desiree akhavan is the most exciting new voice in film
She's just released her first feature film, but Desiree Akhavan's vision for a new gay cinema might just change the way we see women in film.
Growing up on the periphery of a large city often fuels inspiration in those who are creatively inclined. Being just a train ride away from the thick of it can spark the imagination and create a sense of escape from suburbia. This was definitely the case for Desiree Akhavan, the 31-year-old writer and director of Appropriate Behavior, a witty post-coming-of-age film about Shirin, an Iranian-American bisexual woman portrayed by Akhavan herself. In the wake of a break-up, Shirin reminisces on her ill-fated relationship with her ex-girlfriend and grapples with her sexuality and the idea of coming out to her traditional Middle-Eastern parents. The film pokes fun at Brooklyn hipster stereotypes (think OKCupid, chest tattoos and warehouse parties) in an endearing way and has you rooting for Shirin from start to finish.
"I grew up in Rockland County, which is a suburb of Manhattan, but my life and my friends were always really far away," says Akhavan. "I went to elementary school in New Jersey, and commuted there for 45 minutes each way. Then when I went to high school in the Bronx, it was an hour and a half each way, so I spent a lot of my time in transit. My parents are immigrants from Iran, they moved right before I was born and they had this idea that if I went to private school, I would be OK in life, that the American way was very different from Iran, in the sense that education was a currency, and that if they could just educate me and my brother really well, we could do whatever we wanted."
It was during these formative years that Akhavan first toyed with what would later become her profession. "I grew up telling lots of stories and plays. First they were sketches. I would perform them at home or in front of my teachers," she says. "I didn't have many friends, and I was very alone in a lot of ways. Socializing was hard because I was so far away. I used [the plays] as a way to talk to people. I would cast them and say, 'Let's put on a show.' That's how I got them to pay attention to me."
Her preoccupation with storytelling soon developed into an obsession with film and TV. "I watched so much TV, and so many movies. I have a brother who's five years older than me. He and I would just sit for hours watching TV. Everything we knew about being American, being normal—and later on everything I learned about sex— we learned from TV."
By 2012, Akhavan had built a cult following with her Kickstarter-funded web series The Slope, and she had started working on Appropriate Behavior. "I wanted to use that experience to propel me into the next thing. I always like to have three things going at once, one that feeds into another. When I was shooting The Slope, I was writing the first draft of the script [for Appropriate Behavior], and I was in a really weird place with my family because I had just come out, and things were really tense. I was also going through a break-up with my girlfriend [Ingrid Jungermann, her co-star in The Slope], and I was heartbroken."
While Appropriate Behavior isn't exactly autobiographical, Akhavan's own experience was a starting point for the script, which changed over the course of the year that she wrote it. "The original idea was 'what do I have to say about this moment in my life?' That's usually what everything I make is about. With The Slope, I was just coming to grips with being bisexual and being in a gay relationship that was serious, and it was [my] reaction to all the scary things about what it is to be gay in Brooklyn and feeling like I didn't belong. I wanted to have a say in that." Appropriate Behavior inadvertently picked up where The Slope left off, and became an outlet for Akhavan, a way to process what was going on in her real life. "It was my reaction to feeling torn apart, both by my relationship and having come out," she says.
When it came to casting, Akhavan bucked convention and decided to play Shirin herself, an idea reinforced by her best friend and producer Cecilia Frugiuele. "I always had the idea that I wanted to star, but [Frugiuele] was the one who stressed that it was a major part of my job. She really helped me to understand that hiring someone else would not make sense for the story. My sense of humor, my experience of Brooklyn, my experience of being a woman… all these things that are very specific to me, I don't see out there—even a protagonist who looks like me. Every ingénue has to be size zero. Growing up I felt like I looked like a freak of nature, and I'm really proud to star in my own film."
The film premiered at Sundance in January 2014 to favorable reviews, and her success so far has put Akhavan at the forefront of a wave of young filmmakers, such as Marielle Heller, Chloé Zhao and fellow Iranian Samira Makhmalbaf, who are all refreshingly creating films with female protagonists—frustratingly still a minority among Hollywood pictures. "I don't see male filmmakers constantly being compared to other more successful, established male filmmakers, but every single time I see my name, it's linked with Lena Dunham's. If it has a sense of humor and something intelligent to say, you're a knock-off— the next Lena Dunham, the Mexican Lena Dunham, the Israeli Lena Dunham, the Iranian Lena Dunham, which I find inherently sexist."
While it is lazy to limit Akhavan to the Girls school of niche feminist humor, it is also important to note that the likes of Lena Dunham, Miranda July, Caitlin Moran and now Desiree Akhavan are defining their generation, offering hilariously self-deprecating, frank portrayals of female life, something that was missing in films and mainstream culture.
Keen to keep adding to this new wave of feminist conversation, Akhavan has already set the wheels in motion for another feature film, as well as a TV series about a lesbian who comes out as bisexual in her thirties and starts dating men for the first time in her adult life. "I think it's time to face bisexuality in the mainstream and to have a comedy about it and hash out these issues. I've been really surprised by how many Iranian bisexual women there are in the world. I had many people reach out to me saying, 'You've told my story,'which is kind of shocking. I really do believe [Appropriate Behavior] is an activist film," she says, reflecting on the power of storytelling. "No one talks about these things in my community, and in most communities. It's really frowned upon. Mine is not a safe culture to be honest about the truths of life. Gay issues are considered ugly. Pain or failure is also something that you don't discuss in public, and discovering it myself was really intense because you can't just say, 'Whatever, it's a completely made-up story,' when it's not. It's inspired by my life.
"The very nature of being outspoken as — forget Middle-Eastern, forget LGBT— a woman right now is frowned upon. The very nature of putting a non-skinny woman in front of the camera… all these little things are ridiculously audacious. By ridiculously, I mean it's absurd in our culture that it's audacious and if that's taking a stance, I think I must be the world's laziest activist. I'm just being myself and I think that's me making the biggest statement."
Text Lynette Nylander
Photography Olivia Rose
Styling Raphael Hirsch
Hair Soichi Inagaki at Saint Luke Artists using Bumble and bumble
Make-up Artist Thom Walker using M.A.C.
Photography assistance Corbyn Thomas Smith, Shannei Brown
Styling assistance Sophia Drakou