No Dead End (english)

Interview with: 
Mahshad Torkan

"Cul de Sac" is a docudrama based on the true life story of LGBT activist and filmmaker Kiana Firouz, who fled from Iran to the UK. Mashad Torkan, co-writer/director/producer of "Cul de Sac", talks about the Iranian queer underground and how the movie contributed to the shift in the legal and public discourse on asylum in the United Kingdom.

migrazine.at: What does it mean to be lesbian/queer woman in today's Iranian society? How do they survive?

Mahshad Torkan: If we turn the pages of history books, we would trace that homosexuality has always existed in Iranian society, but now, obviously under an Islamic regime law, homosexuality is illegal and a taboo. Iranian gays will be lashed, hanged or stoned to death if they get caught. In a society such as Iran, as a result of ignorance as well as the overbearing religious mentality, the issue is considered as a mental illness, immoral behaviour and a sin which is subject to harsh punishments. This results in marginalizing the gays and lesbians to survive with constant fear. Unfortunately gays keep experiencing both mental and physical abuse.

Of course, for lesbians it is even worse, simply because they are women. Women are more vulnerable members of society or second-class citizens who, in comparison to men, are inferiors. Lesbians must hide their true sexual identity and live their secret lives miserably which might even end in going through a forced marriage. They have no social rights as homosexuals. According to the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "they don’t exist".

Despite the laws against homosexual men and women in Iran – is the Iranian queer community able to work in the underground?

I as an educated woman who lived in Iran for most of my life, I had no idea, whether or not lesbians have a community or a center for gathering. Although you may hear some rumors either here or there, the fact is that queers have to keep their information secret to survive. I first heard from Kiana that while she was a student in Iran, she joined an underground network of lesbians who used to gather frequently to discuss their problems. There are few places like parks and coffee shops where Iranian queers meet up to chit-chat, but if the security agents find out, there will be dreadful consequences. I have been told that there are underground gatherings for lesbians but in a very limited run and discreet.

Currently there are few active Iranian queer organisations which are mostly based out of Iran. Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees (IRQR) is based in Toronto, Canada and was founded by Arsham Parsi. It is the most active Iranian LGBT organisation so far. There are online magazines including Hamjens-e-man and Neda, which are particularly focusing on the issue of Iranian queers. As a matter of fact all these organizations or magazines are run by two or three people, who mostly do not receive any funds towards their activities and struggle for their consistency of existence.

Kiana Firouz sought asylum in the UK, but her application was turned down. To support her, thousands of protest letters and emails were sent to the British Home Office and other authorities, also a petition against Firouz' deportation was organized. What's her current situation?

In June 2010 Kiana Firouz was granted "leave to remain" in the U.K. – saving her from removal from UK after two refusals. This was a big achievement for us. I launched a petition against the Home Office’s decision which was the largest international campaign ever for an LGBT asylum-seeker, with over 45,000 signatures in just a month. In my view, the fact that Kiana took the risk to play herself in "Cul de Sac" was the most important and brave part of the job. "Cul de Sac" is quite unique in its kind. As per all existing records, no film has ever been produced that features an Iranian lesbian playing herself and finding a chance to cry out her existence. We are proud of making such a film.

In July, Britain's supreme court ruled against the deportation of two gay asylum-seekers and asserted the right for asylum for homosexual refugees in the U.K. [1] In what ways do you think "Cul de Sac" has contributed to this shift?

As a matter of fact, no Iranian director has ever approached, even conservatively, such a subject, whereas "Cul de Sac" succeeded to bring this matter to the world’s attention. One of the objectives of this film was to mobilize the international LGBT community to support LGBT members of other communities that have less chance to fight for their civil rights. “Cul de Sac” could grasp the global media attention and the news about the film reflected by many UK and International press and media including "The Times", "Guardian", "The Independent", "Evening Standard", "Radio Free Europe"/"Radio Liberty" (RFE/RL), "Radio Farda", "Voice of America" (VOA) and many more.

