In the land of radical Islam
Film about Jewish community in Iran reveals what life is like for Jews in an Islamist country and under Ahmadinejad's rule. Movie's director tells Ynet about process of producing film while adhering to government restrictions, and of what he learned about the Jewish minority in his country
What is life like for the Jews living in Iran today? What kinds of social issues concern them and how do they preserve their religious customs in the Islamic state?
Thousands of miles from Israel, a small Jewish community lives in Iran, under the rule of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who constantly threatens to "wipe Israel off the map."
Iranian director Ramin Farahani has been given a permit from the regime to document the life of the Jewish community in the country, and his film, "Jews of Iran" will be screened Tuesday at the Avi Chai institute in Jerusalem.
Ahead of the screening, Farahani agreed to grant an exclusive interview to Ynet, a site which he said Iranian government and media officials read on a regular basis. Farahni is currently staying in Holland, and is scheduled to return to his homeland soon.
How did you come up with the idea to make a film about Iranian Jews?
After living in the Netherlands as a member of a minority group, my interest in minorities grew. So I came up with the idea to make three documentaries about official religious minorities in Iran, including Jews (which then became the first and the last project, so far).
I think also that the media need to give a voice to those who don't have a voice. Iranian Jews may have their supporters, but nobody had made a documentary about them before.
Have you ever had any previous connection with Jewish-Iranians?
Not really. The Jewish community in Iran is very small (less than 25,000 now) and the chance that you create ties with them is also very small.
Moreover, many of the Jews in Iran prefer to keep their religious identity to themselves. They look and talk like other Iranians, even their names are mostly Persian. You might get in touch with them without knowing they are Jewish. So my first real contacts were during research for the film.
What are your thoughts about this new culture you met? Did it seem strange? What did you like about it?
To understand a subculture you need more time than a couple of weeks or months with your camera from a distance. But what I can say is that I saw a variety of people, traditional and friendly like Jews in Shiraz, modern but not always tolerant toward the camera, for instance in Tehran. It was sometimes a confusing mixture for me.
Iranian Jews reflect many of the positive and negative mental attitudes that the majority of Iranians posses, but in an exaggerated way. For example I learned that the materialistic lifestyle, which is growing among most of the Iranians, is even worse among many Jews. Or the Jewish students seemed to study harder than average, which is positive.
Jews in Iran seem to be well connected to each other, but for many, it may lead to a kind of isolation from the main body of society. The central role that synagogues play in bringing them together, has made the role of religion bigger than it was before.
What do you think about the way Iran treats its Jewish citizens?
It is very complicated to say, because it has both positive and negative sides.
We all need to see Iranian Jews as fellow Iranians, with all the rights and obligations other people have. The Iranian constitution says the same thing and many people believe in this.
But in the legal system there are still some differences between non-Muslims and Muslims. I think the whole issue needs to be revised by those who have the knowledge and power.
I also regret the fact that many governmental jobs are actually not accessible to Jews or other minorities. This goes against our constitution. The governmental system in Iran is bigger than the private sector, and their refusal has a big negative impact on the life of educated young Jews.
Another problem is ignorance, which can turn into prejudice. We need to inform our people about all minorities across the country, including Jews. We need to offer them a stage to present themselves to the country they belong to. And we need independent NGOs or institutions capable of interacting with the judicial system against any kind of discrimination.
How do you see the future of this community?
The big loss for the Jewish community in Iran is emigration of leading figures to other countries. They were intellectuals, educated people with a view, businessmen with influence or even young talents who could contribute a lot to the future of their community and their country, but they are now absent.
The trend of leaving the country, especially among young Jews, is still weakening this community. I think we might reach a stage that the number of Jewish population in Shiraz will become higher than in Tehran, because Shirazi Jews are more active in making kids and Tehranis seem to be more prone to emigration.
How come the government let you shoot this film? What restrictions did they impose?
If you agree to be placed under their control, they allow you to film. The control could take the shape of permits you need for filming, an agent that accompanies, or simply the fact that every person is responsible for what he/she says.
I tried to convince the media officials that my film will focus mainly on social issues, and so it was. The Jews themselves wanted it also this way.
Do you think Israel and Iran could ever resolve their differences?
If Israel recognizes the right of the Palestinians to have a free autonomous state, and stops threatening Iran about its nuclear program, then even radical figures in Iran will have no reason anymore to justify their anti-Israeli policy.
The problem is that this entire conflict has become a part of a bigger economic fight. Ordinary Jews and Muslims who used to live together for centuries, are now suffering, because a very small minority in power wants to make gains by accelerating the tension in our region. We need to be aware of them and help our moderate leaders to take the power and pave the way for a solution.
What do you think could bring peace?
Concentrating on universal human values and common sense instead of dogmas that divide people.
Believing that every one needs peace and wealth, and not just a special group or nation deserve it. If your peace means my insecurity, that is no peace any more.
And finally we need to be active and organized against those who disturb our chances for mutual peace, even more active than they are, otherwise we cannot stop them.