Society problems

Iranian society has been held hostage, says exiled documentary maker

On April 16, 2022, at four o’clock in the afternoon, Iranian documentary filmmaker Gelareh Kakavand was at home when there was an insistent knock on the door.

“There were five security guards accompanied by a woman. They threatened to break it if it didn’t open immediately,” Kakavand told Index.

“They locked me in a room, placed a camera in front of me and started searching the house. When I protested that it was illegal to search my house and lock me in the room, they threatened to arrest and beat me.

After raiding his home, which also served as a film studio, they confiscated Kakavand’s camera, camcorder and mobile phone.

Across town around the same time, fellow Kakavand filmmaker Vahid Zarezade returned home to find his door kicked in.

“Officers had stormed my residence while I was away,” Zarezade said in an interview with Index. “Intelligence and security agents had told my landlord that the occupant of the house had engaged in ‘fraud and embezzlement’.”

The couple were then taken to one of the buildings of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and interrogated, accompanied by threats, obscenities and insults.

Their work in documentaries – which they like to call artivism – has always drawn unwanted attention from the authorities.

“During our career, we have made films about political prisoners such as Abbas Amir-Entezam, Mohammad Ali Amouei and Jila Bani Yaghoub, and about the problems and sufferings of the life and education of Baha’ is in Iran. We also covered the case of Keyvan Emamverdi, documented cases of sexual harassment and rape, and the emergence of the Iranian #metoo movement,” Zarezade said.

“As a result, we faced security, professional and even financial and livelihood issues. Because of a film we made about the removal of paintings from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Iran, we received a two-year suspended prison sentence and a fine. We have also been threatened several times for our film on Entezam. I was also jailed for one of the documentaries I worked on,” he said.

They were verbally threatened and had their contracts canceled for refusing to bow down to authorities.

It soon became clear that the violent raids in April were linked to a documentary they had started making two years earlier called White Torture, based on the book of the same name by human rights defender Narges Mohammadi.

White Torture presents hard-hitting accounts of sexual and physical torture and humiliation suffered by prisoners in Iran, especially those who follow the Baha’i faith, the country’s second most followed religion after Islam. The name refers to the psychological torture associated with extreme sensory deprivation and the isolation of solitary confinement.

After being released from interrogation but still fearing for their lives, Kakavand and Zarezade made the difficult decision to flee the country, prompted by Mohammadi’s re-arrest and imprisonment.

“We were concerned that the security forces had seized the hard drives containing videos and human rights documents, so we decided to leave Iran to reduce the pressure on the members of the group as well as on our families,” Zarezade said.

“We left Iran to complete the film and make sure the narrators would stay safe and the prisoners’ stories would be preserved.”

Index spoke to Zarezade in an undisclosed location as the pair decided on their next moves.

Vahid Zarezade has been fascinated by the world of cinema since childhood.

“Despite my family’s disagreement, my first and only choice was to study cinema at university. Gradually, I started to be more interested in documentaries,” he said. “Society and my surroundings, with their cruelty and injustice, have made the poetic and dreamlike aspect of cinema inaccessible and impracticable. Through documentaries, I was able to intertwine concrete reality with the world of cinema.

Zarezade soon began collaborating with Gelareh Kakavand on documentary work.

“Gelareh is the reflection of an egalitarian and demanding artist. More than being a filmmaker, she tries to create inner reflections and experiments. For example, in a film project about compulsory hijab in Iran, she was one of those who walked the streets without a hijab many years ago. For many people, it was very inspiring.

He thinks making films in Iran is not difficult but the problems come later.

“What’s difficult is the framing and censorship that applies to all cultural products and not just films, and that exhausts the artists,” he said. “The security system is very visibly monitoring the Iranian artistic community and threatening it in various ways.”

Zarezade says shooting White Torture was inevitable. “I didn’t choose to shoot this documentary, White Torture chose me.”

“I was imprisoned years ago for making a documentary that was never completed.

“Prison had a big impact on my life and my choices. During these years, I got to know different people and thoughts. During all these years, I have tried to highlight it directly and indirectly in my projects. After meeting Narges Mohammadi and learning about the book she was writing, White Torture, I offered to do a documentary at the same time.

White Torture includes an interview with fellow Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who was sentenced to six years in prison in July. In the footage, Panahi and his lawyer go to court to complain about the solitary confinement.

Zarezade thinks White Torture, which was released in the spring of 2022 White Torture and won an award at the Geneva Human Rights Film Festival, shines a light on what is really happening in Iran.

“For years, the Iranian regime has claimed that it has no political prisoners and that the country’s judicial system functions perfectly according to law and justice. Totalitarian regimes always try to create an appropriate image of how they govern society around the world. A look at prisons and the diaries of prisoners and civil rights activists will make the reality clear,” he said.

“In a country where striving to create a civil society is considered a crime, in a country where a women’s rights activist is accused of the crime of being a feminist, there would probably be no room for the demands civil society and the search for justice. They have taken much of Iranian society hostage and their propaganda machine is spreading lies day and night.

Despite their relative safety, the future of Zarezade and Kakavand remains uncertain.

“I think we will always be worried about being sent back to Iran. We rarely leave the house,” Zarezade explained. “In the streets and in crowded places, even when we shop, we don’t speak Farsi. Indeed, the Islamic Republic’s security agents are very active outside the country, taking hostages and even committing assassinations. What happened to Ruhollah Zam shows that it is no exaggeration for them to abduct people from any country. (Zam, the founder of Amadnews and critic of the Iranian government, was executed in December 2020 after being lured from exile in France. He was taken to attend a meeting in Iraq where he was arrested by agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in what they described as “a complicated operation”.

Zarezade says he has become numb to censorship.

“I spent 40 years of my life under surveillance and censorship. Sometimes I feel like I’ve become my own censor. For me, the responsibility of art and its artist is to turn a blind eye to censorship and circumvent it with new means of expression. It may seem unreachable in practice, but what’s important is to ignore censorship in art and do your work your way regardless. So your work, much like a signature that belongs only to you, will go through a process of monitoring and censorship and new work that comes out of these censorship processes will find its own way to publication and survival.