fremde haut (unveiled)


Directed: Angelina Maccarone
Written: Angelina Maccarone and Judith Kaufmann

Unveiled brought to mind two of the most powerful films I've ever seen; Boys Don't Cry and Yentl. In all of these films a woman dressed as a man for different reasons is displaced from her home and persecuted for following her heart, both by the culture she is escaping, and eventually by the culture she escapes to. Fremde Haut is political, provocative and ultimately tragic.

Fremde Haut, as the press release informs us, literally means "In Orbit", which is the UN term for displaced persons and refugees who travel the world looking for a country to accept them. To return to their country of origin would be to destroy everything they are (and in many cases could get them killed), so they search for a place of acceptance and hope in a world that pays lip service to human rights, but generally turns its back on the reality of the refugee problem.

Fariba Tabrizi (Jasmin Tabatabai) is an Iranian woman who has fled her homeland because she was not only caught having an affair with another woman, she then also refused to recant her lesbianism. To return to Iran is to face a death sentence, so she travels to Germany, hoping for a new chance in a new country. When asked by the German authorities why she is seeking asylum, she is ashamed to admit the real reason, so she lies and claims only that she is a political refugee. The Germans catch her in the lie, and by the time she admits the truth they have decided not to trust her and to deport her back to Iran.

During her time in the processing centre (a drab, horrible place that still seems like a palace compared to the conditions refugees suffer under in similar Australian centres) she meets and befriends a student named Siamak. Siamak's brother was taken instead of him, and he fears the shame almost as much as he fears being deported back to face a similar fate. He downs a bottle of liquid Drano and begs Fariba to write to his parents from Germany to tell them he is fine. Fariba seizes her opportunity; she cuts off her hair, puts on Siamak's glasses and presents herself to the refugee board as Siamak to secure a temporary visa.

Once out in German society (though still constrained and unable to take any kind of work legally) Fariba/Siamak gets a job at a Saurkraut factory to earn enough money to pay for an illegal passport, which she sees as her ticket to freedom. There she meets Anne, a lonely single mother, who she becomes close to. In the process, Siamak manages to seemingly piss off every male she meets, especially her co-worker Uwe who has loved Anne for a long time.

As with Lana and Brandon in Boys Don't Cry, one of the most fascinating things about Unveiled is trying to figure out the exact moment that Anne realises that Siamak is a woman. In an attempt to humiliate her and drive a wedge between her and Anne, Uwe pays for Siamak to have an hour with a prostitute, who figures out Siamak's real gender almost immediately. Personally I think the penny drops for Anne while they are in the back seat of Uwe's car and Anne is playing lovingly with Siamak's hands, comparing their softness with her own. Her eyes seem to widen for a second, as if everything suddenly becomes clear to her.

Yet, regardless of what Anne thinks she knows, Siamak must still admit everything to the woman she loves before their love can be consummated. Everything becomes urgent when the German authorities revoke Siamak's temporary visa because his student group is no longer being persecuted in Iran. Facing the same situation all over again, of losing the woman she loves and being chased from her home, Siamak becomes desperate and determined to fight.

While I was both intrigued and horrified up until this point, it was during the final third that I truly began to love the film. With her back against the wall and everything to lose, Fariba's real intelligence, passion and instincts begin to shine through. Instead of a haunted, shy man we suddenly see the woman Fariba could be if she were free and happy to love as she chooses. Anne was intrigued by Siamak, but after she learns the whole truth and sees her lover for who she really is she falls deeply in love with Fariba. Their shared intimacy becomes intense, their sex wonderfully passionate.

Not to sound like a party-pooper, but there are some hiccups with the film. I realise it is a mistake to take Fariba's male costume too literally. As in Yentl, the metaphor of the male costume is that this is just one way of disguising one's true self. However, to write to Siamak's parents as their son seems like overkill, and quite honestly weirded me out. Besides the wish of some dying guy she barely knew, there seems to be no reason why Fariba would carry on her disguise to such lengths.

Also, the boorish, misanthropic, anti-islamic behaviour of Uwe and the other male factory workers is pushed to a disturbing degree. Sure, we are supposed to see what happens when men feel their territory is threatened, but there are other ways to show that than simply having the male characters to be all-wanker, all the time.

So when the inevitable happens and the men discover Fariba's true identity, the reaction seems not that much more terrible than the way she has been treated all along. The horror is undermined right at the critical point in the film when the tragedy should be unfolding. Besides, one-dimensional bad guys always fail to get their point across. It was difficult for me to hate them or pity them as characters. I just wanted not to see them.

Much of the emotion of the film felt contrived (in the first half of the film I found I pitied Fariba more for her situation than because I liked the character), and most of the lessons learned were conveyed through speeches and dialogue where subtlety was never the main consideration. Still, once the film emerged from its own message long enough to really explore the characters, it became thoroughly compelling.

Fariba's bravery and audacity is the thing that shines through for me. Despite the ending, I can imagine she fought on, against uncaring authorities and the threat of death sentences, to live as she chooses, rather than accept any restrictions on the life she was born to live. It might be wishful thinking, but the alternative is too depressing to contemplate.

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Last updated: 20 March 2008