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A scene from "The Stoning of Soraya M."
© Roadside Attractions
Afghanistan's got talent

By Caryn James, The Daily Beast

Three new films depicting a hidden side of Islam debut this week. From transsexuals in Iran to the stoning of an adultress, to Afghanistan's version of American Idol, Caryn James says they are as thrilling as they are relevant.

In Tehran, gay men in eye shadow and headscarves hope to avoid arrest; in Afghanistan, a woman's life is threatened after she performs a modest little dance on television. These are among the extraordinary people we meet people in two eye-opening documentaries, Be Like Others and Afghan Star, arriving in the next few days along with The Stoning of Soraya M., a nerve-shattering fact-based drama in which an Iranian woman is stoned to death before our eyes. Add these films to the must-see list of recent videos on CNN and YouTube that have lately made witnesses of us all.

The films' release dates were chosen long ago, timed to follow news of the Iranian election, but no one could have guessed how much more visceral these three movies feel now than they might have two weeks ago. Combining Twitter's sense of immediacy with long-form depth, they offer firsthand views of the horror of living in a society in the grip of Islamic fundamentalists—official rulers in Iran, unofficially still potent in Afghanistan. And these films act as cautionary tales, reminders that cultures change even more slowly than laws.

A scene from "Be Like Others" (©Wolfe Video)

Iranian-American director Tanaz Eshaghian's Be Like Others (which premieres on HBO2 tonight and deserves to be far more widely seen) is the most startling, if only because it deals with a subject rarely discussed in the West. Although homosexuality is punishable by death in Iran, sex-change operations are perfectly legal. The result? Many gay men and women have operations they don't want, as the only path they can see to peaceful lives.

The cameras follow two men in their early 20s, candidates for surgery. The heartbreakingly sad Ali-Askar says he can't hold a job as a man because his coworkers tease him for being feminine; he can't walk down the street dressed as a woman without being harassed or arrested. After the surgery, though, we see that he—now she—has been disowned by her family and works as a prostitute.

Anoosh, a young man living with his mother and siblings, hopes to become a woman so he can marry his boyfriend, who is embarrassed to be seen in public with another man. After the gender change, Anoosh feels more comfortable with her female identity, but her fiancé balks at marriage. (On a slightly brighter note, the couple has since married.)

Vida, who changed from male to female several years before, claims to hate gays. She has internalized the religious leaders' reasoning, which takes refuge in ancient laws that never anticipated modern medicine: Homosexuality is to be avoided at all costs, even if it means changing sex. As a Shiite cleric and legal expert explains on camera, transsexuals are created that way by nature and free to change, while "homosexuals are doing something unnatural and against religion." This is where the loopy logic of fundamentalism leads people like Vida: gay self-loathing or utter denial.

And these newly identified women are facing a whole new set of problems. As a female in a clinic's waiting room says to men considering surgery, "It isn't so great being a woman in this society. Why do you guys want to be women so badly?"

Good question, and one that's at the center of Afghan Star, British director Havana Marking's documentary about Afghan's version of American Idol. At first, the film (opening June 26 in New York and throughout the summer in other cities) seems like a real-life companion piece to Slumdog Millionaire, as it follows the Eastern version of a show cloned throughout the world. As in Idol, the show Afghan Star features performances before a panel of judges, and eliminations by the public phoning in votes for their favorites. But the differences are greater than the echoes, and not only because the music is Eastern, with lyrics like, "My love is a Hindu, but I am a Muslim."

A scene from "Afghan Star" (©Zeitgeist Films)

The ban on music and dancing under the Taliban was only lifted in 2001, and Afghan Star is hugely popular partly because it feels like freedom. Far from Kabul, viewers rig up generators and attach televisions to car batteries to watch. When I saw Afghan Star several weeks ago, its claim (written in its spare narrative text on screen) that for many young people this voting for a singer was "the first time they have encountered democracy" sounded a bit grandiose. After the Iranian election results and the Twitter-fueled reaction, the idea that pop culture is nurturing fragile democracies looks much more convincing.

The film's pop focus soon shifts to women's rights. Two of the three women who auditioned (out of 2,000) land in the top 10, singing in long loose pants and head scarves. When a woman named Setara is voted off and performs her final song, she defiantly dances—it's not sexy; she simply hops across the stage—then compounds her offense by letting the scarf fall from her head.

She has done nothing illegal, but she becomes a national scandal. In her hometown of Herat, people on the street label her a whore, one man says "She deserves to be killed," and a conservative cabinet minister denounces her on television, blaming the mujahedeen for not asserting their influence to prevent this "insult and degradation." The Taliban may be officially out of power (hiding and regrouping wherever), but their grip on the culture is vicious.

Shohreh Aghdashloo in "The Stoning of Soraya M." (©Roadside Attractions)

An older regime's haunting shadow is also the message of the vivid, unsettling The Stoning of Soraya M. (opening June 26) by the American-born director Cyrus Nowrasteh, whose parents fled Iran. The story, based on actual events investigated and novelized by a French-Iranian journalist, is set in 1986 in a dusty village still looks biblical. Zahra (played by the incredible Shohreh Aghdashloo from House of Sand and Fog) tells a reporter the story of her niece, Soraya, whose moustache-twirling villain of a husband, in league with a corrupt mullah, falsely accused his wife of adultery so he could marry a 14-year-old. Soraya received the legal punishment: death by stoning.

Flashing back to these events, Nowrasteh creates a grueling scene that you can't take your eyes off—Soraya (Mozhan Marno) is buried in sand to her shoulders, and the villagers gather to throw rocks small enough so death will be long and painful. Weeks ago the scene evoked Shirley Jackson's chilling story "The Lottery"; now it also echoes with the death of Neda, the young woman shot as she protested on the streets of Tehran. But Soraya was an innocent who refused to believe she was in danger. Zahra is the heroine—the ancestor of Neda and other protesting and blogging Iranians—who risks her life to get the terrible truth out to the world.

It's tempting to relegate Soraya's story to the past. But stoning remains the official punishment for adultery in Iran, and even though a moratorium was called on such executions in 2002, according to Amnesty International at least six men and women have been stoned since then. Earlier this month an Amnesty statement on the election said "At least one person has been stoned to death this year in Iran" and the group is "aware of" 10 men and women now under that sentence.

The issue goes beyond that primitive punishment, anyway. These three urgent films, with their behind-the-headlines perspectives, speak to the broader human-rights terrors in Iran and Afghanistan. They may be sobering forecasts for Iran, where narrow-minded attitudes are bound to linger even if the reformists succeed. But more than that, these films are exhilarating in their portraits of women like Setara and Zahra, who dare to claim freedom as their own.

Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic-at-large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.

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