Making films under repressive regimes is a huge challenge. Making films about repressive regimes presents challenges of its own.

Willemien Sanders

Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

Forced Confessions

Maziar Bahari

England 2012, 58min.

In 2009 filmmaker Maziar Bahari was forced to make a false confession, supposedly having collaborated with the West, and accused of espionage. Many intellectuals, writers, philosophers and journalists preceded Bahari since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The director’s own voice-over and interviews with fellow Iranians who have been through the same ordeal guide the viewer through the history of forced confessions in Iran. No Iranian believes any of them but the ruling regime continues to use them.

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Maziar Bahari

Making films under repressive regimes is a huge challenge. Making films about repressive regimes presents challenges of its own. While Morning Fears Night Chants presents a concealed singer’s experience of and contribution to a revolution from the inside, Forced Confessions is a personal indictment of a regime escaped. In both cases, the conditions in which the films were produced are reflected in the films’ styles.

Bahari grew up in Iran and witnessed the 1979 Revolution as a youngster. Studying abroad and working for foreign media made him the ideal scapegoat when another one was needed. During the 2009 ‘green’ protests following the re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he was arrested, accused of working for the West and of espionage – he was subsequently tortured, and forced to make a false confession in public, like many of his fellow journalists, academics and other intellectuals.

Forced Confessions presents the stories of Bahari and five partners in this misfortune. Bahari interviewed them and collected additional visual material, such as photos and newspaper clippings. In sequence, and connected by Bahari’s voice-over storytelling and archive images of the Revolution and of confessions, they represent the history of the use of forced confessions by the Iranian regime. Bahari provides further facts, the names and the faces of the perpetrators. The stories span some thirty years, but form a repetitive pattern of intimidation, arrests, ignorant interrogators, torture, public confession and humiliation, and escape.

Morning Fears Night Chants is a small film about a Syrian protest singer, presented by “Syrians within Borders” and surrounded by secrecy. Escaping her conventionalist parents with excuses, an unnamed woman joins the protests after having given the regime some time to respond to its people’s demand. She recounts the circumstances of her youth, the lies she’s been brought up with, the life she was supposed to lead. She relates her decision to join the Revolution: mom and dad have had their chance and now it’s up to the new generation. She starts writing songs about life under Assad, the Revolution, the cry for freedom, and life afterwards, in a better world. The interviews, rehearsals and recordings are interspersed with images of the ongoing Revolution.

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Morning Fears Night Chants by Maziar Bahari

In both cases, the production circumstances are closely related to the form of the film – but while those of Forced Confessions allowed for its form, those of Morning Fears Night Chants dictated its form. As a Canadian citizen, Bahari has the freedom to make the film as he sees fit. All but one of his protagonists live abroad as well, in the US, Canada, and Germany. Siamak Pourzand, film journalist and organizer of cine-clubs, chose to end his life in protest. Now taking a position as an outsider provides an opportunity for Bahari to address the topic in depth and with fervor; and to include the names and images of all involved. Bahari presents a personal indictment of the Iranian regime and its tactics by presenting first his own particular experiences, recounting them through his own voice-over accompanying a photograph of his public confession.

The way he combines images and voice-over information exudes propaganda methods: a commanding voice-over presenting key information viewers cannot check or assess properly, illustrated by a wealth of images connected to the information. However, by subsequently presenting first-hand accounts of fellow victims and by including sources such as reports, photos, newspapers, and archive material, he contextualizes his experience in a broader frame and constructs a historical narrative that resonates with what we know about the country under scrutiny. This way, Bahari sketches a pattern of intimidations, arrests, torture, and fake confessions that characterizes not just how the Iranian regime deal with opponents, or even alleged opponents, but how it suppresses and silences its citizens, preventing them from opposing the regime, thereby securing the powers that be. Bahari’s style is rich, effective and convincing.
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Morning Fears Night Chants by Maziar Bahari

The form of Morning Chants is dictated by the circumstances of making a film from within: the ongoing revolution in Syria, the impossibility of speaking out openly, the refuge inside, it all necessitates the style. Faces need to remain concealed, and filming takes place in the dark, in secret. The film borders on claustrophobic: extreme close-ups, unlit rooms, rides in the dark, hidden faces. The woman singer is introduced with images of her arms resting in her lap; her hand holding a napkin with text; holding a cigarette. We see the upper right side of her face, then her mouth. As if pieces of a puzzle are offered to us. Others remain unidentifiable as well; locations remain unnamed, events likewise. The only thing we can relate to is the content of the woman’s account and her songs. All other context is absent.

Where Forced Confessions contextualizes a personal experience and accusation in a broader and historical context, speaking from a position outside the regime in both time and space, Morning Fears remains a micro-experience, a close-up in time and space of a protest singer, decontextualized save for the content of her songs. Both present different stages in reflecting on oppression. Both stories need to be told.

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