The Birthday

Dutch docu "The Birthday" explores a fascinating cultural anomaly -- transsexuality in Iran. Unlike homosexuality and sodomy, transsexuality is not mentioned in the Koran, and so is not prohibited, the Ayatollah Khomeni himself having issued a fatwa specifically permitting sex-change surgery.

With:
With: Mahtab, Saye, Afshin. (Farsi dialogue)

Dutch docu “The Birthday” explores a fascinating cultural anomaly — transsexuality in Iran. Unlike homosexuality and sodomy, transsexuality is not mentioned in the Koran, and so is not prohibited, the Ayatollah Khomeni himself having issued a fatwa specifically permitting sex-change surgery. Helmers Negin Kianfar and Daisy Mohr follow three trannies and their very different experiences, with few explanations or backstories. This narrow focus sometimes proves confusing, but the impact of sex change in a country with rigidly defined gender rights offers endless surprises. Hour-plus, DV-shot pic is well-traveled on the gay fest circuit and could wind up on cable.

Femme helmers Kianfar and Mohr alternate between two male-to-female transsexuals at different stages of transition. Coincidentally, both are very tall, even as men but particularly as women, their towering height adding a surreal touch.

Before his operation, Mahtab straddles two worlds, dressing as a man outside the house and as a woman when receiving boyfriend Mohsen. Mahtab lives at home with traditionalist parents who still cannot wrap their minds around their offspring’s choice: While dad complains of the humiliation his son has brought on the family, mom simply cannot fathom why anyone would trade the freedom enjoyed by Iranian men for the restrictions endured by Iranian woman. But reluctantly, they support their changeling, all the while insisting on behavior deemed appropriate to a proper Muslim woman, including always wearing a veil outside the home.

The camera tracks Mahtab from behind as he strides through the city while dressed as a man, continuing to accompany him in meetings with doctors and even penetrating the O.R. for the actual gender-switching surgery itself. By now almost a part of the family, the camera further records the “birthday” party back home to fete Mahtab’s gender rebirth.

In contrast, male-to-female tranny Saye, interviewed in the back of a car to emphasize her rootless state, has been beaten by her parents and kicked out of the house. As a woman without parental support, Saye exists marginally, constantly bemoaning her fate, the camera roaming the streets and capturing indifferent or hostile glances to underline her isolation.

Saye lives with her “husband,” female-to-male tranny Afshin, who insists Saye stay traditionally homebound while he ventures forth to earn their living. Neither has yet been operated on, though Saye underwent hormone therapy and has the breasts to prove it. Afshin’s brother, far from rejecting his former sister, is overjoyed at the transformation. Indeed, no one has any problem understanding why a woman would want to be a man in Iranian society. It is the opposite that causes derision, and worse.

Tech credits are fine.

The Birthday

Netherlands

Production: A Column Film/Ikon presentation of a Column Film production, in association with Ikon. Produced by Gijs van de Westelaken. Co-producer, Marje de Koning. Directed by Negin Kianfar, Daisy Mohr.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Besnan Monadizadeh; editor, Ewoud Hendrikesen; music, Rainer Hensel. Reviewed on DVD, New York, June 4, 2007. (In NewFest, New York.) Running time: 63 MIN.

With: With: Mahtab, Saye, Afshin. (Farsi dialogue)

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