You Don't Have Permission to Make a Film About Iran...
An Interview with Nahid Persson Sarvestani
With “Prostitution behind the Veil” and “Four Wives - One Man,” Nahid Persson Sarvestani had already established her reputation as a documentary filmmaker in Sweden, her adopted country of many years. Now she has chosen another provocative Iranian subject: Farah Pahlavi, widow of the deposed Shah of Iran. Her documentary film, “The Queen and I,” has been shown at the Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Göteborg International Film Festival, where it was the opening film.
I caught up with her at the Film Festival of Amsterdam, where we talked about her new film.
-- Mohammad Abdi
Let’s start with how you got into filmmaking.
Actually, when I lived in Iran, I worked for a newspaper when I was young. I wrote articles on women’s issues and about the various groups and organizations that existed at the time of the 1979 revolution. When I was forced to leave the country, naturally I hoped I would be able to continue this kind of work. Then I ended up in a Swedish-speaking environment and, due to the language barrier, I had to give up the idea.
So I went to the university and studied microbiology, which had nothing to do with what I had been doing. I worked for a while in a laboratory and realized that this was not the place for me. It was a place closed in on itself and I felt out of my element. Then I got a job in Uppsala working for the Persian radio service of Radio Sweden.
I was attracted to filmmaking but had never touched a camera before. One day I borrowed a camera from an organization and spent an entire day at a school filming the children. I edited the film and added music. I didn’t really know what I was doing; I just gave it a try. I ended up selling the film to the parents of the school kids for the modest price of 180 kronor, and that encouraged me. A while later, while I was still working for Persian radio, a gentleman offered me the chance to produce a program on the festival of Nowruz for Swedish Television. I was very happy to have the opportunity. After that I went to filmmaking school for a year and got my start in film. At that time—that is, around 15 years ago—film was much simpler. After that, I started working for Swedish Television producing 15-minute segments. Then I decided to return to Iran and start filming there.
I filmed the whole family and the result was later shown on Swedish Television. In 1999, I even won a prize. That was when I began to be drawn to documentary filmmaking. It occurred to me that while writing in a foreign language was difficult, I could perhaps speak through pictures.
“Prostitution behind the Veil” and “Four Wives - One Man” both have social themes. Why did you suddenly decide to go after a personage, someone like Farah Pahlavi, for your next film?
I have to say, it was the Islamic clerics, the mullahs now running Iran, who caused me to make this film. For all those 30 years, I had not given a thought to the Shah or his family. When the Islamic Revolution took down the monarchy, I left the country and that was it. But when I went back to Iran two years ago, I was subjected to the most dreadful interrogation and was the target of all kinds of insults. For example, they told me, “You’re a filthy monarchist; you’re all the same…” That was when I really started thinking that we had made the greatest mistake in bringing about the revolution.
We created the revolution, and then these people took over—and now here they are interrogating someone like me who was against the Shah. They made me sign some piece of paper and write that I would never again make a film on Iran. I had no choice but to sign in order to get out of there and return to Sweden. However, in that kind of situation, whatever it is they force me to sign, you can be sure I’m going to do the exact opposite. When they said I am not allowed to make a film on Iran and called me taghuti, a derogatory word for a sympathizer of the Shah, I said, “Fine, then I will make a film on taghut.”
When I returned to Sweden, I attempted to contact the exiled former queen, Farah Pahlavi. First, I talked to her secretary and finally, after four months, she herself telephoned and said I would be allowed to call on her in Paris.
The reluctance both of you had about meeting, and your growing acceptance of Farah Pahlavi, became the basis of the film. Did you get the idea of making this the story of the film after you had begun shooting, or did you intend from the start to make the process of creating the film itself part of the story?
The idea slowly grew as we were making the film. We were two people who, in the past, had been hostile to each other, in opposite camps. But suddenly, both of us were fellow Iranian refugees; both had children and both had lost a loved one. I had hesitations during the whole time that we were filming about whether making this film was such a good idea after all, and what my old anti-Shah friends were going to say. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask the queen about things the Shah had done but I didn’t have the courage. Every day, I thought this would be the day I would bring up the criticisms I had about the Shah, but the minute I’d see her and the way she was so kind and pleasant to be with…as we became close, it became difficult to ask these things. But these questions do finally come up at the end of the film.
So did your worries turn out to be justified? How are your old friends responding and what was Farah Pahlavi’s reaction when she saw the film?
Most people who have seen the film have liked it, because it’s not just about Farah Pahlavi or me, but is about Iran, the Iran that all of us long for and wish we could be living in now, whose soil we wish could touch with our hands.
The first time I showed her the film was at my home in Sweden. I invited her to see the still unfinished two-hour film. There were parts of it she didn’t like, since I had said things about her husband. Nevertheless, she said, “This is your film, you are a filmmaker and I must accept that these are your words.” She didn’t like some of the parts in which she spoke, and I respected her wishes and removed them—this is what I do for anyone with whom I work. In the end, I made the film one and a half hours and showed it to her again. She was very happy with it. But she worries what people will say, just as I do.
Aside from the principal character of the film, you make the narration very personal: you yourself are an important part of the story as a whole, maybe the most important part. Is it a valid criticism to say that, instead of Farah Pahlavi, it is you who have become the central personage of the film?
Alright, say I am, what’s the problem? I feel we are both together. That is to say, it is about two women, two women who are in exile. I’ve mostly shown her life; however, the thoughts are mainly mine.
How is your original impression of Farah Pahlavi different from your current image of her, after having made this film?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t really have much of a preconception of her. Thirty years ago when the revolution happened, I was very young. I used to see her on television and I never got to know her up close. For us young people and children, she was a distant dream. But when I saw her, I recognized her. And as I got to know her, we grew closer and each of us had respect for the other—as two women, as two human beings.
It seems to me that one point that is absent from your film is the question about Farah Pahlavi’s sympathies for the European student movements, which could be a connecting link between the two of you, seeing as you used to be a leftist activist.
I had heard from many people that when she was a student, Farah Pahlavi had leftist leanings but that after her marriage to the Shah, she had to cut off relations with her close friends. I asked her jokingly about these things, and she said, “No, it was not that way.” I myself was a leftist—I mean, I still am and I want everyone to have the same rights. I don’t think she would want anything other than this either. She is a caring person and sympathetic to others. The two of us are very similar. And so it was very hard for me to find fault with her.
Don’t you think it would have been better to include Farah Pahlavi’s refusal to participate in the leftist movements in the film?
I don’t know if we filmed such a dialogue or not! Yes, we did. But it is always the case that when a person makes a film, he later wishes he had done something differently.
Another point I felt to be missing was Farah’s involvement and influence in the arts. For example, the Shiraz Arts Festival, an event of great importance, did not come up at all in your film, nor did you ask about it.
This did come up in the film, the part where a gentleman is mentioning all the work the queen was involved in. But look, this is not supposed to be a portrait of Farah Pahlavi. If it were, I would have called it that. It is a film about two women who meet each other and, despite having had opposite views, become close. There are things which you can string together in an hour and a half film, and there are things that you can't. We took a lot of other footage which is great raw material, but not suitable for inclusion in this particular film, and so we left those scenes out. However, we will probably use them in the DVD.