Seattle filmmaker describes detention in Iran

by James Longley interviewed by Erik Lacitis, Seattle Times

He's an Oscar-nominated Seattle-based documentary-maker who on Sunday in Tehran, found himself and his translator being hauled off by the riot police.

James Longley, 37, isn't much for getting news secondhand, and so he has traveled to Russia, the Gaza Strip, Iraq and now Iran.

"I like to know what's going in the world and to form my opinions based on direct experience," he said in e-mail exchanges with The Seattle Times. Calls to his cellphone in Iran were not going through, and the government has clamped down on some Web site access.

Being dragged to the Ministry of Interior was pretty direct.

Longley had official permission to film, but in the middle of history-making protest marches the Iranian cops weren't stopping to ask.

Longley wasn't harmed, he said, but the translator was sprayed in the face with pepper spray, punched, kicked in the groin and beaten across his back with a truncheon. The cops told the translator his mother and sister were whores, and they used graphically explicit language, he said.

Eventually, both were released and Longley went back to the neighborhood where he's staying and did what documentarians do: He wrote up what happened.

On Wednesday he stayed mostly indoors "as there now is an official ban on journalism, and foreign journalists are being scapegoated by the government and blamed for inciting the violence, and often unceremoniously kicked out of the country."

Longley's desire for direct experiences meant he spent more than two years filming in Iraq, the result being the 2007 Oscar-nominated "Iraq in Fragments," which offers intimate portraits through the eyes of locals. In 2008, he was again nominated for an Oscar for a short documentary about an Iraqi woman and her 10-year-old son dying of AIDS.

Now he's spent more than a year in Iran working on a documentary about a junior high school in Pul, a village in the Caspian Sea province of Mazandaran.

And so now, even by looking out the window of his residence, he can see history unfold.

The following Q&A with Longley was done via e-mail Wednesday:

Q: What drew you to Iran?

A: I don't like to be told what's going on. I like to know what's going on in the world and to form my own opinions based on direct experience. Traveling to and living in places like the Soviet Union/Russia, the Gaza Strip, Iraq and Iran allows me have an insider's view of some of the most controversial issues in the world, and making films allows me to share my experiences with other people in a way that I'm comfortable with. I've always been intrigued by the idea of traveling in Iran ever since reading about it in my mother's ancient encyclopedia as a kid. And now I'm here.

Q: When was your first visit to Iran? What changes have you seen that have been most striking to you?

A: I think that the most significant change I have seen since 2007 has been the rejuvenation of interest on the part of young Iranians in the political life of their country. When I first arrived here I always felt a sense of apathy and detachment among Iranians toward the business of their government. Iranians tend to be absorbed in their own lives, not in public life. At a certain moment prior to the elections I felt a real lifting of that apathy; you could really feel people becoming enthusiastic about having a chance to directly influence the course of their government, and the Mousavi campaign became the focus of that energy. Mousavi as a politician is important, I think, but the larger issues that he represents are what is driving the current political/social crisis in Iran. It is my impression that Mousavi himself is more being swept along by events than actively leading a movement. Without the pre-existing enthusiasm on the part of his supporters to become involved in political change en masse, Mousavi the candidate would be a fairly insignificant figure.

Q: When talking to American friends about Iran, what are some common misconceptions you hear from them? What are things that you tell them that they find surprising about life in Iran?

A: Most Americans would probably be surprised to discover how ordinary life in Iran really is — at least when Iran is not in the midst of social upheaval. Apart from the dress code for women and the some other outward signs that you're in the Islamic Republic, life here is not so different from life in any developing country. Also, there is a broad misconception that Iranians hate the West. That's really not true at all; Iranians are very enamored of most things foreign — in this respect Iran is a particularly open-minded society, always assimilating things from outside. And you'd be hard pressed to find warmer, more hospitable people, or better home cooking.

Young Iranians in particular — but also people of every age — are very hungry to have more normalized relations with the rest of the world, and to be less isolated. Whatever the eventual result of the current elections crisis may be, that tendency and desire on the part of the majority of Iranians is not going to go away, and this presents a significant opportunity for improved relations. It would be a mistake to base U.S.-Iran policy around particular individuals in the government. What should be more important to U.S. policymakers is the open attitude that Iranians themselves have toward engagement with the rest of the world.

Q: The median age in Iran is 27. Are the protesters even younger? When they spot you as an American, what do they say to you?

A: The protesters are of all ages and walks of life. I have seen teenagers and old people, parents with children, men and women — you name it.

It's important to note about Iranian attitude toward Americans that it has been uniformly positive during my time here. I have traveled all over Iran in the past two years and I have never had a bad experience or negative conversation because I'm an American. Iranians like American people. Some of them do have issues with U.S. foreign policy, however, and they freely express those views. On the whole, however, I think that most Iranians have been hoping for a rapprochement with the United States. I think the current fallout over the elections may now make that more difficult.

Q: For folks in Seattle following the events in Iran on TV and going on the Internet, what are some things about daily life there right now that they'd find of interest?

A: Today it's quiet in my neighborhood in northern Tehran. But information is very hard to come by, so it's sometimes difficult to know what is happening in other places in Tehran, and certainly difficult to know the situation in other cities of Iran. The mobile phone network has been taken down where I am, and SMS [text messaging] hasn't worked since the night before the elections. This is significant because Mousavi's election monitors were to have used the SMS system to communicate any voting irregularities back to their campaign headquarters.

Shops are largely still open; most of the acts of vandalism in the last few days have been directed at state property, such as banks, buses, and so on. Walking on Valiasr Street on Tuesday I saw that most of the banks had broken windows and destroyed ATMs.

Today I have stayed mostly indoors as there is now an official ban on journalism, and foreign journalists are being scapegoated by the government and blamed for inciting the violence, and often unceremoniously kicked out of the country.

At night, after a rally, the cars moving along the street outside are all honking their horns in a sign of solidarity. I was surprised to see a number of cars which had clearly had their windscreens caved in on the passenger / sidewalk side, a sign of the heavy hand of the police. There are cries of "God is Great!" coming from the opened windows of apartments into the darkness.

Q: When did you arrive in Tehran? What is the film about that you were working on?

A: I first arrived in Tehran in February of 2007 and have spent over a year in Iran since then. On this particular trip, I arrived in Iran in October 2008 and have been in the country more or less full time since then. I have been working on a documentary about a junior high school in the village of Pul, which is in the Caspian Sea province of Mazandaran. During the elections I had filming permissions to cover the elections both in Pul and in Tehran. On Friday, June 12, I filmed the start of voting in Pul Village and then traveled south to Tehran and filmed the afternoon voting in the capital.

article originally published at Seattle Times.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey