Though born in Iran, the term world citizen is fitting for filmmaker Tina Gharavi. She left Iran at age six before the ramifications of the revolution had transformed the country. Gharavi left her homeland and her mother to live with her father. She has lived, studied, and worked in the United States and Europe, amassing diverse experiences along the way that have helped her become a global storyteller. Working in television, film, documentary and feature films, Gharavi’s body of work tours the globe and often focuses on pressing social issues and the experiences of refugees, immigrants, and marginalized groups.
It is evident that her own background, Iranian identity, and nomadic life have impacted her work as a filmmaker. One of Gharavi’s earlier documentary projects, Mother/Country, follows her on a journey back to Iran to grapple with her personal history. In her 2013 BAFTA-nominated feature film, I Am Nasrine, Gharavi tells a coming-of-age story of two Iranian teenagers that leave Iran to live in the U.K. A writer, painter, and director, Gharavi is a woman of many talents whose inspiration to make films stems from a love of arts, familiar to many in the Iranian diaspora:
“I actually started out as a painter. I went to art school because I wanted to paint and do art and it just happened that, when I was 18, I worked on a feature film as a runner when I was still in high school. I worked on a Hollywood film that I was shooting in New Jersey and I saw what it was like to work on a big movie, when you have all of these people working together on a common goal. I had purpose, there was an adrenaline and energy…I really love regimentation, I love order, I love finding a way of collectively achieving something or in other words, team work. So, when I went to art school there was cameras lying around and I just started to pick them up and shooting…I have never been to film school at all. It’s really been something that I learned on the ground, making movies and you know I do love it.”
For Gharavi, her time in art school, and especially painting, have had a major influence in her work as a filmmaker, “Well if you see my films they are quite painterly. A lot of people will note that they are very beautiful and that the aesthetics are very strong. I still think of them as paintings, they just happen to be moving, and have sound and music.” But of course, her experiences as a traveler and immigrant have played a key role as well. It is no surprise that for Gharavi, diverse world cinemas have influenced her:
“Iranian cinema has certainly had an influence, and has always been something that I sought out and respected, but I have to honestly say that I am driven by Hollywood cinema, French and European cinema as well. From cowboy movies to Italian social realism…I think in one sense, being part of a wider diaspora, my references are very broad, but of course I love Kiarostami. I love the work of many Iranian filmmakers. Just because you’re Iranian you worship at the altar of Iranian cinema. I’d say the filmmaker that influenced me the most was an Iranian woman who only made one movie, and that’s Forough Farrokhzad. Her beautiful, The House is Black,I mean, it’s an art piece really, it’s a poem, and that film means a lot more to me as a film with a feminist language of storytelling.”
Looking at the way Gharavi describes the film of Farrokhzad, it’s no wonder that she wishes to leave her own audiences with a similar moving impression and tell stories that underrepresented:
“The whole goal I have is to elicit an emotional response, to make them feel something…and taking them on that journey where they are feeling something you are trying to communicate. That’s what is so powerful about cinema, you can use it as a tool for empathy…My end goal is to be able to tell the stories that are missing. At the moment I’m working on a film based on Iranian women and looking at ways of seeing images of strong female archetypes, because we don’t see that, it’s not something that I am finding everywhere. I think I tell stories which are, in one sense, stories that I wish I could watch.”
This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.
Today is Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s 41st birthday. It will be her third birthday behind bars in Iran, away from her husband and daughter. Lacking due process or evidence, Nazanin was convicted of spying by Iranian courts in 2016. Iranian authorities have often used vague language to detain and convict Iranian dual nationals on trumped up charges.
Her husband has relentlessly pursued all avenues to help free his wife, including calling on British officials to secure Nazanin’s release. On her birthday, Mr. Ratcliffe also revealed that Nazanin had met another detainee while in prison, Dr. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic arrested by Iranian authorities in September, 2018.
