Peace in the Middle East is a good idea, no doubt. If the events of recent days have shown just how volatile relations in the region are, they've also demonstrated the reasons for anyone with something to contribute to the cause of transcultural understanding to get involved. But if you're Michael Almereyda, the director of Hamlet and other films, and you're asked to become the first American filmmaker to show his work in Iran since that country's revolution 21 years ago, what do you think? Is it, "Here's my chance to contribute to international harmony?" Or, "What if I get grabbed on the street and hauled off to an Iranian jail suspected of spying?"
Considering what happened, I should probably ask Almereyda what he was thinking when he agreed to go to Iran in September. The invitation came from me. Call it a stab at movie diplomacy. Since 1997 I've been contributing occasional time and effort to an amazing outfit called Search for Common Ground. A nongovermental organization based in Washington, D.C., Search takes a creative approach to global fence-mending. At stress points like Rwanda, Bosnia and Gaza, it tries to ease tensions and build bridges by using things like arts, sports, science--anything it can think of, really.
Between Iran and the United States, which haven't had official relations in two decades, cinema's an obvious means to stimulate a little cross-cultural conversation. In the last three years, Search has sponsored a number of film-related projects, including hosting gatherings of U.S. and Iranian filmmakers at the Cannes Film Festival and bringing a number of Iranian filmmakers and critics to the United States. More recently, it seemed like the time was right for some traffic in the other direction. Search's Iranian partner in these initiatives, Khaneh Cinema, which is roughly Iran's equivalent of the motion picture academy, sounded eager to host an American filmmaker.
Michael Almereyda, I learned, was available and willing, and his Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, Bill Murray, et al, seemed an ideal film to show. Not only is it missing the sex, skin and ultra-violence that are verboten in official Tehran, but the Shakespeare play was said to be universally familiar to Iranians. More particularly, I figured Iranian filmmakers would be fascinated to learn how Almereyda converted a small budget into such a sleek and imaginative production, shot on location in New York City.
As it turned out, however, all these sterling attributes were as nothing compared to what really counted: the filmmaker's personal aplomb and highly developed sense of the absurd.
The absurdity began almost at once. I'd told Search I thought Almereyda should arrive in Tehran with another American--like, say, me--since I knew from experience that a foreigner's first encounter with Mehrabad Airport could be a bit, well, freaky. But travel complications meant that Search's project coordinator, Stacy Heen, and I arrived separately the night before our celebrated guest. The next evening we went to the airport with various Khaneh Cinema handlers. Because most planes landing in Tehran arrive in the same block of time late at night, Mehrabad was, as usual, bedlam.
After we pushed through the crowds of waiting families and past the guards with machine guns, Parto Motahdi, our translator and Khaneh facilitator (and my friend from a previous trip), got special passes that allowed the two of us to go past the customs area to the edge of the hall where passengers enter after deplaning. I was sure Almereyda would be happy to glimpse his welcoming committee before having to face the grim-faced immigration guys beneath the giant portraits of Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei. But there only ayatollahs in the hall; there was no Almereyda.
Parto and I watched every passenger go through immigration, and scanned them again as they picked up their luggage. We asked the flight crew, Did you see an American in business class? No, they said, no such person on the flight. We dashed outside and had the airport officials call Lufthansa, which said no, his name was not on the passenger manifest from Frankfurt. This was freaky. I grabbed one of the Iranians' cell phones and called Almereyda's apartment in the East Village, leaving a message that said, no doubt semi-coherently, "We're in Tehran, dude--where are you?"
Stacy and I returned to the hotel and stood in the lobby (would that there had been a bar!) looking at each other, trying to puzzle out the next step. Ten minutes later, Michael Almereyda walked in, cool as a rock star despite a slight air of puzzlement. Slender, dark-haired and only mildly jet-lagged, Almereyda said he'd found his way from the plane (he'd been on the Lufthansa flight, of course) to the airport's VIP entrance, where he was inexplicably charged $50 and finally released into the parking lot. A friendly cabbie named Reza brought him to the hotel and refused a tip for his help.
None of this made any sense to me, but I was too relieved to think about it for long. We all immediately turned in. I was exhausted, and probably thinking something like: Every trip has one big snag; at least ours is behind us now.
"Godfrey, this is Michael. I'm in the lobby. A policeman is with me. He picked me up and is going to take me to the station for questioning." What? I told him to wait, I'd be right down.
This was the next morning, about 10:15. Forty-five minutes earlier, I'd had breakfast with Almereyda in the hotel coffee shop. We laughed and shook our heads about the night before. As we finished eating, he said he'd like to go outside and look around. I thought for about half a second about whether I should go with him. But I figured no. I'm a big advocate of exploring on one's own. Plus, I know this area. It used to be my neighborhood.
Three years ago I came to Tehran, rented an apartment and stayed most of the summer. Tehranis see very few Americans, but if my nationality usually surprised them, the news that I was renting an apartment often left them convulsed with laughter. It was rare enough, I suppose, to be considered bizarre. (I was told I was "brave," which I took as a tactful euphemism for "crazy.") But I never had the slightest trouble. And I developed a real fondness for my corner of the city, a cul-de-sac off Vali Asr Street, below Vanak Square.
So I told Almereyda after breakfast, "Sure, go ahead. Just turn right, out of the hotel. You'll walk down to a big square, which is a good area to explore."
When he called from the lobby, I couldn't imagine what had happened. I immediately tried to phone a couple of our Khaneh handlers, then a couple of Iranian friends. Busy, every one. (The Tehran phone system seems to have grown even worse since the invasion of cell phones.) So I hurried downstairs.
