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.
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.
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.
“In today’s Iran,” Haeri’s synopsis reads, “the Internet has become the new place for wishful thinking.” A Farsi web log gives users access in their own language, lets them seek advice from mullahs as well as participate in sex chats. “It’s a space of freedom,” Reza Haeri says, referring to the use of the web by women: “A husband is happy to let his wife access the Internet because he thinks it’s for scientific use, but the wife actually goes there to chat.” Answering a request by a Finnish editor to hear more about what the Net is actually used for, Haeri stresses the importance of “virtual worlds” in Iran: “A young girl spends 12 hours a day on the Net because her father doesn’t let her go out.”
The attending commissioning editors are intrigued to know whether such use of the Internet is considered legal or illegal in Iran, and what the censorship situation is. Haeri’s answer remains diplomatic: “We always find a way.” However, for this kind of film, he could be arrested.
ARTE can be seen via satellite in Iran, so Reza Haeri has a pretty good idea of what kind of programme they would expect. His latest film is a documentary about Tehran taxi drivers. However, Iranian television does not have regular strands for current affairs programmes or documentaries. “We don’t speak the same documentary language,” series producer T. Celal admits. He also points out conflicting requirements for current affairs strands, comparing a character-driven ‘British way’ and its ‘unfolding narrative’ with a more patchwork-like ‘French way’ of “mixing interviews and examples. Deals like “pay for two films and get all five” allow broadcasters to be more flexible in their selection.
Flying Misters is the well-shot story of a rock band based in Bandar Anzali on the Caspian Sea. The film’s 24-year-old director, Reza Bahrami Nezhad, is an active member of the “Flying Misters”, presenting his own band in this documentary. He compares Bandar Anzali to the run-down rusty boat they are on: In the times of his grandfather, the harbour town used to be “the hub of cultural and artistic activity”. Today, the place is characterised by unemployment and depression. For the rock band, it’s easy to rehearse in a hired shed. The real problem is public performances, each requiring permission from the Ministry of Culture, which is extremely difficult to obtain. But will Bahrami Nezhad be able to illustrate this struggle? “You can’t film the authorities.”
Javad Azimi Parsa’s film about the student movement in Iran, The Razor, has been high on the wish list of the broadcasters. Having been a student himself, Azimi Parsa shot the protests, lost all his permissions, was stopped by the police. He interviewed the leader of the student movement, but didn’t want to take the tapes to the airport. “Too risky,” he says. He screens more innocent footage, on the phenomenon of depression among many students in Iran. They are sent to self-help groups where their stress levels are checked with the help of fingerprints on a test card, and classes teach them how to laugh. One sequence shows some kind of psychologist shouting: “How do you feel?” A chorus of students yell back at him, “Great!”
Originally intending to investigate and follow up the 1999 rise of the student movement in Iran, new clashes between reformists and conservatives in recent months have given The Razor a topical context. Students take to the streets again, although the motives have changed: “Students are tired of political stuff,” Azimi Parsa says. For his political activities, the filmmaker himself was suspended for two semesters.
Patrick de Lamalle, of RTBF in Belgium, will broadcast at least one of the films in his weekly half-hour prime-time strand. He mentions the film about the students as his favourite. Still, the main focus of the documentary is not entirely clear to him: “Is it about the depression and the classes, or is it about the riots?” He also wonders, “Is the threat by America not an issue?”
The latter question is addressed by Banafsheh Khoshnoudi, co-ordinator of the project, in a recent letter: “Iranians watch satellite broadcasts of CNN and FOX News as they announce that Iran is next on the American hit list, but no one here is really thinking of the future–life continues as it always has.”
A fifth project, Maryam, focuses on the life of a journalist and her husband. A sample provided by the film’s director, Orod Attarpour, cannot be replayed. The broadcasters’ feedback remains vague.
Real rough cuts are ready for viewing in August, and the commissioning editors are invited to come to Iran for three or four days to have a say during the editing. Molly Clarke wonders how much freedom the filmmakers will have when editing in Tehran. The producers, however, are confident that the local Documentary Centre, despite being a government institution, will not censor. “The big problem is to get footage out of the country,” Banafsheh Khoshnoudi says.
Later in the afternoon, producers and directors are ready to present The Other Iran to the Sunny Side crowd, especially looking for more broadcasters to come on board. They promise to remain flexible. With the current climate of change, broadcasters and producers are not quite sure whether The Other Iran should be broadcast as soon as possible, or whether it would be better if the filmmakers kept on shooting. As Reza Haeri puts it: “We’re nearing the end of the regime.”