Nazanin is said to have seen Moore-Gilbert at the health clinic, where she was being checked after beginning a hunger strike on Christmas Eve. A number of women have joined Moore-Gilbert in her hunger strike, including French-Iranian academic, Dr. Fariba Adelkhah, who was detained in similarly unfounded circumstances as the other women.
In a letter released by Center for Human Rights in Iran, Moore-Gilbert and Adelkhah stated: “We are striking not only to demand our immediate freedom, but to ask for justice for the countless, thousands, unnamed yet not forgotten men and women who have suffered the same fate as ours or worse, and have been imprisoned in Iran, having committed no crime.”
Iranian authorities must stop these unwarranted arrests, respect due process, and end its practice of detaining foreign nationals as bargaining chips. In spite of their unjust detentions and lamentable situation, the resilience and solidarity of these women is truly remarkable. Mr. Ratcliffe shared a moving gesture from Nazanin in her encounter with Moore-Gilbert, “Before the guards pulled them apart Nazanin was able to tell Kylie that the world is watching her story & it will be ok.” The world is indeed watching and hoping that justice will prevail over the political games of nations.
To sign Amnesty’s petition to free Nazanin, click here.
Iranian-American director, Gobi Rahimi, immigrated to the United States at a particularly difficult time to be of Iranian heritage in America. Moving to the States shortly after Iranian students seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, Rahimi was exposed quickly to the challenges of a hyphenated identity often marked by hostility.
Yet in many ways, Rahimi embodies the American Dream: an immigrant story with trying times and adversity, but with the determination to follow his dreams, Rahimi found his way to art and directing, and worked with some incredible people along the way. Perhaps best known for his work with rapper Tupac Shakur, Rahimi’s path to the world of directing is a story itself:
“I was selling real estate for Century 21 in Irvine, California with a yellow jacket and a name tag knocking on 100 doors a day. I fell in love with an Iranian filmmaker, she was actually one of David Lynch’s ex-girlfriends. She would write film scripts thinking one day David is going to fund one of her movies, and I was like, ‘sweetheart I don’t think it’s ever going to work that way. Let’s do something, let’s create something.’ We knew a group that were also friends of our, I made a music video for them and I have to say for the first time in my life, I fell in love with a profession. I never thought that the arts could be a profession or a career choice so at that point I thought, ‘this is it, I found my passion’… A little while later I met Tracy Robinson, moved to LA and started off as a PA on Rap videos and produced about 80 videos with her, we worked with Erykah Badu, Queen Latifa, Snoop, Dre, Ice Cube, and others. And I sort of fell into it, I fell into my passion and I never looked back.”
For Rahimi, his work in the rap music industry was formative to his art, he especially recalls his interactions with Tupac with a special fondness,
“His impact is 23 years on and it is still being felt. What I learned from him is that you can achieve anything if you set your goals on it and he was proof of that because he would visualize something and speak on it and make it happen. It was good to be in his presence, I felt like there was some sort of destiny to it. It could have been anyone that was there for the last year of his life and it happened to be me.”
But, like many Iranian-American artists, Rahimi senses the impact of his Iranian identity and heritage in his work as well,
“I think that being Iranian has a certain depth to it anyway, but being a displaced Iranian or being a part of the diaspora that is outside of the country, brings a deeper layer because you are sort of in no man’s land, looking to identify with a new culture or a new country… The two times that I went back to Iran in the last 10 years, when I came back I felt more Iranian. The scents, smells, textures, the grumpiness or irritability of Iranians, what they are going through in Tehran, the authenticity of that really affected me. Any culture, when there is adversity, adversity creates the best art, and I hope that eventually when I am able to make some films I can translate the depth of that or the truth of that in whatever project I decide to make.”
After all these years living in the United States, Rahimi still sees the caricatured ways in which Iran and Iranian people are viewed. If he had the opportunity to work in Iran, addressing the fallacies and bridging the divide of his hyphenated identity would be his subject of choice, “I would love to do a tour and documentary on Iran’s most beautiful and unseen spots. I think that would do many things. It would demystify and paint a more accurate picture of our country because many people think that it’s a big desert and that everyone rides camels over there. I think there is a lot of inaccuracies that need to be dispelled.”
