A young Iranian filmmaker named Emadeddin (Emad) Tayefeh was forced to flee his homeland earlier this year after its totalitarian regime grew suspicious of his latest documentary project that focuses on political repression in that country.
In early August, Tayefeh hopped on a bus bound for the Turkish border, following beatings and imprisonment at the hands of the Islamic regime for shooting video footage for his anti-government film, the Guardian (UK) reports.
“My heart was beating so fast,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the country, and I’d bribed the border police to get an exit permit. I had to cross the border without wasting time.”
He left Iran with a backpack containing footage of interviews with dissidents – and not much else.
The 30-year-old grew up in Tehran in a family that backed the 1979 Iranian revolution that ousted the Shah. His neighborhood was filled with like-minded people, including documentary director Ebrahim Hatamikia, journalist Hossein Shariatmdari, and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, a friend of Tayefeh’s father who later became Emad’s mentor.
“Back then, the regime would give free housing and land to close allies and supporters,” Tayefeh said. “So we had land there, too.”
College made Tayefeh think differently about Iranian politics. “Take the 1980s executions of political dissidents,” he said. “Prior to college, like all other people raised in the same environment, I used to think all those stories about executions were false. But when I went to college, I started to change.”
Around the same time as his political views began shifting, so did fellow filmmaker Nourizad’s. “He was becoming more open-minded and critical of the government,” said Tayefeh. Over time Nourizad became a critic of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the 2009 election cycle Tayefeh volunteered for the campaign of former prime minister Mir Hossein Mousavi who ran for the presidency as a reformer. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was declared the victor, Tayefeh joined many others protesting in the streets.
His activism cost him dearly. Along with other activists, he ran afoul of the Revolutionary Guards and members of the Basij, a militia that is subordinate to the Guards.
“I was imprisoned several times, in total for around nine months,” he said. “I was severely tortured and beaten up. But I wasn’t going to give up.”
In 2011 Tayefeh helped Nourizad’s son, Abazar, make a film about his father, but Revolutionary Guards roughed them up and seized their footage. When the filmmaker gave it another try the next year, the Guards confiscated their material again.
Tayefeh decided to protest what was happening in his country by restarting the movie project.
“I thought to myself I’d wasted my life and gone through all these miseries without getting anywhere. I told the Nourizads let’s make this movie no matter what. The worst-case scenario is that we are going to die. Let’s at least leave something behind.”
Tayefeh’s movie about political dissent in the Islamic Republic is titled Public Enemies. The film has caught the attention of executives at Voice of America and British Broadcasting Corp.
The storylines in the first part of the movie focus on the experiences of imprisoned activists, those who have been killed or disappeared since the revolution, and activists deciding what to do next, Tayefeh said.
The second part will examine the experiences of Iranian political asylum seekers and refugees and will be shot in the United States where Tayefeh hopes to move to continue his filmmaking career. “I am going to show where these people came from, what they went through and where they are now.”
In the film, “we wanted to analyze who our enemy is,” he said.
Is it our government? The U.S.? Israel? During the documentary we conclude that we are our own enemy. We, the Iranian people. Our enemy is our indifference, our fear. All these have made us passive. We want to say that we are the problem and if we want to make a change in Iran, we need to start with ourselves.
Shooting footage in public or with a film camera was out of the question. Preliminary footage began to be taken in March. The plan called for Nourizad to hold an exhibition in mid-June of his paintings in a closed area in Tehran. In order for the event to be captured as inconspicuously as possible, Tayefeh resolved to record video digitally on a mobile telephone.
According to the Guardian,
Tayefeh says he was soon attacked twice. … “On 1 April they attacked me on the street, splitting my head and breaking my wrist,” he said. “And in early May they arrested me on the street and took me to the Revolutionary Guards’ base in the Shahid Mahallati complex [in north Tehran]. They beat me up again and after three days, set me free with a bruised body and a dislocated shoulder.”
Hundreds of pro-reform activists attended the art exhibition that opened on June 11 and lasted nine days. Tayefeh got it all on his phone’s camera.
Soon after, Tayefeh went into hiding in northern Iran. By August, he was in Turkey, editing the first part of Public Enemies. At time of writing he was still in Turkey.
But his American lawyer, New York-based Irina Tsukerman, is working to get Tayefeh stateside. She is astonished that the West has not yet embraced her client’s cause.
I thought that the West would fawn over an opportunity to meet someone like Emad, a warm, genuine believer in the inherent worth of every human being, who did not become bitter, deceptive, and cynical as a result of betrayals and horrific experiences.
But Tsukerman hasn’t given up.
Despite everything he went through, despite a complete lack of support from the West, despite being alone on his journey, he succeeded in something so many have failed at – winning, getting ahead of the regime, never succumbing to the oppression, escaping on his own and alive, smuggling out the film that nearly cost him his life, and resisting all attempts, however well-crafted, to lure him away from his path.
Tayefeh was wise to get out of Iran when he did. The Islamic Republic’s kangaroo courts have been cracking down on artistic and political expression deemed threatening to the status quo.
Over the summer, Mostafa Azizi, a filmmaker, writer, and TV producer, received an eight-year prison term; Atena Farghadani, a painter, 12 years; Atena Daemi, an activist opposed to the death penalty, 14 years. According, again, to the Guardian:
All three have been found guilty of insulting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, through their activities on social networking sites such as Facebook. They have also been convicted of other vague charges, which are often used against activists held on political grounds, including “spreading propaganda against the ruling establishment.”
After completing a six-year prison term, reform leader and journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi was banished to Gonabad, 600 miles from Tehran. Nourali Tabandeh, a dervish (kind of like a mendicant monk), is forbidden from residing in Gonabad, his home town.
So far Tayefeh has avoided the fate of his countrymen.
Tsukerman wants her client to move to America so he can tell his story about the horrors of the Iranian regime. She said:
He consistently acted in a principled way of someone who has something very important to share – the values and belief and dedication to those very Western values we claim we want to see flourish in the Middle East and around the world. I call on our country, our government, and the American nation to put our beliefs where our mouth is – and embrace Emad, bring him here, give him access to the resources he can use to fulfill his potential, allow him the opportunity he has well earned by showing that not only is he our friend and ally, but actually, he is one of us.
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