What would happen if an Iranian atheist invited four mullahs to come and stay with him for a weekend and discuss the prospect of a secular coexistence? This is the unlikely situation presented in Iranian, the latest documentary from Paris-based Iranian filmmaker, Mehran Tamadon. Fascinating, frustrating, confronting, and occasionally amusing, Tamadon’s film is a powerful insight into the divide between secular ideology and religious fundamentalism.
Tamadon set out on this project several years ago, with the vaguely Big Brother-esque concept of inviting a group of Iranian mullah’s to spend a weekend with him in a house (in Iran). Each mullah would have their own room, but there would be a central living area in which each individual’s beliefs and values would be respected. This was, of course, Tamadon’s attempt to simulate the ideals of secular existence. It took more than three years for Tamadon to find anybody willing to participate, with countless individuals pulling out or refusing his offer due to their rejection of his ideals, or fear of interrogation by the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s a testament to his fortitude (and bravery) that he managed to finally bring the project to fruition.
From the beginning, it’s clear that there will be little movement in anybody’s ideology over the course of the weekend. Once each guest arrives, they all gather in the living area (the mullah’s wives have all come for the weekend as well, although they do not attend any of the discussions), and Tamadon begins to debate the value of secularism with his guests. They are each gifted in the art of rhetoric, and many of Tamadon’s initial statements about the secular state are quickly countered. His contention that secular democracy is in favour of mutual respect, and a culture in which people are free as long as they do not harm each other, is countered with the following example:
- The sight of a woman without a veil will harm many Islamic men, and is an act of disrespect towards these men
- Therefore this secular existence is not free for Iranian men
- Therefore secularism is a disguised form of dictatorship for those who do not succumb to these ideals
This is just one of countless examples of discussions that occur during the course of the weekend, illustrative of a huge divide between the director and his guests. But strangely enough this is one of many subjects that they are able to discuss amicably within the confines of this filmic microcosm. And this seems to be the point. As these men enjoy meals, spend time together, and discuss their competing value systems, there is a glaringly obvious distinction between the compatibility of these human beings and the compatibility of their values. The ideologies clash, but it seems that the people don’t, at least not for the moment.
But of course, life is not so simple, and the shadow of the discussions’ huge ethical implications is always present, especially emphasised by the lack of a female voice within the film (except for a moment in which, upon his guests’ departure, the rebellious Tamadon plays a song with a female vocalist).
In the postscript we learn that Tamadon’s passport was confiscated for two months after filming. Eventually, he was able to return to Paris, but it was made clear that it would be confiscated indefinitely, were he to return to Iran.
A capsule review from the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival.