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Still from “They”
Still from “They”

The film told from the perspective of a gender-neutral kid

Iranian director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh explains how her art becomes queer activism

Iranian-born director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh, whose name you might recognise from Dazed’s Females First series, has toyed with themes of identity and solace-seeking in short films such as parent-kid role-swapping drama When the Kid Was a Kid (2011) and Needle (2013), about a girl getting her ears pierced for the first time. Ghazvinizadeh is finally felt ready to channel her themes into a full-length feature; this time, it’s through the eyes of a gender-neutral kid.

Ghazvinizadeh’s They – executive produced by Jane Campion – tells the story of J. Biologically born a boy, they’ve spent 14 years trying to make sense of the body that they’re trapped in, and have been asked to be referred to by the gender neutral pronoun while they put a hold on letting puberty define the rest of their adolescent life. When we meet J, they’re home alone awaiting the imminent arrival of their sister and their sister’s boyfriend, who too find themselves wrapped up in strange life stages, defined by hesitance and a lack of certain direction.

Anahita Ghazvinizadeh discusses the film’s impact on the community, its nomination for the Queer Palm at Cannes, and how anti-LGBT legislation can help create powerful genre cinema.

ON THE SEED OF HER IDEA AND THE ‘SUSPENDED’ MOMENT

“I had been working on a number of short films since 2010 that had children as the main characters and I think, gradually, I had realised that I’m very interested in that period of pre-puberty: just before a child becomes an adult, and questioning that suspended moment.

Later on, as I was doing more research, I got to know about puberty blocking (a hormone-affecting treatment that allows trans children the option to halt puberty) and realised that, based on my experiences with my short films, I would be a good person to make a film about that suspended period. At that time, I was experiencing suspension but in a very different way: around my immigration, and my job as an artist. I was trying to figure out my base, and I really wasn’t sure if I should stay in the US or go back to Iran, and I felt as though I really wanted to postpone it. There’s so much anxiety when you feel as though you don’t really belong anywhere.”

“The prevalence of bathroom bills and anti-LGBT legislation […] made me consider the role of bathrooms in my films, and how they can to give complexity to our understanding of gender and personhood” – Anahita Ghazvinizadeh

ON WHETHER THEY IS A PIECE OF QUEER ACTIVISM

“I came from art school, so the theory of basing art on social practice – contemplating if your work is political, or is raising awareness – was always the main question in my classes. I don’t think of myself as an activist in my art at all. I’m more selfish than that, it’s a personal reflection! But I’m also a child of my time, so if I’m trying to tell my story honestly, it has to contain something about my generation.

So in that way, yeah! The film could direct some attention to something that’s important, but to be honest, that wasn’t my main intention. I just tried to be true to myself.”

ON THE WAY IRAN, HER HOME COUNTRY, SEES THE QUEER COMMUNITY

“I didn’t have much knowledge of the (queer community) in Iran. I learned a bit more when I went back before making the film. What I learned early on was that between transgender identity, or gay identity, or queer identity – there’s a confusion. I think some of that is related to a sort of religious dogma around homosexuality, but the transgender operation is accepted as something that’s directing them into their body. As if that would let them have a heterosexual relationship, which was the ‘natural’ way of being – but I didn’t think (in that way).”

AND HOW HER WORK HELPS HIGHLIGHT ISSUES SURROUNDING THE BATHROOM BILL

“While making Needle, I was thinking a lot of the symbolic gender specified spaces and the formation of identity. Later the prevalence of bathroom bills and anti-LGBT legislation, and how harshly the administration wanted to simplify a person within the binary system made me consider the role of bathrooms in my films, and how they can to give complexity to our understanding of gender and personhood.”

I think that defending the right to define ourselves is a human issue, and is not only about the LGBT community. I see it as a general human question: how can I bring complexity and depth to the idea of personhood?”

ON WHETHER HER QUEER PALM NOMINATION HIGHLIGHTS CELEBRATION OR SEGREGATION

“I think there’s an amount of control that I have on my films, but I’m not the kind of artist who would try to say: ‘This is the context that I want to show my work in’. I’ve shown my short films at womens’ film festivals or LGBT film festivals before. I’m not opposed to showing my work wherever people would like to see it, because eventually my film would arrive at its home anyway!”

ON THE KIND OF PERSON SHE HOPES THEY RESONATES WITH

“There is an elite audience who have their set criteria of good or bad films, and they are attuned to a certain kind of analysis and criticism of cinema. Ideally, I would like my film to go beyond that; to be seen by an audience who may not even be interested in arthouse cinema. I can say my ideal audience is the more unknown, unexpected one. The kind who like to be touched and involved by it in an open way.”