This paper explores nostalgia and memory as categories of analysis in Nahid Persson’s The Queen and I (2009), a film that brings together two unlikely figures: Farah Diba, the former Queen of Iran, and Nahid Persson, a filmmaker and former member of a communist opposition group during the 1979 Iranian revolution.
When Persson initially meets her subject, each approaches the other warily, but they eventually warm up to each other and bond through their shared nostalgic remembrances of Iran. Farah Diba, who thirty years after the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy, prefers being addressed as “Shahbanou,” remains rooted in a conservative “restorative nostalgia” described by Svetlana Boym as a type of nostalgia that seeks to restore a past glory, to reinstate the grandeur of what once was. The former queen’s identity is tightly bound up with the past, and Persson’s camera shows her walking the streets of Paris like a regal ghost, always perfectly made up in case one of her former subjects should recognize her. The documentary follows Farah Diba as she travels across the globe to Egypt on the anniversary of the Shah’s death where she is surrounded by other exilic Iranians who make the annual pilgrimage to pay homage to their dead king, to public events in Washington D.C. where well-heeled Iranian exiles encircle Farah, dusting off and reliving their memories of the past.
While the film portrays this display of restorative nostalgia as pitiable, and even slightly ridiculous, Persson manages to humanize Farah through their shared nostalgia for an Iran lost. Although the Queen’s nostalgia arises from an impulse to restore the past, Persson’s nostalgia derives from what Boym has termed “reflective nostalgia,” an indulgence in loss, and a reflection on broken narratives. In this documentary, pre-revolutionary Iran becomes a place Persson and Farah remember with both pleasure and grief, and the film ends with their shared desire to return to Iran.
This paper will explore the social and political function of nostalgia and memory in Persson’s documentary and suggests that both restorative and reflective nostalgia converge to result in a type of political defanging that marks the exilic condition.