Arash Es’haghi gracefully celebrates an unnamed farmer dancing his way to self-love in Iran.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Reeling Chicago International LGBTQ+ Film Festival.)
In the opening moments of Arash Es’haghi’s emotional documentary Gracefully, an unnamed farmer helps a cow birth a calf. It’s nature. It is what it is. The helping farmer then goes from gore to gorgeous, donning skirts, beaded tops, and jingling accessories. A dancer in the shadows. It’s nature. He is what he is.
Gracefully is a short punch to the gut. At once a harrowingly intimate look at one man’s subjective experience and an indictment of larger geopolitics, this documentary is not out to satisfy liberal sensibilities. It’s not interested in liberating its nameless farmer. It’s not about living with the injustices he faces. The farmer and his family are presented as is, with all their unresolved contradictions.
Queer narratives all too often hinge on coming out stories that hinge on the conflict between self and family. White cultural hegemony dictates that these stories should push for individualism, even at the expense of the family. This is how capitalism has commandeered queer liberation. Liberal ideals of “outness,” “queerness,” and “freedom” are impossible, and Es’haghi doesn’t push for them either.
We spend our hour following the farmer, listening to stories of his life prior to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, one which installed a conservative religious government that has since banned homosexuality and women dancing. Before the revolution, he and his friends were drag performers. After the revolution, he’s the only survivor. Through it all, we watch him maintain his resolve to keep dancing. It compels him. It keeps him alive.
First and foremost, Gracefully is a celebration. For all its somber moments, the joy and pleasure the farmer gets from his dancing is undeniable. As he shops for fabrics, knowing the lengths required for each regional dance he does, we can see he’s a student of his art, a craftsman. This is an area I wish Es’haghi explored a bit more; the farmer is such a repository of cultural information, I wanted to learn even more from him.
It’s hard to watch a person navigate so many impediments, especially ones in their own home. All six of the farmer’s sons have varying degrees of tolerance for his dancing. At times, his wife seems to be barely tolerating it. We see how much pain his dancing puts his family through. Yet he stays. But he also never stops dancing, and he looks so alive while doing it.
The farmer and his family are presented as is, with all their unresolved contradictions.
There might be temptation to put Gracefully to “use” — to make it into a call to action or intervention. As he cries in front of his homemade gowns, you want to help. It’s truly heartbreaking. But Es’haghi’s objective yet compassionate camera shows us how tricky the lived experience is. Our farmer has a family, a community, and a culture that are as integral to who he is as his dancing. As the history of his land can attest, intervention may do more harm than good.
Instead, the distance between us and the farmer shows us how navigating the intersections of queerness and culture is a dance in itself. Whatever oppression many manifest itself in the farmer’s life, the dance will keep going. It’s nature. It can’t be helped. There are even some who are managing to dance this precarious dance quite, well, gracefully.