When Rahimi describes what he loves most about Iran, it becomes clear that what draws him to his community and identity is a deep affection for people,
“I love the geography, the diversity of the cities, the warmth of our people, I think that we have some of the most big-hearted people on the planet and I take pride in that. I think that a lot of the ones that have not been back to Iran in over 40 years and have assimilated a little too much have maybe forgotten their roots. I guess that’s not my responsibility and people have to live their own lives, but I love the country and I love the people.”
This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.
In a new report, Amnesty International noted that the death toll for the recent protests in Iran has risen to 304. This number may include many more still not reported or confirmed. In addition to the outrageous death toll, thousands have been injured or detained by Iranian authorities. Many of their fates are still unknown.
The initial suppression of protests was marked by the use of lethal force, violence, and mass arrest. Notably, the report notes that arrests have continued after protests have abated. These detentions have targeted Iranian activists from across the spectrum, journalists, and students. The mass arrests highlight the arbitrary nature of the incarcerations and show that Iranian authorities are more concerned about containing a populace that is suffering under economic sanctions and the authoritarianism of the state, than with addressing their rightful grievances.
Amnesty’s report also cites cases of torture and abuse at the hands of the authorities while under arrest. In some cases, Iranian authorities have refused to give any information to the families of detainees, making their whereabouts and conditions unknown. The impact of these shameful measures is felt not only by those unfairly being held and tortured, but by their loved ones in search of answers and justice.
All those detained must be treated according to international law, which prohibits torture and promises due process, and Iran must stop its systematic use of arbitrary detention to tamp down dissent and protests. All people have the right to assemble, protest, and hold to account their government. Iran is no exception, and we continue to call on the government of Iran to fulfill its obligations under international human rights law.
Amnesty International has also provided a copy of its report in Persian, which can be found here.
An Iranian-American immigrant, Soudabeh Moradian spent most of her life in Iran where she went to school to study cinema at the University of Tehran. She immigrated to the United States in 2009, bringing with her years of experience working on films. As one of the most distinguished cinemas in the world, Moradian’s training and knowledge from Iran prepared her for a career in the United States.
Her films, whether documentary or fiction, often center on social issues such as war, inequality, and women’s rights. Of course, such subjects and themes are significant in contemporary Iranian society and prevalent in its art and films. In the U.S., Moradian has continued her already extensive body of work as a filmmaker with acclaimed films such as 2016’s Polaris, which gathered awards and screened at festivals across America, and in Canada and Europe. She also shares her passion for cinema with her students as a professor of film.
Moradian’s subject matters make clear that her desire for story telling was stirred by the hope to evoke change, as she explains her own inspiration to become a filmmaker:
“It goes back a long time ago because I went to film school in 1991, I was always interested in film and cinema, and I wanted to become a filmmaker so that I could be a voice for my generation. I went to film school in Iran at Tehran University School of Art and Theatre and started filmmaking in 1996. In those days we wanted to change the world through our films, which was a crazy idea and we were so young. After that I started making documentaries and the documentaries became my central focus point after that. I was interested in the psychological impacts of war and that was my main subject, that and women and social issues, and all human inequalities. The psychological impacts of war and those social issues were the main topics of my films and I started from there.”
These motifs are present in her film, Polaris, which follows the story of a half Iranian-half German war photographer suffering from PTSD. Moreover, Moradian made sure to tell a woman’s story with women behind and in front of the camera, showing that her works are not just stories meant for entertainment, but embody an outlook of activism and humanity that draws her to social issues:
“The documentary series I started with I focused on women who lived in an Iranian village around the country so I made those documentaries to show the hardship and the life and inequality between women and men and I wanted to speak about women’s rights. Actually, before that documentary, I focused on the psychological impacts of war which is called ‘Mahin’ it was about a girl who was affected in the Iran-Iraq war, it was interesting for me that there are some impacts of war that nobody is aware of.”
