Thursday, September 8, 2011

Sisters Under The Skin

Sisterhood was a powerful concept long before the Suffragette movement gained momentum. Greek mythology referred to the Pleiades and Hesperides as "the seven sisters."

There were literary sisters (Charlotte, Anne, and Emily Bronte) as well as astronomical sisters (the "seven sisters" are  in the Pleiades star cluster within the constellation of Taurus). William Shakespeare began The Tragedy of Macbeth with an ominous gathering of the "weird sisters" while Richard Wagner made Brunnhilde and her eight warrior maiden sisters an important part of Die Walkure.

From President Bill Clinton's infamous "Sister Souljah moment" to a hard-hitting documentary about the abuse of Irish women entitled The Magdalene Sisters; from Sapphic sisters (does anyone remember the Daughters of Bilitis?) to the rock band, Scissor Sisters (who named their band after the lesbian practice of tribadism), the word "sister" has grown to have many meanings.

Famous biological sisters who subsequently became movie stars and/or celebrities include Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, the Talmadge sisters (Norma, Constance, and Natalie), the Olsen twins (Mary-Kate and Ashley), the Dionne quintuplets, as well as the famous San Francisco twins (Marian and Vivian Brown).

Films that focus on close relationships between sisters include Hannah and Her SistersA League of Their OwnHilary and Jackie, Sense and Sensibility, Big Business, and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  One of Wendy Wasserstein's more popular plays was entitled The Sisters Rosensweig.

Popular Broadway musicals about sisters have included 1997's Side Show (based on the story of the famous conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton) and the current Sister Act.  In the following scene from a 1958 television production of Wonderful Town (based on My Sister Eileen), Rosalind Russell and Jacqueline McKeever wonder why they ever left Ohio.

Films about women finding emotional strength in their relationships with other women include Thelma and Louise, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Famous vaudeville and musical groups included The Gumm Sisters, The Duncan SistersThe Dolly Sisters, The Clark Sisters, The Pointer Sisters, and The Andrews Sisters.

In the following clip recorded during the 2006 Glyndebourne Festival OperaAnke Vondung (Dorabella) and Miah Persson (Fiordigili) portray two sisters as they perform "Prendero quel brunettino" in the Nicholas Hytner production of Mozart's comic opera, Cosi Fan Tutte.

Two new films take radically different perspectives on sisterhood. One focuses on twin sisters from the San Francisco Bay area who share a unique medical history. The other focuses on two Iranian women who fall in love. In each case, the core message is summed up nicely in a Stephen Schwartz song from the musical Wicked. In the following clip, Kristin Chenoweth (who was the show's original Glinda) sings "For Good."

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Many sisters share fascinating histories. Few, however, are as amazing as the one shared by  Anabel Stenzel and Isabel Stenzel Byrnes, Japanese-German twins who were born in Los Angeles in 1972 and diagnosed with cystic fibrosis on their third day of life. Not only have the twins undergone double lung transplants, now that they no longer have to struggle to breathe, they have found a new and meaningful role in life.

During their childhood hospital stays the Stenzel twins started keeping a diary about what it meant to live with a fatal disease.  Published in 2007, their memoir not only describes summer excursions to a cystic fibrosis camp (where children with CF can feel normal), but also offers inspiration to families currently battling cystic fibrosis

In addition to being able to enjoy life to its fullest now that they can breathe like normal people, the twins have become global advocates for organ donation (without which neither one would still be alive). A major part of Mark Smolowitz's film, The Power of Two, is devoted to their advocacy in Japan's medical and cystic fibrosis communities to stress the need for people to fill out organ donor cards (despite an excellent healthcare system, the number of organ transplants in Japan is astonishingly low due to complex cultural issues).

What becomes obvious throughout the documentary is that, because of their intense personal experience (coupled with their impressive scientific credentials), the twins have become extremely articulate advocates.  Both women received Bachelor of Science degrees in human biology at Stanford University and did their postgraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley. Isabel earned two master's degrees (one in public health in epidemiology and biostatistics as well as another in social welfare with a special focus on health) while Anabel earned her master's degree in genetic counseling.

