Arts·Point of View

How the film 'Window Horses' offers a journey of self-discovery for this Iranian-Canadian writer

For Tina Hassannia, seeing Ann Marie Fleming's new animated film was "something of a beckoning call."

For Tina Hassannia, seeing Ann Marie Fleming's new animated film was 'something of a beckoning call'

Ann Marie Fleming's Window Horses, which screens November 16th at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival. (Reel Asian)

There's a self-esteem issue at the heart of Window Horses (The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming) that has haunted me since I saw the movie at TIFF last September. The animated film is about the eponymous protagonist's journey to Shiraz, Iran. There, the young Chinese-Canadian poet partakes in a poetry festival. With no personal ties to Iran, Rosie's family and friends urge her not to go. But Rosie persists — she's never travelled and wants, even needs, this kind of experience at this point in her life. Rosie quickly becomes enchanted and overwhelmed by Iranian culture, and soon she's meeting poets and artists from around the world. Their ideas, anecdotes and experiences help her shape her own self-discovery as a poet.

Window Horses is a beautiful testimony to the idea of travel, experience and time helping shape one's self-identity. The film also explores the rich culture of Persian poetry and the medium's influence across a variety of other cultures. But there's a more complicated story of discovery here, one tied to the film's family drama which involves Rosie's long-lost father — who turns out to be Iranian. The film turns Rosie's revelations into a series of complicated and intertwining identities: she comes to understand herself better as Rosie, a daughter, a poet and a Chinese-Iranian-Canadian.

It's a lot for a young adult to take in. In Rosie's initial efforts to assimilate into this foreign culture at the festival, she adopts the mandatory head-dress required of women in Iran, but wears the more religious black chador instead of the more fashionable, casual headscarf worn by all the other women at the festival. She says hello using the Arabic expression commonly used in Iran, "Salaam," but pronounces it "Salam." In one cute moment, Rosie tries to drink tea the "Iranian way" — holding a sugar cube between her lips as she drinks — but ends up dousing herself in tea. But it's the novice mistake of wearing the chador that makes Rosie stick out like a sore thumb, and people at the festival take notice, asking her if she's Muslim. Of course, Rosie can't possibly know any better — she's new to the culture.

"Why does a young Canadian of Asian descent decide to wear the chador?" asks Iranian poet Mehrnaz (Shohreh Aghdashloo), after reading her fortune using a book of poetry. Mehrnaz is something of a mentor to Rosie.

"I wasn't prepared for Iran," she replies.

This moment really hit home for me. There are, of course, many differences between this fictional animated character and myself. I've known about my Iranian heritage since childhood. But I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood where hiding one's cultural roots was somewhat imperative to survival. My school was extremely white — I was the only Iranian student, and one of just a few immigrant families — and already being a socially awkward kid, I did anything to fit in. That meant hiding my culture, and over the years I saw it as less and less of a defining aspect of my personality.

A still from Window Horses. (TIFF)

In the past few years, I've reversed that and begun to embrace my roots. Taking film studies in school opened the door to discovering Iranian cinema, which has greatly helped me in this journey. I have yet to visit my homeland, but I would like to one day. And more so than any film from Iran I've seen, in Window Horses I've found something of a beckoning call. If a fictional stick girl can have this cultural reawakening, so can I.

But something holds me back. It's the same fear that paralyzed me in my youth and is similarly visible in Rosie's initial interactions in Iran. My fear of making mistakes and social rejection keeps me from booking the flight. I may be more educated to Iranian custom than Rosie, but I'm afraid of falling short somehow. My Persian language skills are terrible. I also look and sound distinctively Iranian, so people will hold me to a higher standard. And I will still make mistakes. I fear rejection, but more than that, I fear what will happen to me once I get past any social faux pas.

In the film, Rosie changes as a result of her trip. She blossoms. She develops a certain confidence in her poetry. For me, I have yet to know what changes I may undertake once I get past my fear and visit Iran. I don't know how painful it will be or what kind of person I may become. All I can hope for is that like Window Horses, there may be some kind of happy ending in my future too.

Window Horses. Directed by Ann Marie Fleming. 88 minutes. Rated PG. Opens Mar. 10 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.


Tina Hassannia is a writer and film critic based in Toronto.