Iran 2000, Part 1

Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Iran 2000,
Part 1

Considering what happened,
I should probably ask Almereyda what he was thinking when he agreed to go to
Iran in September. The invitation came from me. Call it a stab at movie diplomacy.
Since 1997 I’ve been contributing occasional time and effort to an amazing
outfit called Search for Common Ground. A nongovernmental organization based
in DC, Search takes a creative approach to global fence-mending. At stress points
like Rwanda, Bosnia and Gaza, it tries to ease tensions and build bridges by
using things like arts, sports, science–anything it can think of, really.

Between Iran and the U.S.,
which haven’t had official relations in two decades, cinema’s an obvious
means to stimulate a little cross-cultural conversation. In the last three years,
Search has sponsored a number of film-related projects, including hosting gatherings
of U.S. and Iranian filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival and bringing a number
of Iranian filmmakers and critics to the U.S. More recently, it seemed like
the time was right for some traffic in the other direction. Search’s Iranian
partner in these initiatives, Khaneh Cinema, which is roughly Iran’s equivalent
of the motion picture academy, sounded eager to host an American filmmaker.

Michael Almereyda, I learned,
was available and willing, and his Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, Bill
Murray, et al., seemed an ideal film to show. Not only is it minus the sex,
skin and ultra-violence that are verboten in official Tehran, but the Shakespeare
play was said to be universally familiar to Iranians. More particularly, I figured
Iranian filmmakers would be fascinated to learn how Almereyda converted a small
budget into such a sleek and imaginative production, shot on location in New
York City.

As it turned out, however,
all these sterling attributes were nothing compared to what really counted:
the filmmaker’s personal aplomb and highly developed sense of the absurd.

The absurdity began almost
at once. I’d told Search I thought Almereyda should arrive in Tehran with
another American–like, say, me–since I knew from experience that a
foreigner’s first encounter with Mehrabad Airport could be a bit freaky.
But travel complications meant that Search’s project coordinator, Stacy
Heen, and I arrived separately the night before. The next evening we went to
the airport with various Khaneh Cinema handlers. Because most planes landing
in Tehran arrive in the same block of time late at night, Mehrabad was, as usual,

After we pushed through
the crowds of waiting families and past the guards with machine guns, Parto
Motahdi, our translator and Khaneh facilitator (and my friend from a previous
trip), got special passes that allowed the two of us to go past the customs
area to the edge of the hall where passengers enter after deplaning. I was sure
Almereyda would be happy to glimpse his welcoming committee before having to
confront the grim-faced immigration guys beneath the giant portraits of Ayatollahs
Khomeini and Khamenei. But there were only ayatollahs in the hall; there was
no Almereyda.

Parto and I watched every
passenger go through immigration. We asked the flight crew, Did you see an American
in business class? No, they said, no such person on the flight. We dashed outside
and had the airport officials call Lufthansa, which said no, his name was not
on the passenger manifest from Frankfurt. This was freaky. I grabbed
one of the Iranians’ cellphones and called Almereyda’s apartment in
the East Village, leaving a message: "We’re in Tehran, dude–where
are you?"

Stacy and I returned to
the hotel and stood in the lobby (would that there had been a bar!) looking
at each other, trying to puzzle out the next step. Ten minutes later, Michael
Almereyda walked in, cool as a rock star despite a slight air of puzzlement.
Said he’d found his way from the plane (he’d been on the Lufthansa
flight, of course) to the airport’s VIP entrance, where he was inexplicably
charged $50 and finally released into the parking lot. A friendly cabbie named
Reza brought him to the hotel and refused a tip for his help.

"Godfrey, this is Michael.
I’m in the lobby. A policeman is with me. He picked me up and is going
to take me to the station for questioning."

This was the next morning,
about 10:15. Forty-five minutes earlier, I’d had breakfast with Almereyda
in the hotel coffeeshop. We laughed and shook our heads about the night before.
As we finished eating, he said he’d like to go outside and look around.
I thought for maybe half a second about whether I should go with him. But I’m
a big advocate of exploring on one’s own. Plus, I know this area. It used
to be my neighborhood.

Three years ago I came to
Tehran, rented an apartment and stayed most of the summer. Tehranis see very
few Americans, but if my nationality usually surprised them, the news that I
was renting an apartment often left them convulsed with laughter. It
was rare enough, I suppose, to be considered bizarre. (I was told I was "brave,"
which I took as a tactful euphemism for "crazy.") But I never had
the slightest trouble. And I developed a real fondness for my corner of the
city, a cul de sac off Vali Asr St., below Vanak Square.

So I told Almereyda after
breakfast, "Sure, go ahead. Just turn right, out of the hotel. You’ll
walk down to a big square, which is a good area to explore."

When he called from the
lobby, I couldn’t imagine what had happened. I immediately tried to phone
a couple of our Khaneh handlers, then a couple of Iranian friends. Busy, every
one. (The Tehran phone system seems to have grown even worse since the invasion
of cellphones.) So I hurried downstairs.

Almereyda was with the manager
and a plainclothes policeman. The term really fit this guy. His clothes were
plain, he was plain, his expression was never anything other than plain. I asked
if a trip to the police station was really necessary. With the manager translating,
the policeman said it was. I asked if I could accompany Mr. Almereyda. The cop
nodded. Then he added it would only take 10 minutes. When he said that, I thought
we might really be in for some trouble. Nothing in Iran takes 10 minutes–nothing
you’d want to have happen to you, anyway.

