In The Name Of The Ayatollah Director’s Notes
By Robin Benger
Breaking the back of the documentary
We have been asked to write a blog about shooting the series Sex Scandals in Religions. We have four directors, of which I am one. I am doing the episode concerning Islam.
Dr. Payam Akhavan is a professor of International Law at McGill University. He co-founded the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in Connecticut. He was a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague during the trial of ex-Serbian Leader Slobodan Milosovic.
We were open to any and all religions, and I toyed with and dismissed Islam. Partly because the reaction to any such story about Islam might be over-zealous. But Islam is the biggest religious story of our times, hard to resist. So I literally googled sex scandal in Islam, and if you do that, the first article that comes up is a story in the Huffington Post about a death by rape in prison of a Iranian woman. More research reveals a report by something called the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, which catalogues in detail more cases of sex assault in detention at two detention centre’s in Iran, Ervin and Kahrizak. In the footnotes, references to interviews with victims in various places…Germany, the UK, USA, and Turkey.
My editorial adviser on the project, Peter Kavanagh, the most intelligent man on religion that I know, raises the concept of sex abuse by a theocracy. A Holy State.
Just thinking about Iran and the lethal attraction of wanting to go there. To document, as I have been so lucky to be able to do, another tectonic shift in modern history. When I started out, it was Central America, then the fall of communism, then of apartheid. I was there in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq too as Islamic fundamentalism seized the top of the religious/political agenda of our times. And I felt the deadly whiz of a concrete block hurled at my head by young men in a technical on a street in Mogadishu.
(A reason for my fascination was also an uneraseable memory of an interview I did in Al-Diwaniyah, a clear-eyed young mullah, who over three hours in a sweltering earthen office had poured out the whole religious-fuelled Islamic world view, the justification for martyrdom, the control of nation and oil field by Koranic principles; and the fact that the only hope for me was conversion; if not, as an infidel, liquidation .)
Scott Peterson is the Middle East Correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. He is an award-winning war photographer, author and journalist. His book, Let The Swords Encircle Me, documents the 2009 Presidential election in Iran.
There is no answer to these people. There is no reasoning with religious zealots. They are not like the Marxist guerrillas of Central America, whose experience of generational poverty and understanding of ownership of the means of production could be debated, endlessly, sometimes with guns, most often with passionate conviction. Or the Africans, fighting to expel the colonists, to establish independence and freedom in their own lands, although one can sadly see that their struggle confirms the half empty characterization of revolution I’d read somewhere. It goes like this ” No revolution in history has extended more freedom to the mass of people.” But there’s no arguing, or debate, or reasoning, as we would call it in the West, with zealous Islamic fundamentalism. Between it and nuclear Israel, it has the potential to destroy us all, so we better find out what we can.
So in this context, more digging into the rapes in Iran by contacting the IHRDC. The idea, like a crime novelist , of focusing on one cluster of crimes. Rape. By Religion. How can it be? Really. I want to see if I can speak to the victims. Initially hesitant IDHRC researchers pass me on to two people, both Iranians living in the US. They don’t want their names publicized, but one is a former editor who was detained for 78 days, 45 in solitary. He tells me he was asked to interview the victims, and of the three he spoke to, only one, in his opinion, was credible. Hmmm.
Now, rape is the most damaging accusation one can make, and has been a staple of the propaganda and reality of war since ancient times, the Sabine women, Lucretia. I heard this from Morazan to Vukovar…”They bayonet pregnant women and rape the rest.” And Iranians are no less intense in their denunciation of each other than the most extreme examples in modern history. I have shot in the Peoples Mujahaddin military base on the Iraqi/Iranian border and have seen the gleam in their eyes, and a young woman immolated herself outside the Iranian embassy in Ottawa.
I read in the IHRDC report, at the time it was published, a few months back, that the organization’s next report will concentrate only on the rape of democracy detainees.
For about the third or fourth time I call the young Iranian American lawyer, the point person for the report. “Oh” she says, ” we decided not to proceed with that”.
