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Film brings royal and rebel together.

Former Empress Farah Diba is the subject and star of a new documentary by an Iranian exile who played a role in the Shah's overthrow and the forced exile of the Pahlavi family.

The 90-minute documentary, "The Queen and I," featured at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam last year, will be featured at the Sundance Film Festival this month in Park City, Utah.

Mrs. Pahlavi spoke with The Independent of London about the documentary, which was ironically directed by the Iranian-born film-maker Nahid Persson-Sarvestani, a former communist who spent much of her early life trying to topple the Shah's monarchy. In creating the film, the two women--whose lives have seemingly been at odds with one another--found they shared many similarities.

Both are exiles--Mrs. Pahlavi in Paris and Washington, and Persson in Sweden. Both have suffered as a result of the revolution--the Pahlavi family had to flee Iran and Persson's teenage brother was executed shortly after the revolution despite the fact that he supported the Shah's overthrow. Both feel the same longing for the homeland they left behind. And both are disappointed in Iranian society and leadership--30 years after the revolution.


But a mutual understanding and unlikely friendship developed between the two women--who led opposing lives in Iran--through the course of filming the documentary.

Mrs. Pahlavi said, "She [Persson] was an Iranian and she was a woman. Although I knew that she 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 [to take part in Persson's documentary]."

Persson, a Shiraz native, took political asylum in Sweden after the 1979 revolution. As a film director, she has won more than 25 awards, including an International Emmy nomination for "Prostitution Behind the Veil."

Persson's new documentary is what Mrs. Pahlavi called "fair," portraying the Empress in both positive and negative lights.

At times, Persson's 90minute documentary seems to liken the deposed empress to Marie Antoinette. The documentary shows footage of the Empress in her royal crown during her coronation ceremony and trails it with old newsreel material showing her forced into exile after the revolution as street protesters burn her image; the film draws on the extreme contrasts of her life.

Although Mrs. Pahlavi said she believes the film has a positive message," she was initially hesitant, knowing that once she agreed to participate Persson's film, she would have little control over how she was depicted. "She [Persson] had the camera and had the editing power. It's like interviews you do. You say what you do but you are not in control of the ideas of the person who is making the film about you or interviewing you."

Mrs. Pahlavi told The Independent that even after filming had begun, she still had reservations. "You never know after all these years, and all the ups and downs of my life and all my interviews, I wasn't quite sure what would be the result the film," she said. "At one point, as you saw in the film," the former empress told The Independent, "I was tired and I was not sure I was doing the right thing. But then I decided 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 said she knew Persson was staunchly opposed to the Shah's regime during the revolution, but said the film-maker was only a teenager at the time. 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."

In the documentary, Persson juxtaposes sentimental portraits of Mrs. Pahlavi and the Shah's regime with an interview with a man tortured under the Shah. "All these people who say 'Long Live Farah,' if they hear the truth and if they have a conscience, they would stop saying that," he said.

Persson also films a press conference in Berlin where Mrs. Pahlavi was asked about the poverty that existed at the time of the Shah. She acknowledges that life "wasn't perfect" then. But both Mrs. Pahlavi and Persson agree the situation in Iran today, especially in terms of human rights, is worse than it was under the Shah.

Persson said she discovered that Mrs. Pahlavi knew about her previous work, including such documentaries as "Prostitution Behind the Veil" and "Four Wives--One Man." "When I met her, I saw her as a normal person," Persson said.

"When I saw her first, I thought 'strange woman.' She is very beautiful now but I remembered her as very young, very charismatic, with all the clothes and a crown and everything. Now I was standing in her apartment alone."

When The Independent asked Mrs. Pahlavi what she thought about the final film product, she said, "I think it is a new idea and, above all, I think in the end, it has a positive message. I think it is fair. Nahid spoke and expressed her opinions [in the documentary] when she was alone. I was not given the chance to do the same thing the other way."

When asked how she thought her supporters would view the documentary, she said, "I have to listen to my compatriots' opinions. I can't give an opinion on their behalf. I once heard someone asked what is the secret of success. He said, 'I don't know what the secret of success is but the secret of failure is trying to please everybody.' 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."

Despite her positive review of the film, Mrs. Pahlavi said she didn't think she would be attending the screening of the film at the festival this month. "It is Nahid's film. I frankly don't think that I could go to attend these festivals, ... but I wish Nahid success."

Another film that will be featured at the Sundance Film Festival is "The Glass House," which follows four teenage girls going through rehab in Iran; the girls are trying to overcome drug addiction, abandonment and abuse.
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Title Annotation:Culture: From then to now
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Date:Jan 23, 2009
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