposed more violent edicts then the Shah. Sarvestani was forced to flee to Sweden, and her brother was murdered. Thirty years later, Sarvestani sent a letter to Farah, asking if she could interview her for a film. To her surprise, the exiled empress gave her consent, welcoming the filmmaker as a “fellow refugee from their beloved homeland,” and granted her unpredecedented access to her life in Paris, her primary residence.

“I thought they lived in Los Angeles, so I came here three years ago and did research,” Sarvestani told indieWIRE at last month’s Los Angeles Film Festival where the film screened to packed theaters amidst large demonstrations by LA’s large Iranian community protesting the reelection of Iran’s hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “I found two or three friends of theirs here, and they told me to ‘forget it,’ because [Farah] doesn’t want anything to do with [a project] like this, but I didn’t listen to them.”

Three months after sending Farah the inquiry, Sarvestani received a positive reply, and the doc was a go. “All of us were very surprised. She knew I had done films against [the current] regime,” said Sarvestani, referring to “Prostiution: Behind the Veil” (2004) and “Four Wives – One Man” (2007).

“I had mixed feeling going into the house of my enemy,” said Sarvestani. “I had bad feelings and guilt that a lot of people were executed during the Shah and now I meet her. But I separated it from her. For me, Farah was a woman and not the Queen. In the film I criticize her husband all the time, but it’s good for her.”

On the surface, Sarvestani seems to be breaking a major documentary taboo – she films herself and her relationship with Farah. Yet, both their histories are so intertwined, albeit from opposing ends of the political spectrum, that “The Queen and I” is that rare exception where the filmmaker enhances the overall story by being present.

“I couldn’t dettach myself from the film. Originally I wasn’t going to be in the film, but when I tried to just film her it was strange. I couldn’t tell the history without putting myself in it. And the financiers all said, ‘you need to be in the film.'”

Watching the film, Sarvestani clearly has conflicting emotions as her relationship with Farah deepens. She clearly warms to the former wife of Iran’s hated monarch, but is tormented by the atrocities of his regime. Still, Sarvestani says Farah shows genuine concern for Iran and hopes that democracy can be established there in the future.

“After everything happened [with the recent election] in Iran she called me. She’s very worried about Iran. She laughed [when I asked her] about whether she could ever go back, but she said, ‘I just hope there’s democracy in Iran and the people can decide if I ever get to go back.'” Though Sarvestani believes Farah genuinely hopes the Islamic regime will be replaced with a true democracy, she’s skeptical that Farah’s inner circle of Iranian exiles share the same sentiment, a point clearly demonstrated at one point when she accompanies Farah to the tomb of her late husband in Egypt along with some of her royalist supporters.

“Her ideas are more democratic then the people around her. People around her are still like the people of 30 years ago, but I get the feeling she is still more democratic. Her son talked a lot about democracy, he said he wanted Iran to be like Norway or Sweden, but I think it’s not correct. He has to say that because he can’t say we want a dictatorship, but then again, I don’t know. He’s the same age as me.”

Though Sarvestani has lived in Sweden for two decades, she still longs for change in her homeland, and is heartened to see young people who are the children of Iranian parents who left the country get involved with the movement for change in a country many have never visited.

“I was so touched to see the young people who can’t speak Farsi but they go out and demonstrate here and it’s so touching. My son also demonstrates. He’s never been to Iran. I think Iranians really need the support from around the world. If I didn’t have children now, I’d go to Iran and demonstrate. I’d like to live there again. But I know if I went, I’d get arrested.”

7th Art Releasing will open “The Queen and I” at the newly renovated Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles on Friday, July 17. Following the 7:30pm screening Friday, there will be a panel discussion with two experts on Iran as well as the filmmakers from “Liberation,” the short film, which precedes “The Queen and I.”

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