Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Sundance Film Festival: The rebel and the Empress

Thirty years after being forced into exile with her husband, the Shah of Iran, Queen Farah explains to Geoffrey Macnab why she agreed to a documentary on her life

Empress Farah, the widow of the Shah of Iran, is set to be an unlikely star of the Sundance Film Festival.

After repeated requests, she has agreed to speak to me about a new documentary, The Queen and I, in which she is the subject. The film – which has been chosen for the Sundance Festival – was directed by the Iranian-born film-maker Nahid Persson, a former communist who spent much of her early life trying to topple the Shah's regime. In theory, the two women – the deposed monarch and the revolutionary – should detest one another. In practice, when they came face to face, they discovered they have more in common than either anticipated.

Both are mothers. Both are exiles (Empress Farah in Paris, Persson in Sweden). Both have suffered bereavement. (Persson's teenage brother was executed in the early days of the Khomeni regime.) Both feel the same nostalgia for the homeland they left behind. Both are dismayed at the course of Iranian society, 30 years after the revolution, as an Islamic republic, under the current President, Ahmadinejad.

"She [Nahid Persson] was an Iranian and she was a woman. Although I knew that she held a different political opinion, I thought at some point we had to have a dialogue and that we should not keep our animosity and bitterness forever. That is why I accepted," the Empress says to explain her decision to take part in the documentary.

Since leaving Iran in 1979 with the Shah, who died in 1980, the Empress has had plentiful experience in the glare of Western media. To many, she is a symbol of a regime guilty of human rights abuses and the suppression of free speech. To her supporters, she is a link with an old order that they hope will one day be restored.

At times, Persson's documentary makes the deposed queen seem like a modern-day Marie Antoinette. With its archive footage of the Empress in her crown at her coronation ceremony shown next to old newsreel material of her forced into exile after the revolution as street protesters burned her image, it highlights the extreme contrasts in her life. One moment, she is living an existence of fairy tale-style opulence. The next, she's a pariah. Old friends melted away as she and her husband looked for sanctuary after the revolution.

The Empress knew that once she agreed to participate in Persson's film, she would have little control over how she was portrayed. "She [Persson] had the camera and had the editing power. It's like interviews you do. You say what you do but you are not in control of the ideas of the person who is making the film about you or interviewing you."

Even after shooting had begun, she had reservations. There are moments caught on camera when she seems on the verge of backing out: "You never know after all these years, and all the ups and downs of my life and all my interviews, I wasn't quite sure what would be the result of the film," the Empress explains. "At one point, as you saw in the film, I was tired and I was not sure I was doing the right thing. But then I decided I should continue. After all, I have been the queen of my country for 20 years. Even if I have been outside the country for 30 years, I still have feelings for my country."

She knew Persson was bitterly opposed to the Shah's regime but says that the film-maker was only a teenager at the time of the revolution. "She came from a very poor family. At that age, they believe communism can give them happiness and equality. That's why I still have a feeling for the young people in Iran."

The Empress is loyal to her husband's memory. She isn't about to apologise for the perceived excesses of the Shah's regime. In the documentary, just in case the portrait offered of her is too sentimental, Persson includes a harrowing interview with a man tortured under the Shah. "All these people who say 'Long Live Farah', if they hear the truth and if they have a conscience, they would stop saying that," he says.

The director also films a press conference in Berlin where the Empress is asked about the poverty that existed at the time of the Shah. She acknowledges that life "wasn't perfect" but that is as close as she comes to contrition. The get-out clause, for both film-maker and subject, is that the situation in Iran today in terms of human rights is worse than it was under the Shah.

There is also the sense that during the time of the Shah, the Empress and the film-maker lived – as Farah puts it – "in two different worlds". Behind the palace walls, Farah had little sense of the daily problems of working-class families like Persson's.

What makes The Queen and I moving and disorienting is the unlikely friendship that springs up between the two women. The film-maker is clearly wary about being seduced by the charm of the Empress. The Empress, for her part, knew that the documentary could easily turn into a hatchet job. However, both the director and her subject eventually rise above their suspicions of one another. When they come face to face, they can't help but like one another.

Persson discovered that the Empress knew about her previous work (including such documentaries as Prostitution Behind the Veil and Four Wives – One Man. "When I met her, I saw her as a normal person," the director says. "When I saw her first, I thought 'strange woman'. She is very beautiful now but I remembered her as very young, very charismatic, with all clothes and a crown and everything. Now I was standing in her apartment alone."

"I think it is a new idea and, above all, I think in the end, it has a positive message," the Empress replies when I ask if she is impressed with the documentary. "I think it is fair. [But] Nahid spoke and expressed her opinions [in the documentary] when she was alone. I was not given the chance to do the same thing the other way."

The Queen and I is bound to polarise opinion. Supporters of the Empress will be deeply suspicious that their figurehead agreed to appear in a documentary made by a former communist. Colleagues of Persson may well question why she has made such a sympathetic film about a woman who symbolised a regime they detested. The Empress seems philosophical about these conflicting responses. "I have to listen to my compatriots' opinions. I can't give an opinion on their behalf. I once heard someone asked what is the secret of success. He said, 'I don't know what the secret of success is but the secret of failure is trying to please everybody'. I guess some will like the documentary and some will dislike it. It's like anything else. The supporters who know me and who understand me will agree with what I have done. But as I say, you can't please everyone."

No, The Empress is unlikely to be going on the festival circuit to accompany screenings of The Queen and I at Sundance and elsewhere. "It is Nahid's film. I frankly don't think that I could go to attend these festivals ... but I wish Nahid success."

--Re-printed from an article on the Sundance Film Festival in UK publication The Independent, originally published Friday, 9 January 2009