We are all familiar with newspaper headlines such as: “Iran warns the West that Istanbul meeting is last chance for nuclear deal” and “Buying up the world: The coming wave of Chinese takeovers”.1 They try to inform us on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and China’s economic ones, in the meantime fuelling fears about Iran’s pugnacity and China’s growing economic strength.
One of the everlasting confusions in defining documentary film is how it relates to journalism. Both are generally believed to inform us about the real world out there. However – and this is already going subjective – documentary filmmakers are granted more poetic license that journalists. There is another important difference though. Again in general – the quotes above hopefully illustrate this – journalism reflects sentiments on a macro level where documentary filmmakers often search for the specific.
With respect to the quotes above, I will here focus on one topic in this respect: the enemy. Today’s enemies are no longer the Communists, Russia or any other modern nation-state but, going by the papers and TV news, terrorists, and more specifically Afghan, Iranian and Al Qaida terrorists. But there are also enemies of other kinds, such as the Chinese, who are taking over the global economy. And in addition, there are smaller groups of enemies, sometime very localized: the Catholic Church, the Farq movement, Hamas. They may not be enemies of our nation or our community directly, but we regard them with hostility, because we do not know or understand their goals, motives or means.
Journalism rarely bothers to make us understand. Documentaries do, or at least they can, and they try. And it is exactly this step away from the general to the specific that can help us gain insight and might make us not only less afraid but also open to attitudes other than animosity and hostility, and eventually solutions other than war or combat. As Jerome D. Frank and Andrei Y. Mellville put it: “The image of the enemy and the process of change”2 – the group and not the individual is the unit of survival and we regard members of other groups with fear and distrust. But we must work out realistic perceptions of each other if we want to be able to let go of stereotypes. The group may be the unit of survival; the individual is the unit for mutual understanding.
A striking example in this respect is Aaron Taylor, one of the main characters in Stephen Marshall’s film Holy Wars [see also other critique, page 35] Marshall followed him, Christian evangelist, missionary worker and author of a pamphlet stating that “Now is a time for war”. He also followed the Muslim, Khaled Kelly.
After having tailed them for a year and half, Marshall decides to have the two confront each other – where Kelly slowly overpowers him rhetorically;. Upon arrival, despite the chill, Kelly takes off his jacket and we see his shirt: Soldier of Allah. 1-0. After they introduce themselves and discuss the meaning of their names, we see Kelly starting off with questions about the differences between Jesus and Mohammed. In the sequence that follows, Kelly finds a hole in Taylor’s defence when he has no straightforward answer on how to solve problems like rape, adultery, prostitution and homosexuality. He knows of course, because Sharia has an answer to it all. 2-0.
And if you don’t think murder is right, how about the US bombings on Iraq and Afghanistan, killing innocent people? KO! And where Taylor not only starts but also dares to doubt himself, Kelly is frenzied in his conviction and absolute righteousness. Taylor begins to see that what makes sense to him and his Christian community members is not a matter of course for Muslims. When Taylor does nothing to hide his amazement about Kelly’s plea for Sharia law and the killing of certain criminals, Kelly hooks him: is it OK to bomb and kill innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan? The confrontation makes Taylor realize that Christians like him need to try and understand why Muslims like Kelly think the way they do.
The confrontation produces a change in Taylor’s attitude and he dares question his – hitherto – deep rooted and rock steady conviction. Back home he runs into a wall when his family, and especially his father and fatherin-law turn out to be unyielding. In a talk with his ‘mentor’ we are given a clue about their obstinacy: what helps to open up to other points of view is stepping out of your comfort zone, for example by traveling abroad (which is something Taylor has done but his ‘fathers’ have not).
It is also what American filmmaker Justine Shapiro did. She took her eight-year-old son Matteo to Tehran and had a simple reason to do so: “I’m going to Iran because I want to meet Iranian mothers before our sons meet on the battlefield.” She illustrates her reasons with references to the news media that keep portraying Iranians as protesters and aggressors, constantly showing them outside and never at home, with family members (that is: as human beings, just like us).
In Our summer in Tehran we follow her as she meets different middle-class families in Tehran. One family is most similar to her own: a single mother raising a young boy. The second is most westernized, raising their son Daniel to speak English. The third family is – on paper – the most enemy-like: a strictly religious family with a Revolutionary Guard doctor at its head. Shapiro wants to strike a very human chord.
The scene where she meets her Iranian producer at Tehran’s airport is intercut with shots of other visitors meeting their family and friends. It’s a copy of the scenes at the beginning and end of the feature Love Actually. Throughout the film it seems she wants to stress the human side of Iran’s people and the similarities between Iranians and Americans. The girls play with Barbie (and Ken) dolls, the boys play soccer. And who can resist the funny big babysitter named Orang? Altogether the film kind of plods along. Shapiro never seeks any confrontation and does not seem to discuss her motives and how those she visits relate to them.
«there is not a single moment where a dialogue between the two surfaces»
She discusses the phenomenon of Taroof, a Persian form of civility that includes forms of modesty, and wonders whether that keeps her interlocutors from opening up to her. But in front of the camera we neither see her opening up, so there is not much more than polite civility and time spent together. That is, until suddenly Shapiro has to leave the country. On a quick last outing, Shapiro dresses to enter a holy shrine. Suddenly unsure whether Jews are allowed inside, she decides to confess to Marjan, her host and mother in the religious family, her religious denomination. After some confusion Marjan understand and does not see a problem. It seems she simply doesn’t care. On this micro-level and after having spent time together and listening to each other, what we are often told is an insurmountable difference is no more that. Or maybe it never was? Although less spontaneous than it seems (note the bird’s-eye view shots throughout the film) and at times slightly artificial, Shapiro does manage to show us ordinary Tehranians who encounter her seemingly unprejudiced. She succeeds in opening up that personal micro level, if only superficially. But success depends not only on engaging at a personal level but also on the willingness to listen to the ‘enemy’, as Marjan and Aaron did. But that is not always possible. A counterexample helps illustrate this.
In Agnus dei, Jesús Romero Colin tells about how he was abused by the Catholic priest of his community, father Lopez Valdes, with whom he had an affair at a very young age. Intercut with his stories about his childhood (filmed at a zillion spots it seems) is his search for the perpetrator. In the end, the two meet in what seems to be a secretly filmed talk (which in addition raises lots of questions about filming and editing).
An emotional Colin then proceeds to overload the priest with questions and accusations – and very understandably so – but the priest hardly gets an opportunity to respond. When he does, not much more comes out that “I don’t know why” and “it just happened”. However, there is not a single moment where a dialogue between the two surfaces. At no point do they really listen and try and understand what happened and what it means for them both. Of course that is very hard and demanding given the subject matter, but the question remains – what is the purpose of this meeting, with respect to the viewer and with respect to the film? Through a lack of reciprocity, the effect is nil. It adds nothing in terms of understanding. I wonder what would have happened if you could ‘produce’ such a conversation, prepare it. What if Lopez Valdes and Colin could have a civilized conversation out in the open? Would that open up a whole new world for us?
Documentaries often counter macro stories with personal narratives and make us understand how global developments and issues affect the lives of individuals. However, when it comes to facing the enemy, just facing it is not enough. You have to listen to your enemy to understand that what you take for granted is not a matter of course. And then you have to have the guts to doubt it.
1 The Guardian, 12 Januari 2011 and The Economist 13-19 November 2010 respectively
2 See www-ee.stanford.edu/~hellman/ Breakthrough/book/chapters/frank.html