Through our London-based company, Amirani Films, and as a freelance filmmaker, I had shot 35 films before finally getting around to making RED LINES AND DEADLINES. Making my first film back home had become a big deal to me. I wasn’t there during the 1979 revolution and always felt I had missed the first-hand experience of an important chapter in my country’s history. Instead, from my adopted home in England, I watched the revolution and the ensuing 26 years unfold on TV. I watched and taped. As my pile of Iran videos increased, so did the uneasy feeling that what I was watching were developments in my homeland interpreted through the prism of mainly Western journalists and filmmakers. It was time to stop watching the stream of stereotype and customary clichés from the outside, and go find out for myself. The opportunity came when through a series of coincidences and connections I got talking to WIDE ANGLE. We agreed on a short list of potential ideas, and journalism was on that list.
In February 2004 I flew to Iran to look for stories. On a cold snowy day at a newsstand in Tehran, SHARGH caught my eye. Its simple elegant layout and striking front-page photo easily stood out from the rest of the newspapers on display. I had heard it was one of a few reformist papers still in print after a clampdown. I bought a copy that day and through Bijan Khajehpour, a friend who knew one of its journalists, arranged to visit the paper a few days later. From the moment I stepped into SHARGH’s offices I was struck by the youthful energy of its lively staff. There was a buzz about the place waiting to be captured on film. I believe as a filmmaker you’ve got to fall in love with your subject. SHARGH, the Iranian authorities, WIDE ANGLE, and I went through a few months of wooing and courting before we finally got it together with a camera. By the time we were shooting, Tehran was simmering in the summer heat.
I usually work with Chris Morphet, one of the UK’s best documentary cameramen. But for RED LINES I wanted to be on camera myself with a small all-Iranian crew to help with the dynamics of the shoot. No outsiders, no language barrier, everyone on the “same side,” helping bring out the real Iranian character of those featured. My sound recordist, Mohammad Shahverdi, usually works on feature films. To him, doing a documentary constantly on the move with no clear plan was a refreshing change. I normally don’t have a plan when shooting. Just go with the flow, trusting instinct more than anything else. Very soon we had the intimacy we needed. The reporters would tell me everything they were doing and offer to take us on their assignments as well as to their homes.
Coming to Iran from the West can give you a superior air of arrogance, something I was guilty of myself. But the brilliance of the journalists at SHARGH, their knowledge, their global awareness, and their courage in the struggle for reforms made me realize they could wipe the floor with me. Humbled in their company, all I could do was point the camera and shoot. The result was RED LINES AND DEADLINES, screened in September 2004.
I was back in Tehran in June 2005 to witness the presidential elections for myself when WIDE ANGLE discovered by chance I was out there. They had liked RED LINES AND DEADLINES 2004 and wanted to air it again. But now that I was there: “Why don’t we shoot the elections for an update?” Good thing I never travel without my camera.
Within 24 hours I was back at SHARGH, hitting the ground running. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had just stunned everyone by coming a close second to Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the first round. The run-off was only three days away and SHARGH was busier than ever doing everything it could to get Hashemi elected. They greeted us as if we had never left. However, what was different this time was the atmosphere of uncertainty and unease among the journalists.
Having lost the leading reformist candidate, Mostafa Moin, in the first round, some believed backing Hashemi was their only option, while others felt they were no longer objective in their journalism, something they had committed to when setting up the paper. The multi-layered and passionate nature of the debate at SHARGH and the sophistication and complexities of the Iranian political scene during the election had me totally gripped. Nothing was black and white no matter how much the world media preferred it that way.
The 10-min update in RED LINES AND DEADLINES 2005 is our attempt to capture some of that complexity. It was also a chance for me to be at home at an important turning point in Iran’s political history.
August 2, 2005