While Moradian recalls the restrictions on her work in Iran, especially because of its political nature, it also becomes evident that she was never shy about pushing the arbitrary boundaries set by authorities:
“I was commissioned by Iranian television to make a TV series about women in Iran and I was commissioned because they wanted a female director. I went around Iran to make the series about the hardship women face. They wanted to show the life and success of these women, but what I showed was their hardship, polygamy, and what they went through. Then when they showed it on TV, in the middle of broadcasting, I think it was the second time they were showing it, the series was stopped. I heard that it was a very serious order for it to have stopped showing because one of the episodes was about polygamy, so they stopped showing it.”
But her activism and concerns over war did not stop in Iran, instead, Moradian looked at the U.S. led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well through her films:
“In 2001, after 9/11, I decided to continue to speak about war so I went to Afghanistan and I made a documentary about war when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. I went there to make a documentary about the psychological impacts of war on women and children… I worked with an American filmmaker to make a television series about American soldiers in Iraq as well, to show another aspect of war in Iraq. On one side I was focused on the psychological impacts of war in general and on the other side women and social issues in Iran.”
For Moradian, Polaris was the culmination of her work and years of experience documenting women’s struggles and war:
“I am a woman and I was feeling responsible for telling all of those stories. I tried to reflect on all of those stories I had seen and, in my script as well, I combined those experiences for the narrative of Polaris, which I was able to make when I immigrated to the United States.”
This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In commemoration of that day, which marked the first truly global avowal of human rights, we acknowledge the premise of that declaration and reaffirm our commitment to faithfully working towards that hopeful objective on Human Rights Day.
The UDHR is a cornerstone of the United Nations, as its intent was to define and codify the meaning of fundamental freedoms and basic principles that all states should aspire to and carry out. Though the efficacy of the United Nations has been critiqued, because of power imbalances between states, the impact is still consequential. The letter and spirit of the declaration continues to hold great meaning, and now more than ever, the need to fight and struggle vigorously to attain that goal is paramount.
In the spirit of Human Rights Day, NIAC reaffirms its conviction that all people, regardless of race, gender, nation, religion, orientation, or creed, deserve the same freedoms and rights as described in the UDHR over 70 years ago. True justice comes when there is justice for all.
We will continue to advocate for justice at home in the United States and call on other nations, such as our country of heritage, Iran, to adhere to their human rights obligations and uphold the sanctity of humanity. Summed up best by 13th century Persian poet Saadi, whose words adorn the walls of the United Nations:
Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain
Sitting in a small theater in Southern California, I watched the Iranian documentary film, Finding Farideh, amongst a theater full of fellow Iranian Americans. The film was shown as part of the University of California, Irvine’s ‘Docunight’, which invites people to see and understand Iran through documentary films. It may be ironic that in the United States we find a group of Iranians watching such films to familiarize themselves with a part of their own identity. But in fact, it is perfectly fitting for a diaspora, disconnected from its country of origin and heritage, to partake in this sort of exploration.
A mix of nostalgia, some simulated and some real, with self-reflection filled the auditorium as an audience of Iranian Americans watched a story in some ways akin to their own. In the documentary, young Iranian filmmakers, Azadeh Moussavi and Kourosh Ataee, tell the story of Farideh, a 40-year old woman that was abandoned as a baby in Mashhad, Iran, at the holy shrine of Imam Reza. After being found and taken to an orphanage, Farideh was adopted by a Dutch couple and subsequently raised in the Netherlands. The film follows Farideh on her journey back to Iran, as an adult searching for her biological family and fulfilling a lifelong dream to travel to Iran in a sort of homecoming for someone who has no actual memories of the place.
For Farideh, growing up in the Netherlands posed its own challenges, she recalls feeling out of place and different from the other girls at school, an impression that was exacerbated when she was bullied. Despite loving her family, Farideh bemoans the sense of loneliness she felt growing up, and the feeling that she was never a good daughter, which added to her sense of guilt for wanting to find her biological family. Eventually, with the support of her family, Farideh sets out to find her biological family. When three different families respond to her story, Farideh sets off to Iran to meet them in Mashhad and reveal her family through a DNA test.
