Iran: secularism, religion and an uncertain future

image credit: Iran Voices of the Unheard

Iran: Voices of the Unheard is a documentary film about secularists in Iran: a pair of old agitators who despite their political activities have posts in the establishment; a family from the nomadic Ghashghaii tribe; and a young urban intellectual living in Tehran. The filmmaker, Davoud Geramifard, one of many Iranian expatriots, secretly shot the film a few months before the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the bloody crackdown that followed against pro-democracy demonstrators. His film captures the feeling among a few of Iran’s citizens before the elections exposed their society’s frustration with a theocratic government.

Words from the old guard

Geramifard unfolds the protagonists’ stories in three parts. It begins with Hadi and Kazem, who spent seven years in prison for their political activities. After the 1979 revolution they were freed, Hadi becoming a teacher and Kazem working for the government. While Hadi is depicted in the classroom, teaching Socrates to his male (and very bored) students, Kazem mostly sits behind his desk and explains his philosophy for a new Iranian society. It’s his belief that Iran can find a way to have Islam and freedom at the same time. For Hadi, he believes “there’s no place for someone like me,” and the segment ends with his frustration at the outside world’s indifference.

On the verge of extinction

The second part, by far the film’s most effective, takes us to Southern Iran where the Ghashghaii tribe squeezes out a meager existence against famine and years of drought. After the revolution, the tribe lost its lands and were decimated in an armed struggle against the new power structure. Today, they receive no support from the government.

Near the end, after we have watched a Ghashghaii family herding their goats, gathering water from a well, and subsisting on thin flatbreads cooked over a single iron pot, a remarkable thing occurs: the film’s first female voice is heard. “I want to build a house,” this wife and mother says. “But our situation never gets better.” Considering how important and how visible women eventually were in the protests, it is startling that the film gives so little focus to the female perspective.

Boiling point of rage

Geramifard once again turns to another male voice. We’re back in Tehran, listening to the angry, strident Babak. He works for the governmental Cultural Office, and hates his position. In fact he sounds like many young men slowly dying in soulless jobs.

He breaks down the fourth wall by directly addressing the filmmaker and challenging “your viewers.” In addition to the frustration he feels towards society, Babak is in the throes of a deep self-loathing. “The hell with life. I am not up to the challenge,” he says. “In 15 days I’m thirty years old, and I’ll wish again I was never born.”

The film closes with footage of the violent aftermath of the elections. One wonders if Babak, and his friends (again, almost exclusively male), who we see discussing politics in his apartment, joined the millions of others in the streets. It is hard to know for sure, since the people Geramifard’s film focuses on are trapped in their roles as the muzzled secularists. Yes, Iran is a closed, repressive society. But here is a chance to speak out.

Babak’s thoughts run circles in his head, constantly turning over the repercussions of the revolution. He never looks to the future. This resignation is a thread that runs throughout the entire film. Time and again the protagonists ask, what will happen? What will become of us? Today, in Iran, they are no answers.

“Iran: Voice of the Unheard” is screening as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, co-presented with the Film Society of Lincoln Center.