Sunday, July 03, 2011

Iranian PR: Our Summer in Tehran

Who would not want to spend their summer vacation in an official terrorist-sponsoring state? Filmmaker Justine Shapiro certainly did, so she packed up her son Mateo for a summer sojourn in the Revolutionary Islamic Republic. Bringing along a camera, she hoped to document the Iranian middle class for the edification of American audiences. Things did not go precisely as planned though in the resulting Our Summer in Tehran (trailer here), which airs on New York’s WNET13 this coming Saturday.

Seeking to humanize the Iranian people, Shapiro sought out a broad cross-section of middle class Iranians, of all faiths, gay and straight. No, not really. It is simply impossible to find such diversity in Iran, for fear of execution in the case of those convicted of homosexuality. Instead, she settles for one family of secular professionals, one Islamist family with close ties to the state, and a single mother working in Iran’s film industry. (For the record, Summer was shot in 2007, when Jafa Panahi was still at liberty, though most of his films were strictly banned.)

Summer is a frustrating film because Shapiro so steadfastly refuses to follow-up on obvious avenues of inquiry. When the actress Leili Rashidi is late to lunch with the filmmaker because the Ershad, the state censorship agency, dropped by her rehearsal to make sure the play was “not too political” viewers will immediately prick up their ears, yet Shapiro just lets it go like it nothing more significant than a traffic jam. One wonders how she would have reacted if George Bush sent some round to the Public Theater to make sure they were not getting too political. Unfortunately, she is so committed to her people-to-people narrative she constantly misses the bigger picture.

Not to be spoilery, but it did not work out in the end. With no warning and no explanation, the Ershad gives her forty-eight hours to clear out. Suddenly, her Iranians friends are scared to talk to her, except for the Torabis, who obviously feel protected by his position with the Revolutionary Guards.

Iran has a rich Persian culture and a fascinating history. Viewers might pick up an interesting tidbit here and there in Summer, but it is not a go-to source to understand Iran’s current boots on the ground reality. For that, Ali Samadi Ahadi’s partially animated documentary The Green Wave is far more informative and insightful. New Yorkers wanting a tour bus view of Tehran can still tune in Saturday afternoon (7/9) when Summer airs on 13.