An artist, filmmaker and architect living in Paris, Mehran Tamadon is one of the "secular" Iranians that became seriously disenchanted with the progressively more restrictive fundamentalist roads the Islamic Republic took after the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power. Iranien is the result of a long-gestating desire of Mr. Tamadon's: an attempt at proving the possibility of cohabitation and peaceful coexistence between "secular" and "religious" Iranians, long discouraged by the authorities in charge.
The director's previous film, 2009's Bassidji, was an investigation into that possibility, an attempt to understand what goes in in the mind of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and religious conservatives, and placed the seed of what would become Iranien in Mr. Tamadon's mind. After a three-year old series of negotiations, the director finally got the green light to set up a weekend of cohabitation between these different conceptions of the Islamic Republic: himself, as a representative of the secular, urbanised Iranians who push for a greater engagement with contemporary culture and the outside world, and four mullahs, religious consultants from different schools and degrees of conservatism.
The final result is a peculiarly gripping and often bewilderingly thought-provoking documentary, the portrait of a dialogue at once viable and impossible between countrymen who have as much in common as they have little in common. Mr. Tamadon's film suggests the existence of a true pleasure of debate, discussion, conviviality, conversation regardless of belief, while recognising that the debate has become completely, maybe irreversibly poisoned by the polarised political dichotomy, us-vs.-them, that has taken hold in Iran especially under hardliner former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (the film was shot in 2012, before the election of president Hassan Rouhani, but only premiered afterwards). Still, the director's attempt at initiating a dialogue is clearly sabotaged from the very beginning as Mr. Tamadon turns out to be woefully naïve and unprepared for the awesome rhetorical powers of these master theologians, experts in shaping words and philosophies, running circles around him without him even noticing he is a lamb being led to slaughter.
That the director has no qualms about showing himself in this less than flattering light is a sign of his understanding of the stakes - and that, after all the friendliness and collegiality that the weekend shows, Iranien ends with the understanding that Mr. Tamadon's project may have been doomed from the start, a mere reinforcement of the prejudices and suspicions on either side, is a sobering realisation of the limits of good will and tolerance. And yet, the mere existence of this documentary, and the disarming frankness with which Mr. Tamadon depicts an ongoing conversation that reveals an often unseen side of Iranian society, is also living proof of the curiosity, openness and friendliness of a culture too often reduced to those exact same prejudices and soundbites. Either way, Iranien is a revelatory work.
France, Switzerland, Iran 2013
Director Mehran Tamadon; cinematographer Mohammed Reza Jahanpanah (colour); editors Mr. Tamadon, Marie-Hélène Dozo, Luc Forveille and Olivier Zurchuat; producers Raphaël Pillosio and Elena Tatti; production companies L'Atelier Documentaire, Box Productions and Mehran Tamadon Productions
Screened February 8th 2014, Cinemaxx 6, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 Forum press screening)