Almereyda was in the manager's office with the manager and a plainclothes policeman. The term really fit this guy. His clothes were plain, he was plain, his expression was never anything other than plain. As I recall now, I asked if a trip to the police station was really necessary. With the manager translating, the policeman said it was. I asked if I could accompany Mr. Almereyda. The cop nodded. Then he added it would only take 10 minutes. When he said that, I thought we might really be in for some trouble. Nothing in Iran takes 10 minutes--nothing you'd want to have happen to you, anyway.
The police station was small, plain and unadorned with any kind of fancy technology. Pretty unimpressive, really. I couldn't imagine why the Iranians would want citizens of the great nation of Kojak to see this dump. Nevertheless, they parked Almereyda and myself in a back room where four or five plainclothes cops proceeded to scrutinize us and talk among themselves. I assumed we were waiting for a translator for the interrogation. Talking, in low, nonchalant tones, with Almereyda--and with other people later--I gradually pieced together the circumstances that brought us there.
Almereyda had done as I suggested. Walked down to the square, looked around, then sat down on a pile of rubble and took out a notebook and began to make some notes. What neither of us realized was that my old neighborhood had changed since I lived there--at least in the matter of being bomb-prone. A few days before, the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a group based in Iraq and at war with the Islamic Republic, shot some mortars into the area, aiming for the police headquarters but missing. My guess is that Almereyda sat down on one of the resulting piles of bricks and the plainclothesmen figured he was a Mujahedin spy, no doubt scribbling something like, "Boy, we blew the hell out of this shack! Flat as a pancake!"
None of the cops spoke English but as we sat there and eyed each other, they became convinced that Almereyda spoke Farsi, or at least understood theirs. I think this was because Michael sometimes wears a look that's no more than wry curiosity but can seem like knowing bemusement. So the cops thought he maybe not only understood them, but maybe was laughing at them too. This didn't help. They started passing around a pistol, some kind of healthy-sized automatic. I think they were just bored, but at this point I started, first, trying to explain that Almereyda was in fact a famous film director, and, second, giving the cops phone numbers of our supposed handlers and asking that they be called. None of this, however, provoked the slightest change in the staring game.
If this were a movie we would now cut back to the hotel, where my friend Roxane stands in the lobby looking mystified. A Columbia grad student who's been in Iran for five months on a Fulbright doing anthropological field work, Roxane's a big fan of Almereyda's Downtown vampire movie Nadja, and eagerly accepted my invitation to have lunch. When we don't show up, she starts getting nosy. Eventually one of the hotel workers goes, "Pssst!" and lets her in on our whereabouts. She heads for a payphone.
Back at Fort Apache north central Tehran, Almereyda and I are approaching the end of our second hour of interrogation-by-dull-stare when the doors burst open and in charges a squadron of Iranian movie producers, all talking at once--talking to each other, to the cops, to their cell phones. But mainly their cell phones. I swear a couple of them are doing deals as they are nominally springing us from the pokey. At their center is producer and Khaneh officer Fereshte Taerpour. Though Taerpour's a woman, I would nominate her to star in any Iranian remake of Patton. She has two cell phones and is always on both of them, even as she deals with the cops.
I was later told that the calls regarding our case reached the ministerial level. Whatever, it still took a couple of hours to spring us, and Almereyda had to sign a statement about what he was doing when he was apprehended (writing in dear diary, not spying for the Mujahedin). I have no idea if the cops were ever told the main reason the Khaneh producers were hustling to get us out of there--they, and we, were expected at the Iranian Oscars.
The showing of Almereyda's Hamlet four nights later was a teeth-grinding disappointment to me. Admittedly, I was hoping for big things: a large hall filled with most of Khaneh Cinema's considerable membership, plenty of hoopla and press coverage, the works. Instead, our overworked Khaneh hosts delivered a screening so "select" it was virtually a state secret. But I knew the main reason why.
This is, alas, not a good moment for anyone in Iran to make a big show of embracing Americans. On an individual level, Iranians are as fond of American people as they are crazy about Hollywood movies (which they see via satellite television and bootleg videos). Collectively, they favor opening up to the world, as they proved in spades by electing the urbane reformer Mohammad Khatami their president in 1997, and by voting overwhelmingly for reformist candidates in last spring's elections to the Majlis, Iran's parliament. But there's a big downside to the progressive surge: It makes the conservatives feel threatened, and avid to fight back. When President Khatami attempts to open up to the world by launching a "dialogue of civilizations"--involving, say, exchanges of filmmakers--such cultural initiatives suddenly become an immediate and very visible target.
The result is that movie diplomacy, like other sorts, finds itself hit with as many annoying roadblocks and slowdowns as Tehran's horrifically overloaded freeways. Since I'm very impatient by nature, I can only admire the equanimity displayed by my friends at Search for Common Ground. Like Iran's reformers in recent months, they seem inclined toward the long view, realizing that change takes time and faces endless obstacles. But maybe they're also encouraged by the bright side; in this case, there's at least one convert.
Michael Almereyda seems taken with Iran. He never says, "What the hell did you get me into?" (Or even, "This feels like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Get Sent to Iran.") In fact, the rest of his trip turns out pretty well. Besides attending the Iranian Oscars, he gets feted at the Swiss Embassy, explores Tehran's labyrinthine bazaar, and flies off for a day in the stunning city of Isfahan. He even seems pleased with the small but responsive crowd at Hamlet, which includes the directors Tahmineh Milani and Dariush Mehrjui.
In any event, he never loses his rock-star cool. Not long after the episode in the police station, we're going somewhere in Tehran and I notice him pull out his digital video camera and start shooting. My first reaction is, "Uh oh." But then I think: "What can they do to him--haul him off to jail and accuse him of being a spy?"
Next week: Piety and protest at the Iranian Oscars; Majid Majidi's complaint; Abbas Kiarostami says goodbye film, hello digital; the Makhmalbaf clan imitates Andy Warhol's Factory.