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Background: Maziar Bahari online retrospective A year ago this month, the disputed Iranian presidential elections took place. Millions of Iranians felt that they had been robbed of their voice and took to the streets in protest against these shamelessly fraudulent elections. ‘Where is my vote?’ they asked the regime. This discontent led to the largest anti-government protests, the most brutal repression and the worst political crisis that Iran had seen since the 1979 revolution. The authorities arrested thousands of protesters, political opponents and journalists. One of them was Maziar Bahari (42), filmmaker, Newsweek journalist and friend of IDFA. ‘Filmmakers, artists, in fact everyone in Iran is a tightrope walker. You’re continually balancing between what is and isn’t allowed,’ explained journalist and documentary maker Maziar Bahari at IDFA 2007. Bahari himself is a master in the art of tightrope walking. Despite sweeping restrictions, he had managed to spend the preceding decades reporting and making in-depth documentaries about extremely sensitive issues. Maziar Bahari has been a regular guest at IDFA since 2000. His films Of Shame and Coffins (2001), about the taboos surrounding the aids epidemic in Africa, and And Along Came a Spider (2002), about the religiously motivated serial killings of 16 Iranian prostitutes, were made possible in part by the Jan Vrijman Fund. Other documentaries by Bahari screened at IDFA include Paint! No Matter What (1999), Football, Iranian Style (2001), Mohammad and the Matchmaker (2003), Targets: Reporters in Iraq (2004) and 4 Short Films on Iraq (2007). In 2007, Maziar Bahari was guest of honour at IDFA, where he selected his Top 10 films and gave a masterclass in which he provided an in-depth look at his work and the censorship filmmakers face in Iran.
Publication date: 21 June 2010 Background article for the IDFA TV theme program Life in Iran through the eyes of Maziar Bahari By Eefje Blankevoort See also: An appeal for the release of prisoners of opinion in Iran 22-11-09 | Bahari returns The Last Ayatollah (Newsweek) Justice Iranian Style (Newsweek) 09-06-10 | We must not forget those imprisoned in Iran (Telegraph.co.uk) Facebook petition: Our Society Will Be A Free Society 118 Days, 12 Hours, 54 Minutes - by Maziar Bahari (Newsweek)
Maziar Bahari left Iran in 1987 and travelled by way of Pakistan to Canada where he was granted citizenship and trained as a journalist. From 1997 onwards, he regularly returned to Iran to make politically and socially engaged films about artists, the Iranian obsession with football, HIV/AIDS, and progressive and rebellious ayatollahs. He also risked his life by travelling to Iraq where he reported on the torture in Abu Ghraib and on fellow journalists’ work and also made a personal portrait of Moqtada al-Sadr. The BBC, Channel 4 network and Al Jazeera International have all broadcast Bahari’s work and he has won awards at various festivals. His journalistic reports and political analyses have appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Post and elsewhere.
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Docs for Sale Bahari blossomed into one of the most important chroniclers of Iranian society. His oeuvre, part of which is now available on IDFA TV, gives a broad and variegated view of Iran. Maziar Bahari’s Iran is neither the land of huge masses calling out for ‘Death
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to America’, nor of Teheran’s progressive urban elite. It is an Iran resplendent in all its diversity, a land of unique individuals. In Bahari’s films everyone has a voice, be they ecstatic football fans, religious fanatics, artists or critical clerics.
