Jewish Eye Film Festival / Truths, Half-truths and Documentaries

In filming the Jewish community in Iran, director Ramin Farahani encountered its members' reluctance to speak openly on camera, and seems to have adopted this himself.

What happens when a documentary film does not document the events it portrays? What value is there to a documentary that presents a partial picture and whose heroes hide relevant information from the director?

Director Ramin Farahani had to deal with these issues recently. Farahani, a Muslim Iranian who has lived in the Netherlands for 12 years, decided to return to his homeland to document the Jewish community there. He discovered that achieving this goal was much more difficult than he had imagined.

In addition to having to obtain permits from the Iranian authorities, he had to convince his subjects to appear in his film. Obtaining permits turned out to be not that simple, and even the Jews, Farahani quickly realized, created a considerable obstacle.

"The leaders of the Jewish community did not directly state they were not willing to cooperate, but I sensed their lack of enthusiasm. I tried to win their trust, to become friendly with them, but they were not eager to cooperate on my film," Farahani says in a telephone interview from his home in the Netherlands.

Farahani spent three months in 2002 with the main Jewish communities in Iran, and documented their story as much as possible. He visited community members in their homes and at work, attended their celebrations, and filmed at Jewish schools and kindergartens, Hebrew classes and synagogues.

The resulting film, "Jews of Iran," will be screened at the Jewish Eye - World Jewish Film Festival, which opened yesterday in Be'er Sheva. It provides a rare if limited look into these individuals' lives.

The Jews' fear of freely expressing themselves in front of the camera, and, incidentally, in front of others who may see the film, is apparent throughout the film. One scene shows an elderly Jewish woman lying in her hospital bed. She says she is alone, that her children live abroad and that there is no one to look after her. When the director asks her where they live, she answers that she believes they live in Israel, but then quickly adds: "God is my witness that I don't have their address." She later relates that they tried to take her with them when they left, "but then something happened." She refuses to elaborate and bursts into tears.

A connection to Israel is the biggest danger facing Jews in Iran, and this is especially obvious in scenes filmed in Shiraz, where several Jews were convicted in 2000 of spying for Israel. Farahani talks with their defense lawyer, who claims their confessions were the only evidence against them. The director then asks community members what they think about the trial. Even though he states in the film that the community widely believes the confessions were improperly extracted, none of the interviewees were willing to address this. They were willing to say they knew the detainees, but refrained from expressing an opinion on the trial.

Farahani says Iranian citizens in general - and not just Jews - are unaccustomed to speaking freely about their problems. "If they're already talking, they usually censor what they say," he says. The Jews, however, are much more careful than others, he says. "They were very careful regarding every aspect of the movie. The community leaders permitted me to attend events and talk to people, but they were constantly watching over me. When I visited the Jewish youth organization in Tehran, for example, I sat with the members and tried to start a discussion about the problems they face as Jews at school or when trying to find a job, but I saw some people had decided in advance not to discuss these things. I was very disappointed."

Farahani, 37, says he decided to make a film about Iran's Jews after moving to the Netherlands and finding himself in the minority for the first time.

"As a result, my interest in minorities grew," he says. "During a visit to Tehran with my family, I came up with the idea of doing a trilogy on the three recognized minorities in Iran: Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians." Now that he has finished the first film, he says the many difficulties he encountered made him forego the other two.

Among other things, he had to deal with a lot of bureaucracy and government censorship. When he approached the Iranian culture ministry for a permit to make the film, he underwent lengthy questioning.

"They talked with me over and over to ensure they understood what I wanted to do," he says. "I explained that I know there are problems within the Jewish communities, but that there are also positive points, such as the Jews' freedom of religion. I stressed that I don't want to focus only on the bad things, but also on the good things. Besides, they know my family lives there and therefore assumed I'd be careful."

More than half the film was filmed under the supervision - and restrictions - of a government representative.

"In the girls' school in Tehran, for example, the supervisor ordered me not to talk to people. He said I could film whatever I wanted but not talk with anyone," says Farahani. After three months of filming, before he left Iran, he was required to give all his tapes to the Iranian authorities for inspection.

He acknowledges that he had concerns about making a film on this subject, "but my intention was not to attack the government, but to show the everyday life of the Jews," he says. "I didn't want to come out against the government's policies in Iran, but to give the world a small window into the lives of the Jewish communities there. As I told the government representatives, I wanted to make a film from the social perspective and not the political one."

In the film, the only person who dares to speak directly about anti-Semitism is a girl named Farandis. Once, when she still attended public school, she left class for a drink of water, she relates. When she returned, she felt the students were looking at her strangely. Later, a friend told her that when she had stepped out, the teacher told the other students that because it was raining outside, Farandis had gotten wet and had therefore been contaminated. The teacher told them that anyone who touched her would also be infected, because the girl was now impure. As a result of this incident, Farandis transferred to a Jewish school and eventually left Iran. This, of course, made it easier for her to tell her story.

Farahani says he met other Jews who described problems, insults and discrimination at the hands of Muslims, but says they were unwilling to repeat their stories for the camera. He says he realized there was no point in pressuring them to talk. Even though he could have narrated their attacks himself, he chose instead to conceal this information from his viewers. Perhaps his subjects' fear infected him as well. Instead, he says, he tried to find ways to convey this message indirectly.

"I realized I could show feelings in a veiled manner," he says. "For example, there are lots of Jews whose relatives have left Iran for other countries. They could not say on camera that their family members decided to leave because it is so difficult to be Jewish in Iran. That's why I chose to show, toward the end of the film, a woman praying emotionally because she misses her family. Such a scene, I believe, wordlessly explains the situation."

Farahani says he believes the Jews in Iran don't need to hide their identity. "It's important to understand that according to the Iranian constitution, Jews are citizens with equal rights just like any other minority, and discriminating against them is illegal," he says. "Islam offers a good basis for tolerance, and only a small minority in Iran persecutes Jews. It is discrimination on an individual basis, it is not systemic, and it is certainly not the mainstream."

Nevertheless, it is apparent that Farahani too is careful about what he says. The organizers of the Jewish Eye festival in Be'er Sheva wanted to invite him for the screening of his film (which will be shown twice, today and on Sunday), but he chose not to come.

"Given my Dutch citizenship, I can travel to Israel," he explains, "but my Iranian passport bars me from entering your country. In the end, I preferred to obey this restriction, because I'm still an Iranian citizen and I respect the laws of the country, whether or not I agree with them."