Does this now become the story of a smear campaign against Teheran, fuelled by the unchecked hatred of those in exile?
But the second contact the IHRDC people give me, and she is the only one who allows her name to be used, is Soheila Nikpour, of Philadelphia. When I emailed her I learned her moniker was Gigi. She too had been involved in talking to detainees. In Turkey. She had made four trips there. She has her own outfit IRAN; The Iranian Amnesty Network. A Skyper. Over the next month we skype regularly and she agrees to come with me and the crew to the towns near Ankara that have been chosen by the Turkish government to accommodate the 9-thousand Iranian refugees.
Two things about this story: It’s not going to happen because you want it to happen. And, the journalism has to be together before the film can take shape. And in the end all of that may be changed by WHAT YOU FIND OUT WHILE YOU ARE SHOOTING.
(The overwhelming practice in the documentary funding business, without which there can only be documentaries made on a shoestring, is that the funders or commissioners or networks, understandably want to know what’s the story before you have found the story. It’s like they want to know the colour of the horse’s mane before you know whether your experiment is going to produce a horse or a snake.)
So, because this series is underfunded (we have not be able to attract funding beyond the VisionTV and CBC documentary channel license fees which are less than half of the budget) we go shoot in Turkey for five days. I have to get the victims to tell stories of rape in detention by agents of the government, where some religious justification is cited. Various titles come to me watching the 30-year-old woman, trembling with rage; describe the religious language used by her rapists: Rape in the name of God. In the name of God. Morphing from Arabic or Farsi to English. Maybe in the name of Allah. Then the others can be in the Name of Buddha; Yahweh; the Lord.
In all episodes we must have an expert, someone who is credible and vibrant talker who knows the subject of the episode intimately. Mine, surprisingly, became another journalist.
Once again through the internet I had heard of a prominent Iranian writer and human rights activist called Ganji, who had been terribly abused by the Ahmadinejad regime. So I googled him, send an introductory email. Got a reply promptly from an associate of Ghanji who said his man is happy to speak to me, but I would need a Farsi translator. Then he added. “For your story, see the last chapter of Scott Peterson’s book “Let the Swords Encircle Me”. Down to Indigo, flip to last chapter, The Reckoning. Within it, a sub chapter, The Abusers. About 8 pages. My story. THE story. Chapter and verse. Rape, beatings. Many with religious citations. Velayat, fath-al-mobin, Ya Hossein. Basiji exhortations from their martyrdom in the Iran/Iraq war. Google Scott Peterson. His own website. Email. Reply. I live in Istanbul; I will do whatever I can to help you.
The human rights lawyer in Connecticut has called me back to say she can’t do an interview unless it’s in silhouette. Her family, she says. Then she calls and says she can’t do it at all. Strange. From full-on co-operation to total withdrawal in a week. The people she works for don’t think it’s a good idea. From the human rights group that started my search. Their Canadian based founder has totally ignored several emails and phone messages. Strange indeed. If I was the fifth I’d check out their funding.
Nigde. A provincial town in the desiccated hills of southeast Turkey. The sort of place one would dump refugees. Bleak, but modern enough to have a mini-Eatons-type shopping mall right across from our Soviet-style hotel. Gigi, who I have met at the airport coming in from Europe, is a peach. She’s short, bow-legged, short brown-black hair dyed plum. A soccer player. She has the rolling gait of Messi. But she is serious, dead serious about Iran and is a saviour for these refugees who see her as a lifeline, a guardian angel. You need a Gigi to do a story like this. She is that perfect combination of political passion and street smarts that I have always been so lucky to find as guides to these difficult stories.
I’m advised by Turkish contacts not to announce ourselves. “Get in and out” my fixer advises.
So its an in-and-outer. Little bit of pressure. Nice.
As we have such limited time, we have two days to get the story, we head straight to the refugee’s apartment, which is five stories up, five long stairway stories. The apartment immediately screams “in flight”. Stuff is in little piles. It’s forlorn. The five there have been there for months, in limbo, waiting for their miserable traumas to be transformed into refugee status and the beginning of new lives for damaged immigrants in Canada or the US or the UK or some European country, as long as it’s far away from here. Here, given the free flow of Iranian over the border, they are watched by Teheran’s agents, and the Turkish police pester them, they say.
I would be skeptical of this, and I hear the voices of twenty years worth of Canadian editors at the CBC. “Are you sure, Benger? Could they be…exaggerating?” But I went through a similar experience in my youth. After a cat and mouse game of several months, arrested at 18 years old for one of those thinking wrong laws and dumped in a cell in Grahamstown, South Africa with two specialist Security Branch officers interrogating me about my group of 23 anti-apartheid student activists. In situations like that, the much-maligned talent for genial bullshit is worth its weight in freedom. But at some point, Pelser, the nasty one, lost it. He kicked me. Twice. Once in the small of my back. Once in my groin. I eventually was kicked out of the country was in limbo for a couple of years, asea, and abroad. Never cited this experience to get into anywhere. It was a place of such shame and despair. I actually got into Canada as a tourist and stayed and worked illegally before legitimately immigrating via the UK.
But my heart leaps to these kinds of people. Five of them. Three gay males, a straight, grumpy 30-ish journalist and his wife, who has dyed her short hair blonde. One of the gay males had been shot in the stomach. A beautiful and articulate long-maned young man: his story didn’t fit. Neither did the journalist’s, who had only been stripped naked and threatened with penetration. The other two boys and the wife and been arrested and interrogated and abused but not in a sexual nature. So. We had come so far for nothing.
Back at the hotel I told Gigi that their stories were compelling and heart-rending for sure, but, as I had told her repeatedly in North America, we were looking for examples of rape whose rapists had invoked God. “There are two stories at least that I know of, but they are away right now, I just found out.” (Fuck. Faaaaa-rrk. I thought to myself. Finally out of luck.) One guy is in Keyserea, and “Neda” went to her UNHCR hearing in Ankara.
“When is she back?”
Its now Tuesday.
Where is Kayseri.
About an hour and a half away. And this guy was raped?
Tomorrow we go to Kayseri.
In the film you will meet this man. He is somewhere along a darkening road from an illuminated summit to the pit of despond. Three years ago, he had been the flamboyant owner of a bustling Internet cafe and restaurant, which was the hub for students involved in the Green movement. Then he was set up in a sting by Basiji thugs who really gave him the works, inflicting permanent genital damage. With him are two other gay men, in their early forties, one a sculptor, the other an electrical engineer, the kinds of straight-looking gays one works with and meets all the time in Toronto. They have no money. They live in a freezing two-room ground floor walk-up in a hostile conservative Turkish working class neighbourhood. And yet, in the midst of this squalor and the wreckage of his life, Ali Reza, full on-camera, gave a deeply moving performance. And I use performance in the best sense of the word, not as an artifice. Such dignity. He looks like a ragged Depardieu.
On the drive back to Nigde, through the dry hills and darkening roads of rural Turkey, I remember my work-friend and lamented colleague Bill Cameron, who, on days like this, would have characterized yesterday in CFL terms. Turnover, touchdown to the bad guys. And today. Recovered ball, fifteen yards, ways to go. I share with Mike Grippo the cameraman whose son Ryan back in Toronto, is about to quarterback the biggest game of his 14-year-old life. And Mike so often far from the family he adores. A great road dawg, a very fine cameraman.
So now its up to Neda.
Next morning I take my daily morning walk, one hour. The previous morning I’d headed off in the opposite direction past a series of busts what seemed to me Ottoman and Turkish warlords, including a fearsome looking Genghis Khan. Ataturk this ,Ataturk that. Quite a few soldiers around, guarding what from whom I do not know. I had read, in my Economist crash course into Turkey that it has the second biggest military in NATO. I do understand though very quickly and instinctively that there is a lot of subterranean shit at play in Turkey. The body type and roll toughness in the eyes of the men evokes generations of war, and maybe it has had enough time to work itself completely through. I will learn more about the significance of Ataturk later.
