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Iranian Filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi on Ahmadinejad’s Repressive Regime, the Disputed Election, and the Youth of Tehran

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“No one can stop these young people anymore. It is not in the hands of the government. It’s not about Mousavi or Khatami or Ahmadinejad. People are taking this into their own hands.”

It’s been quite a year for Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. His fiance, journalist Roxana Saberi, was arrested by Iranian authorities and charged with espionage in February. After months in jail, she was released just as Ghobadi premiered his latest film (which Saberi co-wrote), Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats, in Cannes. Ghobadi, now living in Berlin, traveled to Iran recently to visit his mother–and tells us that he was thrown in jail there for seven days. He’s now back in Berlin and safe, but his homeland is erupting. We spoke via a translator (his close friend and fellow Iranian filmmaker Daryush Shokof) about the current situation.

Have you reached family and friends in Tehran, and are they OK?

I’ve been talking to associates and friends. There is an outcry of insecurity and fear amongst all of them. I called one of my best friends–one of the most informed, up-to-date friends in Tehran–three of four days ago. He called back and cried constantly on the phone, which was a huge surprise. This man was supposed to be one of the strongest-minded people around. This brought me much despair, to hear such a strong-minded friend break down on the phone. Crying out of helplessness, fear, disappointment. Crying like a baby.

Is it difficult not to be in Iran now?

It is a nightmare. It is a nightmare not to be amongst them. The sadness of the situation is that I do not know what I can do. [Shokof and I] walk 10 miles a day together, we just don’t know what to do. Writing emails, we are in Internet cafes, trying to call people, trying to write them, it is extremely difficult.

And you were just there.

I was captured going from Iraq to Iran on June 2nd and taken to prison for seven days. I left Berlin to go see my mother — I had a feeling something terrible was going to happen and I wanted to see my mother, thinking I might not see her again. I was captured in my own small town right over the Iran-Iraq border. They kept me for three days in prison there and then took me to a prison in Tehran for four days. I just returned to Berlin.

How were you treated in jail?

It is so unimportant what I went through in comparison to what the crowds of Iranians are going through at this time, it is so small, that I don’t want to mention it at this time. One day I’ll explain, but I am OK. Psychologically, my mind is extremely frustrated and troubled, but I am OK.

Your latest film, which you shot underground, is about Tehran’s rock scene and cultural repression. Have you heard from any of the young performers?

One of the rappers in the film had just arrived from Dubai to Tehran a few days ago and [officials] confiscated his passport in Tehran. The two leads are in London at this time, and their visas for staying England just expired. They want to deport them back to Iran and it is extremely worrisome what will happen to them if they go back there.

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When you were making the film, did you get a sense that young people in Tehran were ready to burst?

I had a feeling that things were about to happen. They were so tense, they were so agitated, in a revolting state of mind. I wanted to use the film to scream against the situation, scream like all the members of the bands I worked with. I wanted to scream along with them, making this film as a statement against the brutal situation we were all under.

And now?

I haven’t seen anything like this in 30 years. I believe there was mishandling of the vote, without a doubt. I’m perplexed that no country has taken a firm position, publicly denouncing the voting irregularities. According to the laws and principles of the nations around the world, it is the duty of the governments to serve the people and now it is completely the other way around.

What we’ve seen on television in the last two or three days, I have never seen anything like it. This shows the weakness of the government. This shows how fearful the government actually is. How terrible a big lie has been told to the people. If the government wasn’t afraid, they would have complied with the wishes of the people and at least let people count the vote. It is now clear for the people of Iran that the government is not as tough as it wants to seem. It is not. Now the people are convinced of that, and now they want to take it back, to take the power into their own hands.

Your early films were made in the countryside. Is there a gulf in opinion between the cities and the countryside?

The feeling is the same. The difference is that government can always control the little towns a lot easier than the big cities.

You know, the whole reason that we’re not seeing even more of a crowd on the street is because the parents and the elderly have seen so many troubled days in the last 30 or 40 years, that they’re trying to stop their children from going out. But that shows how terrible the situation is: No one can stop these young people anymore. It is not in the hands of the government anymore. It’s not about Mousavi or Khatami or Ahmadinejad. People are taking this into their own hands.

My cousin was telling me that people have already started collecting food, rice, and storing it. Getting ready for civil war. Seventy percent of the population is under 30 years of age. And instead of having these wonderful youth and their energy used in the government and the infrastructure, the power is in the hands of some old, extremely conservative, backward religious fanatics who have really such deranged opinions about life in free societies that they cannot even communicate with the youth anymore. And that is not communicating with 70 percent of a nation, which is a huge problem.

So no clampdown can work anymore?

People are not afraid anymore. The youth have seen how they can hurt the government. This three or four days has shown them that they can rush out to the streets and say what they want and take it all in their own hands. And if the government is not going to listen to them, it is going to be a bloody future. The government cannot control the people any longer. They have been lied to for so long that they even started lying to themselves. And hating themselves for lying. And this was the last big lie. The people were ready to erupt.

Are you surprised by how vocal young women have been?

You want to know a country, you want to open the gates to a country, you want to know the culture of a country? The greatest key to any of that is to know the women of that country. Women are the only force that can free Iran.

Are you hopeful that you’ll be able to return?

Shokof breaks in: If I did not have the hope–I haven’t been home in 39 years–If I did not have that hope of going back to my own country, just to go back to where we once belonged, freely, I would have rather died. We’re never going to lose that hope.

Ghobadi: In the last 30 years, I really went through a miserable time to work, under fear, to make my movies under complete control of the government. I lied constantly. The ministry of culture that should teach you culture and education taught us only how to lie. For 30 years. In such a civilized–used to be civilized–country like Iran, the cultural ministry of Iran became really like an army. The biggest enemy of the creative people in Iran is the ministry of culture.

But the two of us, we are of the generation above 30. The most important thing is what will happen to the generation under 30. That’s the future. They are the most precious, valuable resource we have in Iran, and they should be free enough to do their duties as civilized individuals in this world, be good Iranians, be good people. We believe that once the youth take control of the country, finally, they will show the true face of honest, civilized, cultivated, modern Iran. They will do what they should for a better world. They will be responsible for a better world. To be good citizens of this planet. I am convinced of that.

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