Reza Haeri and Javad Azimi Parsa don’t receive their visas till the last minute, just a few hours before their flight left Tehran. The French embassy almost prevents their departure and is “very rude” to them. Finally, after an exhausting odyssey through Istanbul and Nice, five Iranian filmmakers arrive in Marseilles. It is their first visit to France, and they are here to give the documentary folks at the Sunny Side of the Doc an idea of The Other Iran.

The mastermind behind The Other Iran is Frenchman Patrice Barrat with his company, Article Z. A specialist in current affairs documentaries, his track record as director and executive producer spans four pages of small print. Five years ago, Barrat set a precedent with a Grimme-Preis-winning project called The Other Algeria, composed of five films offering “inside looks at Algerian society”. His 2003 Iran series follows the same simple but ingenious recipe: Avoid the limited access that foreign media have, select five local filmmakers instead, and make their authentic voices heard on European television and beyond.

“Foreign professional journalists only fulfil the clichés,” says Tugrul Artunkal, better known as “T. Celal”. As the Paris-based series producer puts it, “We from France only go to Spain to film Flamenco.” Article Z’s open call for proposals from Iran, disseminated by the Documentary and Experimental Film Centre in Tehran, triggered 130 submissions. Several broadcasters, among them ARTE, ITN, RTBF, TV3 and YLE, had already committed to the project and made up a jury to select five proposals that were to be shot in May and June.

Divorce Iranian Style

ARTE’s Marco Nassivera, who plans to broadcast these half-hour documentaries in his prime-time ARTE Reportage slot in September, has just come from Strasbourg to Sunny Side of the Doc to meet the chosen Iranian filmmakers for the first time. He can’t wait to have a peek at the footage on Friday morning. A private screening of samples is the earliest opportunity for the broadcasters to get a better idea of what they’re buying, and they are kind enough to let the DOX reporter witness their first reactions.

Marco Nassivera

For her film Killing by Women, Mahvash Sheikoleslami has already interviewed twenty women in prison, most of them convicted for killing their husbands. Having shown some excerpts of these interviews, the filmmaker points out that this was the first time ever that cameras had access to this jail. However, she was not permitted to film the inmates’ actual life in prison. Some broadcasters in the room, obviously fearing a programme with too many talking heads, are keen to stress the importance of strong narration “to tell the social context”.

Mahvash Sheikoleslami is quick to admit that her current footage could be “very difficult to edit”. She understands the need to “focus on three or four of the women” and to include lawyers, courts, and families. Sheikoleslami is very aware of all these requirements, as she has worked for film and television in Iran since the 1970s. In 1999, her film YOUFAK won the main prize at the Tampere Film Festival in Finland.

With the background of unbearable living conditions for many women in Iran, the subject matter of Killing by Women is reminiscent of  or Runaway, but focuses on much more tragic cases where murder is the ultimate self-defence. Molly Clarke, representing the Independents Fund of Channel 4 News, wants to know what all these women have been sentenced to. Sheikoleslami: “Most of them are waiting to be hanged.”

For Molly Clarke, it is “too early to comment” on how these half-hour films will be adapted to Channel 4 News. As The Other Iran turns out to be “more documentary than current affairs”, Clarke says that the broadcaster would have to re-version the documentaries into shorter reports. Will the filmmakers be involved in this? “That’s still open to discussion.”

The next sample to be screened is Imam Internet, shot by Reza Haeri “in all the different places where the Internet is used in Iran.” In the introductory sequence of his reel, Reza uses archive footage of young Iranians fighting in the war with Iraq twenty years ago and combines it with pictures of today’s youth, fighting each other by playing Counterstrike over the Net.

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