Monday, January 12, 2009

The Queen and I

Empress Farah, the widow of the Shah of Iran, is set to be an unlikely star of the Sundance Film Festival as the subject of a new documentary, „The Queen and I“.

When Nahid Persson Sarvestani, an Iranian exile, set out to make a documentary about her, she expected to encounter her opposite. As a child, Persson Sarvestani had lived in dire poverty, watching Farrah’s wedding as if it were a fairy tale. As a teenager, she joined the Communist faction of Khomeini’s revolution that deposed the shah, sending him and his family volleying from country to country. When Khomeini betrayed his promise for democracy, imposing more violent measures than the shah had, Persson Sarvestani was also forced to flee. Thirty years later, she needs key questions answered and goes directly to the source. Surprisingly, Queen Farrah welcomes her as a fellow refugee from their beloved homeland, granting unprecedented access.

Over the next year and a half, Persson Sarvestani enters the queen’s world, planning to challenge the shah’s ideology; instead, she must rethink her own. In the struggle to understand each other’s experiences, an unlikely friendship has blossomed. Confronting Farrah about the shah’s repression has become not only a political conflict but a personal one, and Persson Sarvestani’s objectivity is shaken. In this gripping, poignant consideration of subjectivity as truth, we learn that people write history. And can also heal it. „The Queen and I“ couldn’t be more relevant as we reach across our own political aisles.

„Although I knew that she (Nahid Persson) 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. „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.“

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.

„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“, says the Empress.

She 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.“

The Sundance Film Festival runs from 15 to 25 January at Park City, Utah (

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