Hossein Keshavarz’s Dog Sweat, which he says was clandestinely shot in Iran, is one of the L.A. Film Festival’s four films with LGBT themes. It follows eight young rebels who dare to not follow the party line and made me reflect on how difficult it must be to break taboos in a so-called Islamic Republic. Whereas political, religious and sexual transgressors in the West often confront customs and culture, as well as sometimes the government itself, imagine what it must be like to resist a theocratic system where religious zealots rule and run the state apparatuses of repression, enforcement, etc.
The German Communist psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich wrote about how a key for totalitarian control of the individual is through manipulating his/her sex life, and we clearly see this in Dog Sweat. Two of this underground feature’s characters are young would-be lovers simply looking for a private place to have sex. But far more daring is Dog Sweat’s candid look at the love that dare not whisper its name in Iran. Readers may remember President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dubious remarks about gays at a Columbia University forum in 2007, and In Dog Sweat Keshavarz dares point his camera directly at the homosexual scene in Tehran, where same sex relationships are probably more controversial than gay marriage is here.
Hooshang (Rahim Zamani) and Hooman (Bagher Forohar) appear to be more than “just friends,” although their relationship is never clearly defined and remains ambiguous. Are they same-sex lovers or is theirs a non-consummated homoerotic type of relationship? Be that as it may, in theocratic Iran parents seem to have lots of control over their children, and Hooman’s mother pressures him to marry (and I don’t mean to Hooshang). He enters into a more or less arranged marriage with a female singer, Mahsa (Maryam Mousavi), whose musical career is frustrated by theocratic limitations on women and singing. (I wonder what the Islamic Republic’s ayatollahs would make of Lady Ga Ga?) Without knowing each other very well, and seeking a measure of freedom from their meddling parents, they wed and move into their own apartment.
Hooman avoids Hooshang, whom he has trouble facing. There is an interesting glimpse of Iran’s underground gay life at a park which seems like a gathering point for Tehran’s persecuted homosexuals. In any case, Mahsa eventually realizes she has “made a mistake,” but the film is unclear. Did she make a mistake by giving up on her recording career or does she realize she’s married a gay man? Dog Sweat remains ambiguous on this and other points, and it’s difficult to follow eight different characters, especially for non-Persian audiences who don’t speak Farsi. (The susbtitles sometimes whiz by.)
Presumably set against the backdrop of the mass protests of the so-called “Green Revolution” which is never actually seen per se, the film deals with other forms of rebellion, such as drinking. The title seems to refer to alcohol, another taboo topic in the Islamic Republic. Adulterous characters also stray from the straight and narrow path prescribed by the imams. The most direct form of resistance comes from Massoud (Shahrokh Taslimi), a heterosexual pal of Hooshang and Hooman who confronts religious zealots for cramming their ideology down people’s throats.
Overall this supposedly secretly made feature provides a fascinating inside glimpse at today’s Iran and youthful rebellion there. What a pity that one of the main opponents of U.S. imperialism and policies is a society that so represses its own citizens. After Dog Sweat’s screenings Keshavarz participated in Q&As with screenwriter Maryam Azadi. Dog Sweat was so well received at LAFF that a fourth screening was added.
(Dog Sweat screens June 26, 9:30 p.m., Regal Cinemas, Theater 11.)
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”
Note: The Publishers removed a photo of a woman we mistakenly identified as Maryam Azadi.