This week I watched two very different Iranian worlds depicted in the powerful medium of film: one reality meticulously masked as fiction, one semi-fiction frivolously packaged as reality.
Bear with me.
1. The first is the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film -- A Separation -- written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, starring Leila Hatami and Peyman Moaadi. A Separation artfully narrates a painful slice of life set in Tehran about a thirty-something married couple separating under duress. The wife wants the family to move overseas with their eleven-year-old daughter; the husband wants the family to stay put so he can care for his aged father suffering from late stage Alzheimer's. The film's greatest triumph, however, is that it takes the viewer in the most ingenious way through what it means to be an average Iranian in Iran today.
2. The second is episode 2 of the reality TV show Shahs of Sunset: It's My Birthday Bitches produced by Ryan Seacrest Productions for Bravo. It's my Birthday Bitches sees a merry band of 30-something single Persian-American friends (the bitches?) off to Las Vegas to celebrate lead actor Reza Farahan's birthday. As the somewhat endearing character of Sammy says, "There's gonna be heyvoon bazi (playing like animals) all the time." This episode owes its staggering -- and who wouldn't be after all the booze sucked up by the cast? -- success to transporting the viewer in the most debauched manner through what it's like to be a privileged Persian-American in LA today.
Well, a certain type of Iranian-American, at any rate.
To be fair, comparing these two divergent experiences is the equivalent of pitting opera diva Kiri Ke Tanawa against wannabe pop singer Asa (see episode one)... I like to think of myself as a balanced person with perspective.
So here goes the second episode of Shahs of Sunset -- The pals roll into a truck limo, with a stripper pole, of course; roll into a private jet complete with Persian carpet runner (nice touch); and roll into a swanky series of hotel suites on the Strip. The rolling basically continues all the way though the closing credits, via ritzy restaurants, poolside sets and pulsing nightclubs.
The episode has its own merits, operating on a turbo-charged reality TV level -- malicious gossip (that GG likes to stir with her pointed finger, when she's not getting handcuffed by Tattoo Man); assorted wiggling bottoms (dispersed uniformly throughout, like teardrops on Persian rugs); much champagne swilling out of flutes and liquor swigging out of bottles; and even some first-rate puking by a wasted MJ, who later gets hosed down by Reza. He claims to take care of his out-of-control friends by slapping them in the face or throwing them in a cold shower. In this instance, MJ gets dunked in the bubble bath, too, truly the drunk BFF royal treatment.
For those who like this stuff, it works like a charm. Really, it does. I continue to watch, looking for the silver -- or in this case, gold -- lining.
Sadly, for me, this episode lacked some of the interesting Iranian cultural layering of episode one (subtle at times, but there), primarily because it was mostly shot outside Tehrangeles. My favorite character, MJ's mom, was also missing; though in hindsight, this is probably a good thing. And as much as Reza claims, "Persians love Las Vegas... it's all about glitz and glam and cash," I pretty much loathe it. Let's just say some Iranian-Americans love it and some Iranian-Americans don't. In this case, I'm a hater.
On the other hand, when Asa (my favorite recurring character) empathizes with "the struggles he's [Reza] gone through as a gay in Persian society..." I got it. In Iranian culture, especially that of our parents' generation, being the man of the family is a big deal, as is being the first-born son, being the alpha Mike male. Coming out whenever Reza did at home must have had its challenges. He still appears to be somewhat estranged from his father, who now lives in Long Island, and though Reza jokes again about his mother offering him $500,000 to get married (he did so on episode one as well), I feel some pain.
His pain, however, is less felt in West Hollywood, where a large LGBT population resides as well as many Iranian-Americans. The City Council has just passed a resolution condemning the show. WeHo Council Member John Heilman released a statement saying, "The show depicts negative stereotypes of the Iranian-American community. Negative stereotypes disseminated about any group should raise concern as this can lead to discrimination and, in extreme cases, even violence."
As for me, I kind of wish what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas.