THE BLOG

Iran Unveiled at Open City Docs Fest

17/06/2014 15:33 BST | Updated 16/08/2014 10:59 BST

Iran is seldom out of International news. In my own 34 years, it has become inextricably linked with the names of other countries blighted by war and hardship: Bosnia, Serbia, Rwanda, Ethiopia. Place names conjuring images from photojournalists, not holiday brochures. Most recently, Iran was the country where a group of young people were arrested for filming themselves dancing to Pharrell Williams' Happy, and where women have been risking imprisonment for taking selfies of themselves free from their headscarves.

Through good fortune, I have an aunt who is from Iran and who lives in London. An elegant and eloquent person whose generosity is boundless, and whose food is beyond compare. The Iran she talks of is beautiful, cultured and filled with welcoming homes, though since economic sanctions have been imposed she is unable to visit her many relatives, including her parents, who remain there. I remember one occasion when helping her to prepare for a trip and she was debating her choice of trousers. They were a little short at the ankle, but as it was a year when pedal pushers and Capri pants were all the rage, I said I thought she'd be fine. I hadn't realised that what she was actually worried about was whether they might be deemed obscene on the streets of Iran by the military, meaning she could face a penalty of lashes or even imprisonment. This extraordinary place, home to educated, cultured and independent people whose history is filled with some of the greatest poets, artists and philosophers of all time, and where so much of the land resembles an Eden-like paradise, is filled with terrifying paradox.

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Image courtesy of Open City Docs Fest

At this year's Open City Docs Feststarting in London on Tuesday 17th June until Sunday 22nd, three films will be shown, which provide glimpses into life under the Iranian regime. Watched together they provide a powerful and unforgettable rallying cry and warning against oppression. And as with all forms of political oppression, those who are subjected to its extremes are women. These brave and intensely personal films relate their stories.

Iranian Ninja and Sepideh follow a similar trajectory: both focus on young Iranian women and girls pursuing hobbies that are regarded as both dangerous and revolutionary (martial arts and astronomy respectively). However, the determination and ambition of the subjects manifests in very different ways - these women are not carbon copies of each other despite the similarities to the restrictions they encounter. The individuality and resilience particular to each person interviewed demonstrates with subtlety and respect that each experience of oppression is unique. The prejudiced and frequently patronising external reportage that so many of us in the West are used to viewing about lives in Islamic controlled countries, could not be more at odds with these intimate portraits.

Running to only 30 minutes, Iranian Ninja gives a snapshot of a group of women learning ancient Ninja combat and defence techniques. The practice not only transforms their day to day experiences of life, but also provides a circle of friends and peers that in some cases act as a more sensitive and caring family than ones they have been born or married into.

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Image courtesy of Open City Docs Fest

Feature-length film Sepideh is an inspiring insight into the life of the convention-defying young scientist of the title, who nurtures unstoppable ambitions. This heart-warming depiction of the determination it takes to retain individuality, erases the stereotypes a veiled teenage girl in the Middle East provokes in the West. The film tells a universal story of the importance of being allowed to follow your dreams, yet also shatters the mythology behind some of the most horrendous practices associated with the same negative stereotypes. Behind the veil and beyond the clichés, voice is given to those on the receiving end of one of the most extreme patriarchal societies in the world.

For a no-holds barred education on how things became the way they now are in Iran, then My Stolen Revolution is essential. In fact, it is essential viewing no matter how much you think you know, what your political viewpoint is, or how relevant you think it might be to you and your life: if you can get into this screening on Friday 20th June you must. A woman who escaped from Iran after the revolution attempts to discover what her younger brother experienced during the 6 month imprisonment prior to his execution. In doing so, she is reunited with fellow activists: women who lived the life she would undoubtedly have shared if she had not managed to flee.

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Image courtesy of Open City Docs Fest

Dystopian nightmares are big business in publishing and cinema, breaking records with everything from 1984, to Oryx and Crake to The Hunger Games. But My Stolen Revolution is not in the future. This story began the year I was born, and continues to this day. For all the mania and devotion publishing and film franchises generate when they tantalise millions with tales of torture and oppression, here is the real deal. The extraordinary heroes in this documentary are women who have survived, and whose tales we must listen to. The punishments, imprisonments, tortures, executions and violations described with pure grace, are the same abominations of humanity right out of any bestseller or box office hit. To consume these injustices as entertainment but not engage with putting an end to them when they occur in reality is a sad indictment of us all. While previously one could plead ignorance, My Stolen Revolution ensures there is nothing to hide behind.

Extremes of humanity reverberate through these films, though generosity, eloquence, and love for the Iran that is either lost or hidden remains at the core of each. Each documentary also brings us to a closer understanding of what has befallen the Iranian people, and shows how individuals' strength remains undiminished and unapologetic despite the fierce consequences.

Open City Docs Fest this week provides an opportunity to support work as brave and political as narrative pieces by the filmmakers' compatriots from Kiarostami to Makhmalbaf. This platform should not only be celebrated, but imitated. Where those making documentary films deliver messages as urgent as these, we owe it to them to listen.