For now, like everywhere it’s a new day, never before born, the air eggshell and sky blue. Its 6:30 and I pass by a world waking up. The universality of it. A woman flails a boa-like duster on the wall below her fifth story window. A row of houses with three cars in each driveway, peer Burlington-like over a suburban valley. A man lowers a plastic bag gingerly from his balcony down to… ahaa…the baker…who takes money from the bag and plonks bread inside. Up it goes in the morning air.
My walks are partly to connect with the life I always miss so much now when I am far away. The hourly walks with my dog Wally, and audio books. I am currently listening to my fifth Alkan Furst “Spies of the Balkans” for 45 minutes. The last fifteen minutes of shuffle songs which range from Tim Hardin to Gubaidulina
Back at the hotel I can’t raise Gigi. When I do she says he was at the refugee flat till three in the morning trying to reassure them and settle a rift. The journalist’s wife has told her gay brother that she can’t live with his lover, and he confesses he can’t live with her husband. A huge blow-up, nowhere to go for these kettle pressures.
And no sign of Neda. Gigi takes off to the flat, and calls later to say Neda is there and will come and do a silhouette interview now, as she’s been on the bus from Ankara all night.
She arrives and if I could describe who she looks like I would blow her anonymity. Extraordinary. And the intensity of the interview.
It’s all there on tape now.
As we are about to commence the interview the fixer has a suggestion. At breakfast that morning I had explained that I really had to try and organize that very day in this very town a re-creation to illustrate Alireza’s story from the previous day about being snatched and raped. I told him I needed a Basiji car, a walkie-talkie (Ali recalled the squawking walkie talkies during his abuse), and a room in a ruined farmhouse. I press a bundle of lira in his hand.
Then we did the interview and set-up shots of Neda. Definite touchdown, as Bill would say. Got it. Fixer appears. I’m surprised to see him. When you are into an interview that intense it seems that an hour only takes ten minutes. I think, no re-creation. But instead, Fixer says, I got it.
As I write this in Munich airport, flight delayed by snow, I say that we got it. But a close thing. Really we should have months to put these things together, but those days, especially as an independent who is too old and canny to want to starve for his effing art, are over.
Next day I fly in Scott Peterson from Istanbul for the analyst interview and he is great. It turns out we vaguely recognize each other, from we think, Somalia. 30 times into Iran. A bare-knuckle rock climber. The kind of American that reminds one that the best of the breed are its mavericks. A 6′-plus, inexhaustible justice-seeking missile, right in the jaws of nation that views him as Satan, brave articulate, independent, connected. Delivered in spades. When he left Mike and I did a little Furstian set-up on him like the Iranians who are surveilling him in Turkey. I mention Furst to him, and he says, “You saw the blurb”. “What blurb?” “At the back of the book”. “You’re kidding” . And Furst has blurned his book. Ha!
When he left to fly back to Istanbul we shook hands fiercely, he leant forward and hugged me, then he made a little hand gesture over his heart before he turned and sprang athletically out into the night, the rest of his life and out of mine, leaving the memory of great actors.
So by Friday night we were done, including an interview with a Finnish UNHCR protection officer who was happy to tell us that 23 claimants had been registered as rape victims of the Iranian regime, but would not say that religious rape had occurred in Teheran. Its like saying trains were going to Poland and smoke was rising over the horizon, but who was behind the killings was not within her jurisdiction.
I was able to put Gigi and Mike on an early plane out Sunday for 600 bucks but my ticket was unchangeable for less than 1200 bucks. I loathe the travel industry.
One Sunday I got an urgent email from Gigi, who was in transit in Germany.
“I received a frantic call from our friends in Nigde that this morning around 2:30 the police had entered the house while they were a having a birthday party and rounded up 11 of the guests including Neda and have taken them to the police station… So be alert since neither Mike or I are with you today.”
I left the hotel. Prepared an emergency email on my blackberry to a friend who could help if I was suddenly picked up, and walked. And walked. 5 hours. Back to the hotel and sleep until 3 in the morning when I left for the airport.
The back of the doc is brocken.