Farideh’s mix of fear and longing is common among diaspora Iranians who wish to visit Iran, but are often worried because of the images and depictions of the country from the outside. In Farideh’s case, her adoptive parents thought of Iran as dangerous, but as she arrives in Iran and begins to explore the country and get to know the families that claim her as their daughter, she feels nothing but love and belonging, “I am being touched, kissed and embraced by all these families, in my heart I am home.”
The crux of Farideh’s journey is not in finding her family, but in finding herself. Part of that self comes from a sense of belonging to a family, to a country, and to a culture and heritage. Though she grew up in Holland with a Dutch family, the hyphen in Farideh’s identity could not be ignored. As Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
As I’m sure many in the Iranian diaspora can relate to, for Farideh, those roots were in Iran. After visiting, she stated, “I feel that I have awakened a part of my heart.” Iranian Americans flock to cultural and community events like the screening of an Iranian documentary to keep awake that part of their heart and satiate the need for connection that we all crave. For immigrants and diasporas, the notion of ‘home’ can be ambiguous, but our sense of belonging can always be found in community.
This piece is part of NIAC’s #IAFilmmakers Series. Check-out the rest of the series here.
Protests erupted in Iran on November 15, 2019, following an abrupt hike in gas prices by the Iranian government. Though the price hike sparked the initial outpouring of protestors, the demonstrations illustrated deeper fissures and grievances of the Iranian populace, who have been long suffering under crippling sanctions and government corruption. Worse yet, protests quickly turned deadly as Iranian security forces met demonstrators with lethal force.
Within hours of the protests breaking out, Iranian authorities enforced a near total blackout of internet services, effectively cutting off Iranians from the outside world. As Human Rights Watch appropriately asserted, the internet shutdown, censorship of journalists and lack of transparency indicates an intentional coverup of the violent crackdown and the events that transpired.
The suppression of protests must be condemned for infringing upon the most basic rights of Iranians to assemble and express their dissent, but even more reprehensible is the loss of life we have seen. According to Amnesty International, reliable sources conclude that the death toll has reached at least 208, though the actual numbers are likely to be much higher. Amnesty International sources also note the difficulty of gathering information from families of victims for fear of government reprisals.
The attempt to coverup the events and subsequent internet shutdown by authorities have made it difficult for those even living there to know the extent of the crackdown or demonstrations. The psychological toll of these events on the larger Iranian public will be difficult to measure. The Iranian government must address the root causes of these protests and tackle the issues that are hurting ordinary Iranians, rather than adding to their plight with brutality and further repression.
In January 2018, nine Iranian environmentalists were detained by Iranian authorities and accused of “spying” after filming an endangered cheetah. One of the activists, Kavous Seyed Emami—an Iranian-Canadian professor and prominent environmentalist—died while in custody.
While Human Rights Watch and activists such as Jane Goodall have pleaded with Iranian authorities to release these environmental activists, they have remained in prison and have been denied due process or a fair trial. To add insult to injury, as Iranians protested across the country last week after a dramatic hike in gas prices, these activists were dealt harsh sentences by Iranian courts.
The egregious sentences of these environmentalists further illustrated the lengths the Iranian government will go to in order to suppress any activity it deems a ‘security threat.’
According to Human Rights Watch, despite no evidence of wrongdoing, these activists were sentenced to 6-10 years in prison for allegedly “collaborating with enemies of the state.” The fact that these sentences were handed down during large scale protests and an internet blackout indicates the government’s fear of added reactions from a rightly discontented Iranian populace.
Jane Goodall’s plea, before they received their sentences, aptly sums up the tragedy of these environmental activists: “they’ve worked so hard to ensure the future of endangered species, such as the Asiatic Cheetah found only in Iran. They’ve helped to shed a light on Iran as a country committed to conserving its wildlife, now they await their sentences.” Now they have sadly received their sentences and in the midst of injustices carried out in the streets against protestors, another injustice was carried out quietly in Iranian courts.