The police station was small,
plain and unadorned with any kind of fancy technology. I couldn’t imagine
why the Iranians would want citizens of the great nation of Kojak to see this
dump. Nevertheless, they parked us in a back room where four or five plainclothes
cops proceeded to scrutinize us and talk among themselves. I assumed we were
waiting for a translator for the interrogation. I gradually pieced together
the circumstances that brought us there.

Almereyda had done as I
suggested. Walked down to the square, looked around, then sat down on a pile
of rubble and took out a notebook and began to make some notes. What neither
of us realized was that my old neighborhood had changed since I lived there.
A few days before, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a group based in Iraq and at war with
the Islamic Republic, shot some mortars into the area, aiming for the police
headquarters but missing. My guess is that Almereyda sat down on one of the
resulting piles of bricks and the plainclothesmen figured he was a Mujahedin
spy, no doubt scribbling something like, "Boy, we blew the hell out of
this shack! Flat as a pancake!"

None of the cops spoke English,
but as we sat there and eyed each other, they became convinced that Almereyda
spoke Farsi, or at least understood theirs. I think this was because Michael
sometimes wears a look that’s no more than wry curiosity but can seem like
knowing bemusement. So the cops thought he maybe not only understood them, but
maybe was laughing at them too. This didn’t help. They started passing
around a pistol, some kind of healthy-sized automatic. I think they were just
bored, but at this point I started trying to explain that Almereyda was in fact
a famous film director, and giving the cops phone numbers of our supposed
handlers and asking that they be called. None of this provoked the slightest
change in the staring game.

If this were a movie we
would now cut back to the hotel, where my friend Roxane stands in the lobby
looking mystified. A Columbia grad student who’s been in Iran for five
months on a Fulbright doing anthropological field work, Roxane’s a big
fan of Almereyda’s downtown vampire movie Nadja, and eagerly accepted
my invitation to have lunch. When we don’t show up, she starts getting
nosy. Eventually one of the hotel workers lets her in on our whereabouts. She
heads for a payphone.

Back at Fort Apache north
central Tehran, Almereyda and I are approaching the end of our second hour of
interrogation-by-dull-stare when the doors burst open and in charges a squadron
of Iranian movie producers, all talking at once–talking to each other,
to the cops, to their cellphones. But mainly their cellphones. I swear a couple
of them are doing deals as they are nominally springing us from the pokey. At
their center is producer and Khaneh officer Fereshte Taerpour. Though Taerpour’s
a woman, I would nominate her to star in any Iranian remake of Patton.
She has two cellphones and is always on both of them, even as she deals
with the cops.

I was later told that the
calls regarding our case reached the ministerial level. Whatever, it still took
a couple of hours to spring us, and Almereyda had to sign a statement about
what he was doing when he was apprehended (writing in diary, not spying for
the Mujahedin). I have no idea if the cops were ever told the main reason the
Khaneh producers were hustling to get us out of there: we were expected at the
Iranian Oscars.

The showing of Almereyda’s
Hamlet four nights later was a teeth-grinding disappointment to me. Admittedly,
I was hoping for big things: a large hall filled with most of Khaneh Cinema’s
considerable membership, plenty of hoopla and press coverage, the works. Instead,
our overworked Khaneh hosts delivered a screening so "select" it was
virtually a state secret. But I knew the main reason why.

This is not a good moment
for anyone in Iran to make a big show of embracing Americans. On an individual
level, Iranians are as fond of American people as they are crazy about Hollywood
movies (which they see via satellite tv and bootleg videos). Collectively, they
favor opening up to the world, as they proved by electing the urbane reformer
Mohammad Khatami president in 1997, and by voting overwhelmingly for reformist
candidates in last spring’s elections to the Majlis, Iran’s parliament.
But there’s a big downside to the progressive surge: it makes the conservatives
feel threatened and avid to fight back. When Khatami attempts to open up to
the world by launching a "dialogue of civilizations"–involving,
say, exchanges of filmmakers–such cultural initiatives become a very visible

The result is that movie
diplomacy, like other sorts, finds itself hit with as many annoying roadblocks
and slowdowns as Tehran’s horrifically overloaded freeways. Since I’m
very impatient by nature, I can only admire the equanimity displayed by my friends
at Search for Common Ground. Like Iran’s reformers in recent months, they
seem inclined toward the long view, realizing that change takes time and faces
endless obstacles. But maybe they’re also encouraged by the bright side;
in this case, there’s at least one convert.

Almereyda seems taken with
Iran. He never says, "What the hell did you get me into?" In fact,
the rest of his trip turns out pretty well. Besides attending the Iranian Oscars,
he gets feted at the Swiss embassy, explores Tehran’s labyrinthine bazaar
and flies off for a day in the stunning city of Isfahan. He even seems pleased
with the small but responsive crowd at Hamlet, which includes the directors
Tahmineh Milani and Dariush Mehrjui.

In any event, he never loses
his rock-star cool. Not long after the episode in the police station, we’re
going somewhere in Tehran and I notice him pull out his digital video camera
and start shooting. My first reaction is, "Uh-oh." But then I think:
"What can they do to him–haul him off to jail and accuse him of being
a spy?"