Desiree Akhavan: The 'new lesbian Lena Dunham'
We chat with filmmaker Desiree Akhavan to find out why she's been labelled the ‘new lesbian Lena Dunham’.
The media loves a label, and in Desiree Akhavan’s case they have a few to play with. Akhavan is an independent filmmaker born to Iranian immigrant parents who fled the 1979 Revolution, and she’s queer. The press have been having a field day touting her as the next big thing and the ‘new lesbian Lena Dunham’ line has almost become obligatory to include with any editorial about her.
So what is all the fuss about? Well for starters her debut feature film Appropriate Behaviour was the hit of the Sundance Film Festival and is now doing the international film circuit rounds including the Melbourne International Film Festival this month.
The film is about a young, bisexual, Persian woman, Shirin, who besides coming out of a recent breakup with her first girlfriend and dealing with life as a twenty-something single Brooklynite – is also struggling to come out to her Iranian parents.
[Image] Desiree Akhavan in Appropriate Behaviour
It’s not hard to see why critics have made the Lena Dunham comparison. The awkwardness, the over analysis, the wry humour is all there. The film has laugh out loud moments such as when Shirin describes her former relationship to her friend – she laments how they were an ‘it’ couple and how when they danced at a party people would stop and form a circle around them.
Then there’s the most brilliantly uncomfortable threesome sex scene you will ever see. Shirin goes home with a swinger couple and can’t quite fulfill her end of the bargain with all parties. It’s a tough scene to get though without wincing, but Akhavan has the ability to make you feel as if you have had every experience her character is going through, even if you haven’t.
Prior to Appropriate Behaviour, Akhavan wrote, directed and acted in the lesbian-themed web series The Slope with her creative partner Ingrid Jungermann. The series followed the lives of “superficial, homophobic lesbians” living in Park Slope.
And just prior to that she studied film and theatre at Smith College and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where she wrote and directed the short film Nose Job.
Watch the trailer for Appropriate Behaviour
So you can see how Akhavan could feel a little overwhelmed about her whirlwind life at the moment, where she not only finds herself traveling the world spruiking Appropriate Behaviour, she also landed a part on the fourth season of Girls. It seems the Lena Dunham line sparked the interest of Lena Dunham herself.
“Yes, it’s definitely been a surreal year for me,” Akhavan tells MCV. “I feel incredibly blessed.”
Lena Dunham invited Akhavan to a table reading for Girls with the idea that they would ‘just see what happens’. The reading went well and Dunham cast Akhavan as a classmate of hers at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.
In regards to the Lena Dunham comparisons, Akhavan isn’t too fussed:
“If I took that shit seriously I would spend the bulk of my time in the fetal position at the foot of my bed.”
However, there have been other comparisons too. If you’re a Woody Allen fan you’ll love the characters shtick in Appropriate Behaviour. This is a comparison Akhavan is happy with, as she says the film’s structure is inspired by Annie Hall.
“I thought it was a great film to emulate because it’s a romantic comedy where the audience is 100 per cent rooting for a couple that doesn’t end up together. You know from the start they’re not going to end up together and yet you’re still along for the beautiful ride.”
Closer to home, it was actually the film Muriel’s Wedding that “changed” Akhavan’s life. Apart from resonating with the films comedic tone, Akhavan finds that the most heartbreaking moments in her life have also been some of the funniest.
“I also deeply identify with what an extreme loser Muriel is. It’s not your classic pony tail and glasses kind of ‘movie nerd’ – this girl is a real outcast with no obvious beauty or talent, but [has] the desire to be just as superficial and entitled as any other leading lady. I can relate to that.”
Obviously there is much buzz about Akhavan within the queer community. It’s not often we see the sort of ‘real’ queer characters she has created on screen. We’re used to seeing two dimensional representations of ourselves, so while the reality might be confronting you can’t help but feel Akhavan might have pushed open the door a little more when it comes to engaging broader audiences with films about queer lives. While Akhavan hopes that might be the case too, she says her only real agenda is to “make good work that is funny and honest”.
Other than that, it’s back to the film festival circuit with the next stop Melbourne:
“This is my second time in Australia. I came out for the Sydney Film Fest in June and it was a fantastic experience – I met so many incredible people there.
“This time around I plan to watch Abuse of Weakness [French director Catherine Breillat’s film which is being hailed as her best work to date and is showing at MIFF], and explore the city
Appropriate Behaviour is showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival August 7 & 9, 2014 for more information go to miff.com.au