This wide reflection and the fact that the film was based on a real case had an undeniable impact on the modification of homosexual asylum rules in the U.K.. According to Martin Fletcher, deputy editor of "The Times": "Kiana Firouz's case is a test of the sincerity of Britain’s new government. The Conservative Party promised in its equalities manifesto to 'change the rules so that gay people fleeing persecution were granted asylum'" ("The Times", 20 May 2010). "Cul de Sac" was a remarkable move no doubt to become a flood gate for Iranian Homosexuals to be seen internationally.

Why has there been no financial support for "Cul de Sac"?

In Iran it is almost impossible to raise a fund for such projects. Outside of Iran the resources for funding a film are also very limited and competitive. Furthermore, we found most of them quite conservative to approach such a subject. I have to point out that mainstream producers prefer to invest in subjects that have commercial targets rather than human rights’ issues. For sure we did not intend to approach anywhere that might make us obliged to comply with their views. We wanted to be independent which happened.

"Cul de Sac" has been shown at LGBT film festivals all over the world. What impact do queer film festivals have to create broader public attention and awareness for movies like yours?

"Cul de Sac" has been invited by many LGBT film festivals and has also been submitted to a few mainstream festivals. Queer film festivals like other film festivals are opportunities for the accreditation of films which facilitate showing the film to reach to a wider range of audiences worldwide. Queer film festivals in my view are specialized events which provide information and educate those attending the film festivals about the films with gay content. I believe that each film festival has its own priorities and objectives. I think that being recognised by one of the festivals for sure increases the chances of being shown by other film festivals.

Love is an important motif in "Cul de Sac". Did you choose to put the love story as a prominent part in the marketing of the film in order to appeal to a larger audience?

"Cul de Sac" in particular depicts the various moments of an Iranian lesbian’s life from little happiness to sad moments; the struggles for life and freedom. I do not agree that love has been used as a marketing tool in "Cul de Sac". Homosexual is a term that refers to same-sex relationship. Therefore falling in love with the same sex is one of the major elements in presenting the character. I strongly believe that there was not any other way to open up the case and share the feelings of a lesbian. In "Cul de Sac" Kiana presents "who she is", "how she feels" and "what she means by love".

Not being a victim, but to stand up for your rights as a lesbian and also as an immigrant is in the centre of "Cul de Sac". How far do you think that films are an important transmitter for messages like that?

Undoubtedly "Cul de Sac" has been a significant work which helped a lot to convey this message that there are Iranian lesbians whose rights are violated and this is the time to claim their rights. I think, that under theocratic regimes like in Iran there is little chance for many social issues to be reflected, let alone homosexual rights. It requires an international appeal to improve this situation. Media is the most effective tool to raise public awareness that it is able to educate the public and open such discussions on untold and unseen topics.

As an Iranian woman and filmmaker, by collabrating in this film I have killed my chances to go back to my country Iran to live, but I am proud that I have stood up for the rights of many who have had no chance to be heard. I am quite confident that there was no better way to bring up the issue and raise global awareness.


Interview: Verena Stern, Vina Yun


For the German translation (short version) follow this link.
Zur deutschsprachigen Übersetzung (gekürzte Fassung) geht es hier.

Die Leipziger Frauenbibliothek MONAliesA und die Kinobar "Prager Frühling" präsentieren "Cul de Sac" am 13. Oktober, 19.00 Uhr, im Rahmen des Leipziger Lesbentreffens. Weitere Infos gibt es hier.


Links:

Homepage of "Cul de Sac"
Letter by Kiana Firouz, published on the blog "LGBT Asylum News"


Footnote:

[1] The UK’s policies and practices towards asylum seekers in general have been repeatedly criticized for their abusiveness and inhumanity. A recent report by the LGB rights group Stonewall found that 98 percent of gay asylum-seekers are forcibly returned to their home country by the UK Border Agency. Many cases were turned down on the basis that someone fleeing a country where homosexuality is punishable by death or hard labour could simply "live discreetly". In its judgement the UK supreme court stated: "To compel a homosexual person to pretend that their sexuality does not exist, or that the behaviour by which it manifests itself can be suppressed, is to deny him his fundamental right to be who he is." (this link)