On Friday November 15, Iran’s government sharply raised gas prices, further hurting Iranians who have already been struggling economically due to government mismanagement, corruption, and the effects of harsh U.S. sanctions. The price hike sparked protests in cities across the country, as Iranians took to the streets to air their rightful grievances and express their frustrations. However, as seen in the past, Iranian authorities have confronted protestors with inexcusable violence and have worked to stifle the demonstrations.
Four days in, the protests have continued to rock different parts of the country, with banks and other buildings set on fire as Iranians resist the security forces who have killed at least 12 people, while other estimates, according to sources on Twitter, range as high as 200. Over 1,000 people have been reportedly arrested, one of which includes Sepideh Gholian, a 22 year old labor activist who had been released from prison only a few weeks ago. Gholian was first arrested in January of 2019 for her participation in workers protests at Haft-Tappeh Sugar Cane Company. After a video of her was posted online protesting the increase in gas prices, she was arrested again.
To add to their draconian assault on the rights of Iranians to assemble and protest, Iranian authorities have shut down internet services in an unprecedented online blackout, effectively cutting off Iranians from the outside world. Additionally, Iranian authorities have silenced domestic journalists to prevent Iranian media from criticizing the gas prices or covering the protests.
It is without question that the right to assemble, protest and express dissent is an inalienable right and recognized as such under international law. We condemn all use of lethal force and repression of the demonstrations. Iranian authorities cannot silence their people’s grievances through the use of force, or by controlling communications platforms such as news media and the internet. They will have to confront the calls of their citizens and address the economic burdens that ignited these protests.
According to a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), U.S. sanctions, reinstated after the United States pulled out of the landmark Iran nuclear deal, have had a detrimental impact on the situation of human rights in Iran. The findings of this report are corroborated by the findings the United Nations Special Rapporteur, which also recently noted the negative impact of sanctions. Both reports indicate how sanctions have exacerbated economic hardship for Iranians, which in turn impede their access to vital resources such as medicines and food.
The report clearly shows how such impediments go against the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – ratified by Iran and signed by the United States – obliges states to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to ‘the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health,’ as well as the right to an adequate “standard of living” that includes “adequate food.”
The HRW report notes that, despite stated exemptions for humanitarian goods by the United States, the nature of sanctions has prevented international banks from participating in any kind of financial transactions with Iran for fear of penalties due to secondary sanctions. The current sanctions system of the U.S. has thus made it nearly impossible for such humanitarian transactions to take place.
Contributing to this scenario is an atmosphere of hostile U.S. rhetoric, as the HRW report states, “US officials have indicated that the pain US sanctions are causing for ordinary Iranians is intentional, part of a strategy to compel Iranian citizens to demand their autocratic government to ‘change behavior’,” what HRW calls “a recipe for collective punishment that infringes on Iranians’ economic rights.” The aggressive language of some U.S. officials has created an environment of overcompliance, where companies and banks prefer not to risk U.S. punishment for facilitating even humanitarian transactions.
The HRW report discusses in detail the issue of medicine and medical supplies, a key human rights concern. While Iran manufactures 97% of its own medicines, critical life-saving medicines, especially for rare and complicated diseases are imported and now access to those medicines are affected by sanctions. In terms of medical supplies, 70% of supplies is reportedly imported, these imports are negatively impacted by sanctions and prevent the import of vital medical equipment such as MRI machines.
The full report from Human Rights Watch can be found here. While we continue to spotlight the issue of human rights in Iran and the reprehensible abuses of Iranian officials, we must also acknowledge abuses at the hands of foreign actors, especially when it is our government. It is incumbent upon us to call out these issues, particularly when we have the opportunity to make a real impact. As Americans, we can and must hold our government accountable when our policies violate human rights at home or abroad.