Filmmaking with the Youth of Tehran in the Lead-Up to the Election
We are screaming down Islamic Republic Boulevard at three in the
morning in Ismael's car. We have just come from Shabdul Azim Mosque
and he is happy to be showing North Americans his beloved Tehran. His
sullen friend Reza tells me how difficult the government is in Iran,
but Ismael wants to give a different perspective.
He asks if we like Persian music. "Hatman," we say, "of course." He
cranks up the radio as we zip past towering murals of mullahs and
martyrs. Suddenly, he stops the car at the intersection of Valiasr and
Jomhuri. He gets out, and begins to dance around. Two weeks later
Tehran's youth would jubilantly parade through the same interscection
in support of the "Green Wave."
We came to Tehran with the hopes of making a film in two months. We
had nothing: no contacts, no money, just a few family friends. After a
desperate few weeks, we met Khani, our line producer, who not only
helped us complete the film but introduced us to many young, spirited
Tehranis. In the moments of work and laughter with them it felt like
Iran was a free country.
In our first days of casting we met a 75-year-old dervish who asked
incredulously, "Why have you come here to make a film? Imagination is
illegal, creativity is illegal, life here is illegal." We didn't have
an answer. Instead we relied on the enthusiasm of Khani's crew who
were glad to see a film being made about their country which didn't
portray them as political fetish objects, or third world ragamuffins.
Our crew consisted of people from all over the town; North and
South, secular and religious. Khani prayed five times a day, but being
a Western philosophy major he was eager to discuss Foucault and
Heidegger. Mohamad played in a rock band, and Cyrus was an up and
coming director who focused on female protagonists. Our
pre-conceptions were constantly being shattered by their complexity
and we were consistently humbled by their kindness.
Our first morning on set, we sat cross legged around a stack of
Barbari bread and some fresh Panir cheese. The camera assistant
mentioned the upcoming election. Everyone began to speak in a hushed
voice. Kaveh and Mohamad said they won't be voting because they think
it will be business as usual in the Islamic Republic. Cyrus and Ali
argued passionately that if there is enough people who vote there
could be change. Everybody was checking over their shoulder
suspiciously to see if we were being watched, even though we were safe
within the walls of a closed estate.
Later that evening we are working at our friend Rostam's. He tells
us we should take a break. We sit down for a cup of tea and eat goje
sabz (sour green plums). Rostam is studying for his masters in
psychology. He asks if we are familiar with the classic psychological
defense mechanisms. We say yes. He asks us to name a few. We rattle
them off: denial, rationalization, identification and repression.
"We know all about them here," he says with a pitch black grin, "my
particular mechanism is rationalization, although repression is very
popular." We laugh as he looks out the window towards the city.
His smile quickly fades and he says, "I hope one day I can help
everyday people as a therapist, they sure need it."
On the last day of the shoot we stare at Leyla in the make-up
mirror. We are negotiating how much hair and neck she can show in our
film. We pull the headscarf back, and she pulls it the other way. Then
she insists that she has to wear a turtle neck. Sara says, "But this
scene is set in summer time. Leyla replies, "you don't wanna risk it.
Sara, honey, you are finally getting a taste of how Bad-Bakt (unlucky)
we are in this society."
Leyla will later tell us that she was pulled out of the film business
by her father, who made her stay at home because he didn't think the
arts were a fitting profession. She tells us she hopes she can see the
finished film in Tehran one day.
After the film is done, Khani, our line-producer, drives up the winding
roads of North Tehran past mansions with beautiful hidden gardens. He
says without a trace of resentment, "The film is done, and you'll soon
go back to America. We'll just be a memory. Enjoy the freedom you
have. Just forget about us here because we don't stand a chance".
We wanted to eat his despair. Sara said, "No, it will change, it can't
stay like this forever."
Khani replied without thinking, still looking forward, "It will never change."
We continue on to a lookout point at the top of a mountain. We step
out and look over the beautiful and weeping Tehran skyline. Although
he says nothing, we know he is proud of his city and proud to be
This morning we woke to images of familiar streets filled with
familiar youth refusing to accept their government's blithe denial of
their will. Something had happened since we left. The Cyrusess had
convinced the Kavehs that voting mattered, and that change in Iran
was possible. Through text messages, social networks and word of mouth
the young people of Iran decided they were deserving of the dignity of
an elected government.
To our young friends in Iran: the world has seen your courage and
stamina in your struggle for freedom.
To Khani, we want you to know that we will not forget about you, and
you've proven today that you do stand a chance.
Khaste Nabahsheen (don't be tired).