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Films online retrospective In Art of Demolition, Bahari follows a group of artists who transform a condemned building in Teheran into an art gallery. Within ten days, more than 10,000 visitors went their way to this remarkable group exhibition. In Paint! No Matter What, he zooms in on one of the artists, the now internationally renowned Khosrow Hassanzadeh, as he chats with customers in his greengrocer’s shop and interviews members of his own family about his paintings. Football, Iranian Style is a highly amusing but nonetheless critical portrait of Iranian society as viewed through the prism of football fandom. Here too, the deepest impressions are made by the encounters and conversations with remarkable individuals, such as the outspoken sports journalist Mahin Gorji, who is
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the only woman ever to have gained entry to the Azadi football stadium. And then there is the intimate portrait of a serial killer, his family and the relatives of his victims in And Along Came a Spider. Bahari also shows us that not all Iranian clerics are ultraconservative in Online Ayatollah (2008), a beautiful and disarming portrait of the hugely popular Ayatollah Sanei and his hypermodern call centre. Rebel Ayatollah (2007) channels the fierce criticism expressed by the dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri, whose death in December 2009 lead to the resurgence of anti-government protests. ‘My mission is to change the one-sided image people have of Iran and to show reality in all its complexity,’ explained Bahari about his work in 2007. As an accomplished tightrope walker, he managed to avoid censorship and gain access to a variety of sources ranging from critical individuals to members of the establishment. But in all his work, first and foremost he succeeded in putting forward a balanced picture. This perhaps contributed to his avoiding problems with the authorities. At 7am on 21 June 2009, security personnel came and took Bahari from his mother’s house to an unknown location. Maziar Bahari was in Iran as an accredited journalist reporting for Newsweek on the presidential elections that took place on 12 June that year. Following his arrest, Bahari was held in solitary confinement at the notorious Evin jail, without access to a lawyer or contact with family members; only once was he permitted make a telephone call to his mother and his heavily pregnant wife Paola Gourley. On 1 July 2009, Maziar Bahari appeared in public the first time. State broadcasters Fars News and Press TV reported on a press conference where Bahari ‘confessed’ to having made ‘inaccurate and biased’ report about the unrest that followed the elections. This appalling, eleven-page ‘confession’ went on: ‘Western media are an integral component of the capitalist apparatus of Western liberal democracies. Any Western journalist coming to Iran is primarily focused on Western interests.’ At the beginning of August 2009, it was revealed to the world just what kind of effect an Iranian prison cell can have on a human being, as a hundred emaciated descendants filled the courtroom where the first trial was held of these ‘suspected velvet revolutionaries’. Maziar Bahari looked to have aged ten years on the photograph of the press conference. It was the last image that we would see of him for many months. Inside the prison, Bahari got to hear that the world has forgotten him, but meanwhile friends, family members and colleagues were campaigning to have him released. They continually drew attention to his case through freemaziarbahari.org, Facebook, petitions and media appearances by his wife Paola. IDFA also collected signatures from documentary makers for a petition that was sent to the Iranian authorities at the beginning of August 2009. And these efforts were rewarded. In a marvellous account of his detention, published in Newsweek several weeks after his release, Maziar wrote: ‘It’s very strange that no one has said anything about you yet,’ Mr. Rosewater [a prison guard] told me one day. ‘Don’t you have any friends or relatives?’ I thought he was bluffing but couldn’t know for sure. The prisoner’s worst nightmare is the thought of being forgotten. Then, one morning in September, the friendliest of the prison guards – a man with whom I exchanged obscene jokes – opened my cell door and said, ‘Mr. Hillary Clinton, you can go have hava khori [some fresh air] now.’ I was mystified. ‘Why “Hillary Clinton”?’ I asked him. ‘She talked about you last night,’ he said, referring to comments the U.S. secretary of state had made to her Canadian counterpart. I was ecstatic. This meant there was international pressure to free me. Maziar Bahari was released on 17 October 2010. Three days later he arrived in London, where his daughter was born on 27 October. He had been in prison for 118 days, 12 hours and 54 minutes – in solitary confinement for 107. He got to experience the darkest side of the regime and suffered absurd accusations and physical and psychological torture. He talks and writes about his confinement and its effect on him open heartedly and with his characteristically biting sense of humour and trenchant observations. One of Maziar Bahari’s first public appearances following his release was at IDFA 2009. On Sunday 22 November, in the Escape Lounge, he discussed with the festival’s director Ally Derks his experiences and the situation in Iran, something he is deeply pessimistic about. ‘There are still a few rational elements in the government, but the Revolutionary Guard, the special unit to which Ahmadinejad belongs, is increasing in power. They thrive in times of paranoia, chaos and uncertainty. Iran is well on its way to becoming a dictatorship.’ A few weeks later, Bahari returned to Amsterdam. A modicum of calm had returned following the storm of dozens of media appearances (including 60 Minutes, The Daily Show and Charlie Rose) and countless meetings with politicians who had made efforts to get him released. Bahari took the time to reflect on his work and to enjoy fatherhood, proudly showing photos of his daughter. When conversation turned to the immediate future of his homeland, however, his mood became somber: he expects
more arrests, more repression and – from both sides – more violence. ‘The regime has become radicalized, but so too has the opposition,’ he explained. ‘If the peaceful protests are ignored, I’m afraid they will resort to armed resistance.’ Still, there was room for a degree of optimism in his words, nourished as he is by a steadfast faith in the courage and fortitude of his compatriots. ‘It’s unbelievable just how many people went out on the streets. And they kept on going, even when it went against the orders of the highest power in the land, Ayatollah Khameini.’ It is impossible to predict how long the regime will survive, but Maziar is convinced that the Islamic Republic as we know it is doomed. ‘The regime has lost all legitimacy.’ In 2009, Bahari made the historical documentary The Fall of a Shah, a detailed reconstruction of the downfall of the last Shah of Persia. During the mass demonstrations that followed the 2009 elections, comparisons with the 1979 revolution were rife. Some analysts predicted that the Green Movement was the start of a revolution that would take place in a matter of months or even weeks. Others were more cautious in their predictions, suggesting that the process of change would take years. A year after the elections, the protests in Iran have, by all appearances, died down and the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Khamenei is back firmly in the saddle. But appearances can be deceptive, as Maziar Bahari writes in his recent Newsweek article The Last Ayatollah. Khamenei has learned important lessons from the past and has largely managed to avoid the Shah’s mistakes. But he has missed one important lesson. Like the shah and many other dictators before him, Khamenei has allowed himself to be surrounded by a clique of sycophants, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have insinuated themselves into every aspect of government. In the short term Khamenei may be able to count on their loyalty, but their true allegiance is only to themselves. Their corruption is breeding the kind of resentment that will keep the Green Movement alive. In all but name, the Islamic Republic is long gone. Khamenei just doesn’t seem to know it yet. Maziar Bahari has, understandably, not returned to Iran since his release. Neither he nor his lawyer was in any way kept informed about the issuing of a sentence, but on 9 March 2010 he was condemned in his absence to a jail term of 13 years, 6 months and to 74 lashes; he got five years for illegal assembly and conspiring against the state, four years for possession of secret documents, one year for propagating against the regime, two years for insulting the Supreme Religious Leader, one year and 74 lashes for disturbing the peace and six months for insulting the president. This last punishment was for a photograph someone had uploaded to Maziar Bahari’s Facebook page of President Ahmadinejad in an ardent embrace with a man, implying (according to Bahari’s interrogator) that the Iranian president is homosexual. In his article Justice Iranian Style Bahari details exactly how the absurd punishments say more about the Iranian regime and his supposed crimes. But he also has points out that, I can write these lines with my tongue firmly in my cheek from the safety of my house in London, of course, but more than 30 journalists, writers, and bloggers are still languishing in Iran’s prisons. Maziar Bahari was indeed not the only victim of the unprecedented repression in post-election Iran. More than 4000 people have been arrested in the past year. Dozens if not hundreds of people have been tortured and murdered. Many people are still missing. Hundreds of students, human rights activists and politicians are still languishing in solitary confinement in the regime’s filthy dungeons. And according to the organization Reporters Without Borders, this makes Iran ‘the world’s worst jailer of journalists’. Prior to his last departure for Iran Maziar Bahari wrote to his nephew, ‘In case I’ll have problems in Iran, I need as much publicity as possible. You can also contact my list of friends on Facebook as well as the Canadian government.’ This appeal applies equally to all political prisoners, because if enough attention is paid to their plight, they will not ‘disappear’. The call for release of prisoners must not cease as long as Iran’s oppressive regime continues. So please carry on signing petitions, because as Maziar Bahari’s experience proves, it really can work.
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