LGBT Cinema in Focus: Seyed Mohsen Pourmohseni Shakib's "White Paper" (2011)

Sitting at the edge of the Caspian Sea, Rasht, Iran is home to filmmaker and visual artist Seyed Mohsen Pourmohseni Shakib. Though Iran has made many important contributions to the world of cinema, it is safe to assume that attendees of LGBT film festivals would be surprised to encounter an entry from the Islamic Republic. If that presumption is valid, Shakib’s animated short film White Paper has been surprising festivalgoers since 2011.

For Euro-American audiences, viewing White Paper as anything other than an allegory for the experience of LGBT people living in crisis would be difficult. At the center of the film are six children, each representing a different color of the rainbow. The children are all rejected by their monochromatic families and exiled from their homes. In their isolation, the children come together and build a more vibrant and accepting community.

The same audience may also be surprised to learn that White Paper has not only been screened on Iranian television, but its director has been interviewed on a state news channel. “It was my first interview in the whole of my life, so I was a little bit nervous,” Shakib said.

The film’s coded LGBT imagery may seem obvious for people living in cultures where rainbows are synonymous with sexual difference and acceptance, but not in a country like Iran—where they aren’t. “[Iran has] accepted my work as a statement for minority, not a statement for homosexuality,” Shakib says.

Though censorship is a reality in the Islamic Republic, and funding usually only follows approval from the Ministry of Culture, Shakib says he’s found a large degree of creative freedom as an independent filmmaker.

“If a filmmaker tries to make a film under the Ministry name, they control his work step by step and pay attention to all details, so it limits the artist’s freedom. Your choice about being independent or not,” Shakib says, “depends on your ability to pay costs.”

White Paper has certainly found a home at LGBT film festivals (over 30 since its debut) but Shakib insists that difference from his own life in a more general sense was the film's primary influence.

“Not only difference in sexual orientation, but difference in anything—such as point of view or religion. I've experienced difference as a child who had loved to be a dancer but his family (aunts or uncles or cousins) repressed him because dance was a taboo for a boy at that time.... I’ve experienced difference as an artist who has tried to express himself... but people have repressed because they don’t like someone who behaves in a different way.”

A sampling of Shakib's visual art outside of cinema. "Joan of Art" further explores the subject of exile in the face of difference.

Three minutes in length, White Paper is a testament to the power of community and emanates hope for anyone marginalized because of difference—sexual or otherwise. Undoubtedly meant in the broadest sense, Shakib dedicates his film “to all colored people.”

Shakib's second animated film, "Game Over," made its debut in 2013. Watch it here.