Culture Whisper Interview: Desiree Akhavan
INTERVIEW: Everyone is calling Desiree Akhavan the next Lena Dunham. She tells India Halstead why there's room for two comedic queens on the Brooklyn indie scene.
Desiree Akhavan's name is about to be everywhere. She popped up on the New York indie scene in 2010 with cult-hit semi-biographical web series The Slope (watch The Slope online here) conceived with then-girlfriend Ingrid Jungermann. Since its phenomenal success she's now broken out of Sundance for the world-wide release of her full-length feature film Appropriate Behaviour.
If you’ve seen The Slope, you’ll already have been charmed by Akhavan. The show's tagline ‘superficial homophobic lesbians’ points towards Desiree Akhavan’s unique and self-critical, narcissistic brand of humour; it’s not hard to see why she’s been billed as the next Lena Dunham. But that’s far too reductive an analysis for a woman who's been changing the face of LGBT cinema with honest portrayals of the fluidity of sexuality, comparable to new shows like the Golden Globe-winning series Transparent.
The new Appropriate Behaviour film which Akhavan wrote, starred in and directed follows Shirin, a twenty-something, bisexual Iranian-American adjusting to life in Brooklyn after a difficult break-up with her girlfriend Maxine.
The film is refreshingly open about every subject it lays on the screen, whether that be sex, or the difficulties of an immigrant upbringing in America. Desiree Akhavan clearly has no trouble laying herself physically bare in front of the camera. Performing on-screen in the film, she says, is a different experience for her: "It feels personal, but it doesn’t feel naked or exposing in the way that people sometimes expect. They think I’ll be embarrassed. I see it as a character."
The next Lena Dunham?
The Desiree Akhavan / Lena Dunham comparison is something it seems she's been unable to avoid. Akhavan even has a cameo on season 4 of Girls, as Hannah's disparaging fellow creative writing student. The comparison is, though flattering for Akhavan, frustrating in an industry with so many talented women. "I really like her work so it’s not infuriating". What does infuriate her is the message it sends: "that there’s only room for one female to monetise her work in a mainstream form. So I resent that. It’s a very simplistic way to look at artistic work. Superficially – yes – there are a lot of commonalities between the two works: 'Brooklyn ladies' comedy', but if you really look beneath the surface they have very different styles and stories to tell. It’s just not a comparison I see my male contemporaries dealing with.’ Does she get asked a lot of questions that men don't get asked? 'Yes' comes the firm reply.
Many people – in the US in particular, she says – respond to the film by asking her ‘the most salacious subject matter you can think of' or focus on her sexuality as the driving force behind the work. Whereas, Akhavan feels, 'sexuality is part of it, but I don’t have an agenda...sexuality is part of her [Shirin's] personality, it’s another factor that makes her who she is, but the film's not leading with its gay foot forward.'
The parallels between this and her real relationship with The Slope co-creator Ingrid Jungermann are notable. Akhavan uses this past pain to influence her comedy, and it’s hard not to feel there’s something being purged here. She disagrees: 'the film’s not an autobiography, the events in it haven’t taken place, Ingrid is nothing like Maxine, she has a really good sense of humour, can really laugh at herself. And Maxine is sort of a militant in some ways."
'Things happen underground but there’s no release. Being gay is punishable by death in Iran.'
Whilst much of her film is about coming to terms with the end of a romantic relationship, there's another narrative in Appropriate Behaviour that is given equal weight: that the reasons behind the break-up are in part Shirin's inability to come out as bisexual to her Iranian family – an experience Akhavan knows all too well. Much of the film shows Shirin keeping her relationship with Maxine hidden from her conservative Persian relations. It also makes comment on Iranian immigrant culture more generally: one of the film's lines "Persians mainly communicate through gossip" might give a hint as to the 'Appropriate Behaviour' to which the title refers.
This element of the film is sure to resound with the voiceless Iranian gay community. Very few films are released there – there is illegal satellite television. Most music is outlawed, dancing parties are illegal and being gay is punishable by death. While the film won't have an Iranian release, Akhavan has been reached out to by the a big LGBT community both in and outside of the country.
Akhavan sees the immigrant experience as universal: "straddling two cultures is an experience that hits home for a lot of people. The film isn’t just about being an immigrant, it’s about pleasing your parents and family and that’s everyone’s struggle – being the child that their parents want them to be.’ How did it work in her own situation? ‘My parents came around. They definitely weren’t happy in the beginning but they really have come to embrace me and what I want.’
A thoughtful reworking of Annie Hall: Appropriate Behaviour is more than its surface matter
Akhavan’s been open about her influences: she’s been billed as a successor of Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and, notably, Woody Allen, whose Annie Hall, seems to have had the most pervasive influence on the film's plot and subject matter. "When I first saw that film it was mind blowing to me that it was a love story about a couple that didn’t end up together. I found it revolutionary. Romantic love being the be-all-and-end-all for anyone’s self esteem and sense of worth is a myth that infected me growing up."
Akhavan sees the character of Shirin’s ex, Maxine, as an amalgamation of all her past relationships: ‘I saw this film as an ode to lost love, love that felt both real and good but that didn’t work out. When I was growing up I learned a lot about life from film and television. I watched TV constantly and I didn’t have many friends. Everything I knew about life and love was on-screen. I thought: ‘if two people are really in love and they are both good people then they will be together forever’ – but it just doesn’t work like that "From the start I decided the couple weren’t going to stay together: I wanted to tell a story about a couple that you really fall in love with, who don't end up together."
And what's next? Desiree Akhavan has been keeping herself busy: Appropriate Behaviour came out in the US in January but she’s already started work on her next feature – and has just secured the financing for an adaptation of a young adult novel (she can't say what) which means London can boast her presence for at least another month or so. ‘"I’m staying with my producer in Highbury & Islington - I really like the area and we corroborate a lot during the script stage so I was thinking I might stay here for a little while." Here's hoping she'll stick around.
Appropriate Behaviour UK release date:
Appropriate Behaviour is released in UK cinemas by Peccadillo Pictures 6 March.
Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behaviour trailer: Sundance 2014
Where to see Appropriate Behaviour in London:
The best cinemas showing Appropriate Behaviour in London:
Where to see Appropriate Behaviour in West London: The ICA
The Institute of Contemporary Arts on the Mall is one of London's true gems: with an incredible range of programming, from retrospective seasons to brand new releases, and frequent screenings of cult classics, its so much more than a cinema.
Click here for other suggestions of what’s on at the ICA this weekend.
Where to see Appropriate Behaviour in Central London: Curzon Soho
The historic cinema has a reputation for screening challenging and unusual films, as well as hosting Q&As with top directors and actors (Terry Gilliam made a recent appearance) and tempting customers with the delectable baked goods of Konditor and Cook.
Click here for other suggestions of what’s on at the Curzon Soho this weekend
Where to see Appropriate Behaviour in South London: The Ritzy (Q&A with Desiree Akhavan)
Brixton's historic Ritzy is known for its relaxed atmosphere and eclectic programme of art-house films, documentaries and Hollywood blockbusters. The range of craft beers on offer make The Ritzy a cut above the rest.
Click here for other suggestions of what’s on at the Ritzy this weekend.
Where to see Appropriate Behaviour in East London: The Barbican
The Barbican’s brutalist architecture may divide opinion, but its cinema – which often hosts film festivals and plays old classics – is definitely worth a visit. There is also a generous range of discounts for 16-25s: click here to find out more.
Click here for other suggestions of what’s on at the The Barbican this weekend.
If none of our suggestions take your fancy, check out the complete movie listings for Appropriate Behaviour in London: Appropriate Behaviour film times, London