Not only are the twins living proof of how potential donors can make a difference in the world, several segments of the film show them interacting with the families of the donors who gave them their new sets of lungs. Throughout the documentary, they stress how valuable and important it is for donor recipients to stay in touch with their donor families.  In his director/producer's statement, Smolowitz writes:
"When I read The Power Of Two -- A Twin Triumph Over Cystic Fibrosis, I was moved by the way Anabel Stenzel and Isabel Stenzel Byrnes write so eloquently about their experiences with chronic illness. My big takeaway from their memoir was that we all have a stake in global conversations about public health, organ donation, and transplant, and we can all find a space in our lives for community and advocacy of social causes. From there, it made perfect sense that a feature documentary inspired by their lives would be a natural evolution for this story. As I began the filmmaking process, I quickly fell in love with Ana and Isa, both as people and as characters. Over time, we developed a powerful three-way trust in all aspects of this storytelling collaboration. I see Ana and Isa as both ordinary and extraordinary women, which reminds us that we often see such humbling and familiar contrasts in our own lives. As such, they are entirely approachable, yet somehow also bigger than life.
Ultimately, it is their twin bond that resonates onscreen with immense power -- the kind that transcends boundaries of culture, race and nation. In bringing their stories to screen, I have had the great pleasure of following them across two countries and 27 cities, and now, I look forward to sharing their stories of survival with the world. I am quite sure that audiences will embrace them with the same openness and excitement that they themselves bring to every day. For me, it truly has been an honor to make this film -- a highlight of my life and career -- and I have learned so much about what it means to opt in for being an advocate for something bigger than myself."
The Power of Two is an intensely personal documentary which manages to be highly inspirational and educational without ever becoming maudlin. Here's the trailer.

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Sometimes your eyes play tricks on you.  Every time I look at a poster for Circumstance (the new lesbolicious film written and directed by Maryham Keshavarz) my mind instantly goes to the word "circumcision."  Talk about cutting edge film!

With its wonderful score by Gingger Shankar and beautiful cinematography by Brian Rigney Hubbard, it's all too easy to forget that Circumstance (which was filmed undercover in Beirut but takes place in Tehran) is set in a society about which Western audiences know very little. Keshavarz takes the viewer to illicit clubs as well as to a sound booth where two young Iranis, Hossein (Sina Amedson) and Joey (Keon Mohajeri), hope to dub Gus van Sant's film about Harvey Milk into Farsi (at one point Joey is seen performing an ultra-gay voiceover for Sean Penn). They even let their female friends watch Sex and the City!

Hossein and Joey also provide cover for the film's two leads, two 16-year-old Irani girls who, as they become increasingly intimate friends, are beginning to explore their sexuality. Atafeh (played by Iranian-Canadian actress Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (played by French-Iranian actress Sarah Kazemy) are full of life, and seemingly uncaring about the numerous low-resolution, black-and-white surveillance cameras that record their movements around the city.

Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy in Circumstance

The presumption that their friendship is nonsexual allows the two girls to risk going to underground nightclubs, singing aloud together, or even taking a forbidden dip in the Caspian Sea. Atafeh's wealthy parents, Firouz (Soheil Parsa) and (Nasrin Pakkho), seem quite at ease with their daughter's exuberance and expressiveness. Shireen lives with her grandmother and uncle who, because they are not as well off as Atafeh's family, must keep searching for a potential husband who can take Shireen off their hands.

As the two girls experiment with sex, drugs, and rock'n roll, their lives are filled with optimism and an intoxicating sense of freedom until Atafeh's older brother returns home. Although Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) was a talented, aspiring musician when he left home, his return after a stint in rehab for drug abuse finds him transformed into a self-righteous, politically correct pain in the ass.

Not only has Mehran's passion for music been replaced with an intense devotion to God and the teachings of Islam, he has been recruited as an informant by Iran's morality police, the dreaded Basijis. To make matters worse, he's developed a crush on the free-spirited Shireen without understanding what her friendship with his sister involves.

Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy in Circumstance

In an interview with, Nikohl Boosheri discussed some of the challenges the cast and crew faced while trying to film in Beirut. Because Keshavarz had submitted a very sketchy script to the Lebanese authorities (which omitted any references to music or lesbianism), the fact that the crew was filming near a military facility didn't make the deception any easier. As the actress recalls:
"At the beginning, Sarah and I were taking pictures of ourselves and documenting our travels, because I had never been outside of North America before. After we uploaded those photos onto our websites, we were taken into the producer’s office and given a stern talking to. They told us they didn’t want anyone to know what we were filming, where we were located, etc. 
During the scene where Atafeh’s brother gives her a birthday gift, I didn’t know the military was on the set. The actor playing Meheran came on set speaking only in English, which was very weird, because as you know, the entire film is filmed in Farsi. He came up to me and said, 'I just want to wish you a belated Groundhog Day.'  The director told us to speak only in English -- no Farsi -- and just to improvise. So we filmed for 15 minutes in English and, as one of the military guys was leaving, he turned around and said 'It looks like it’s going to be a great comedy!'"
Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy in Circumstance

Keshavarz has crafted a wonderfully sensual film which shows how little freedom women have in a repressive Arab culture. While it's obvious that Circumstance will not be shown in Irani cinemas (nor will any of its cast and crew be allowed into that country in the future), Western audiences should make an effort to see this film, which so beautifully captures the unfettered inquisitiveness and naiveté of young love. Here's the trailer:

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