Early into her documentary about the widow of the Shah of Iran, director Nahid Persson Sarvestani admits her film is becoming directionless, due in part to the filmmaker’s own inability to distance herself from her subject, and being unsure of its end goal.
It’s a serious identity crisis that affects The Queen and I, because while the meeting of polar opposites is compelling (a monarchist discussing Iran’s past with a communist filmmaker who participated in the Revolution that ousted the country’s royal family), what ultimately transpires is a series of vignettes that fail to coalesce into anything more that a need for reconciliation – and that’s probably the best way to regard Sarvestani’s film: Baby steps in approaching a former figurehead reviled by revolutionaries, and both women agreeing that a return to the past and acceptance of the current regime aren’t what’s best; their stances seem to support dialogue, reconciliation, and tolerance.
These conclusions are arrived at in the final minutes, mostly because Sarvestani had grown to appreciate the queen’s persona by then, and whatever slim friendship was developing was preventing her from asking the Queen questions that had bothered her since her youth: Why was there no true democracy? Why was torture by the SAVAK used to keep dissidents in line?
It’s hard to say whether the Queen fully comprehends the struggles of her former subjects; her response to Sarvestani’s recount of personal family hardships is that the whole problem may have been eased had Sarvestani written a letter to the Queen ostensibly saying ‘My mother is having trouble raising 8 children. Please help us,’ which sounds absurdly facile.
Much of what the Queen does in her Paris home today is correspond with subjects, loyalists, and the curious. She is a living icon of a regal fantasy world that no longer exists, as evidenced by the archival colour footage with which Sarvestani starts the film: We see the coronation ceremony with a gilded carriage, costumed soldiers, and a full royal pageantry that seems like a staged movie sequence than a slice of history.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that fans and the curious of all ages seek some wisdom, ersatz friendship, or the Queen’s views on the revolution, given her side of the events are likely denied in schools. There’s also the ridiculousness in having a guy in Iran writing the Queen for an iPod. On the other hand, she fulfills one man’s request for dialogue and calls him at his home; she refers to herself as ‘the one to whom you emailed,’ presumably to protect the man in case the phone is bugged and being scanned by the secret service.
The Queen also allows Sarvestani to film only certain aspects of her daily life, so there isn’t any full transparency or fly on the wall footage. One feels some moments are strategic attempts to extract sympathy for a widow and mother, because Sarvestani is sometimes puzzled as to why she’s granted permission to film the Queen at a funeral, but not a fashion show that could present the Queen’s life to be luxurious and materialistic.
There are also two moments when an aid seeks explanations for Sarvestani’s revolutionary past and some recent anti-monarchist comments. In reply, the director explains the context of her views and actions, and also shows edited film samples to ensure the doc isn’t going to be a vilification of the Queen or the Shah.
The director also filmed two events during which she’s clearly at political and philosophical odds: a Children of Iran benefit in the U.S. attended by rich supporters, some of whom paid $50,000 to sit at the Queen’s dinner table; and a monarchist’s gathering, where rabid followers believe the revolution was an American-British conspiracy.
At both events, Sarvestani holds her ground and avoids creating an incident, but perhaps that’s why the doc is very wobbly: Sarvestani is obliged to hold her tongue or be diplomatic, because being too candid with the monarchists would kill the film project. As for the Children of Iran soiree, there’s little background on the charity’s precise function.
The Queen, however, doesn’t come off as a master manipulator; one does sense the doc’s filming allowed her to engage in conversations with someone from a class and political stance she’d otherwise have ignored as Queen, or perhaps in her current life (which is still quite luxurious).
Director and subject also find common ground because of their positions as exiles: After the revolution, Sarvestani fled to Dubai and then Sweden, because her brother was deemed an insurgent and ordered executed. She includes some disturbing news footage and stills of stonings, male and female victims hanging from streetlamps, and a man about to be hung in public.
The big problem with The Queen and I is that the existing narrative didn’t allow much room for Sarvestani to address the complexities of her country’s political history, which includes Operation Ajax, the 1953 CIA coup d’etat that ensconced the Shah as absolute ruler until 1979; and British and American interests that robbed the country in pre-revolutionary decades from benefitting from its own oil resources. The emphasis is on two women with shared trauma, rather than the seeds which enabled those traumas to occur.
The curious might find Sarvestani’s own story as well as the Queen’s of interest, particularly since the latter details her own recollections of her family’s flight from Iran and constant search for a new home, as well as how living in exile affected her children.
Monarchists and fans will maintain firm nostalgia for the Shah’s idyllic world of carriages and royal bloodlines, whereas supporters of the revolution may find the whole film to be a fawning portrait of savvy woman who turned a blind eye to civic divisions, and living off the wealth taken from poor people in pre-revolutionary world.
The Queen is presented in a sympathetic and progressive light, and whether that’s appropriate is something only Iranians can answer. If The Queen and I manages to ignites a public discourse on Iran, then Sarvestani ought to expand on that with a related documentary that explores how and why the world views the country with caution and biases.
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan