This interview was written in December 2022. At the end of this article is an update from February 2023.
P: Thank you so much Hamed for your time to make this interview. Let’s start with you introducing yourself and your professional background.
H: Thank you so much for having me in this interview. I would like to start with the city where I was born. I was born in Mashhad in 1987. Mashhad is the second biggest city in eastern Iran which attracts many religious pilgrims. I grew up in a traditional family with four siblings. My father who used to watch movies a lot, especially American and arthouse films, took me to the cinema to watch an arthouse film called THE COW when I was 12 years old. At that time, I didn’t fully understand the movie I watched because it was very philosophical but a few years later I realized how this movie influenced my subconsciousness and my perception of cinema.
Eventually, I started to take some courses about filmmaking in Mashhad. I went to the University College of Nabi Akram (UCNA) in Tabriz in the western part of Iran. There I did my bachelor’s degree in Stage Directing. Later at Soore University in Tehran, I did my Masters in the field of Dramatic Literature. After that, I went to the Nazar Research Center (NRC) to do my Ph.D. in the field of Art Research and Film Studies. During these years I made some short films and performances. I was a film critic for many film festivals in Iran and the head of the international department of the International Film Festival for children and youth which is located in Isfahan. I wrote many articles in Farsi and in English about cinema, philosophy, media, culture, and gender. I got invited to become a member of the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) and throughout the years I was a jury member for more than twenty international film festivals such as in Cannes, Berlin, Göteborg, Istanbul and Oberhausen. In the Golden Globes Awards 2023, I am the first Iranian who can vote for the motion pictures section.
P: Please tell us about your migration from Iran to Berlin.
On November 15th 2021 I left Iran to live in Berlin. I felt like I couldn’t stay in Iran as I couldn’t find the common words to communicate with the extremist government. I was giving lectures at different universities in Iran and used to get into trouble with the authorities. The security who worked in the university or even the head of the university would question my way of teaching and the subjects I chose. During my classes, I would discuss films about LGBTQ and women’s rights or environmental issues and opposition to nuclear developments and stuff like that. This led to me not being invited to come back for the next semester. They did not publicly reveal why they wouldn’t invite me anymore but behind the scenes, I was very aware of their reasons. This is why I tried to move.
I really love Iran. I like my hometown, all Iranian people of different ethnicities, religions, and colours. I really miss them. But there was no other choice when you don’t see any further path in your professional career. I made a proposal in the field of film and philosophy and I shared it with the Scholars at Risk Network (SAR) in New York. After checking my documents, they asked me where I would like to go and I said I would like to go to Berlin as I really like the city and I have been here many times for the Berlinale. They introduced me to several universities and foundations here and finally, The Einstein Foundation Berlin accepted and funded my project and now I am working as a researcher in the field of film and philosophy at Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Kathrin Peters.
P: Thanks for this precise overview. I will come back to movies and the role of arts later. First, I want to open up the topic we will focus on today in this interview which is the current situation in Iran. We all know what happened in the middle of September when Mahsa (Jina) Amini was killed by the so-called morality police and that since then there have been ongoing outrages and protests all over the country. I would like to ask you to give us some background information about how the Islamic Regime functions and how it has established and justified its power over the last decades.
H: We faced the Islamic Revolution in 1978. It is important to know the root causes of what was going on. We had some kind of hierarchy, a royal system, and a kingship for 2500 years in Iran. Mohammad Reza Shah, the last king of Iran, was leading a one-party country. He tried to shut down diverse voices but not in such a brutal way as it is being done now. The big mistake of Mohammad Reza Shah was that he didn’t pay any attention to the voice of the farmers and villagers who lived under difficult and poor conditions. That is why the Islamic revolution was supported by many people of the lower cast of society. The father of Mohammad Reza Shah, Reza Shah, did several things to modernize the country. He brought the railway and built many buildings. He created modern organizations. But also, on 8th January 1936, he bans the wearing of a hijab. He didn’t pay any attention to the religious side of the society. Muslim people of Iran felt discriminated by that and they started criticizing the dictatorship of the king.
The king did many good things for Iran and I really appreciate that, but he made a big mistake by not giving freedom of choice to women whether or not they want to wear the hijab. Already 40 years before the Islamic Revolution, like around 1940, some mullahs started to create an opposition to the regime of the Shah. They used the mistake of the Shah which had led to a minority complex amongst Muslims and they convinced the population that they would lose their religious identity. At some point, after many waves of protest movements in the streets, the Shah Mohamad Reza fell and Ayatollah Khomeini took over, founding the Islamic Republic. Their rule became stricter, and after 2 or 3 years they implemented the mandatory hijab for women and enforced harsher gender segregation. It became more and more impossible to speak out against the leader. General freedoms were cut off and reformists’ slogans became nothing but a theatre show. Four years ago, when people were going to the streets to protest the inflation of gas prices in Iran, many of them were really disappointed and they understood that it is not about reforming the system anymore but about getting rid of the whole regime, as all parties involved were simply acting like puppets and not giving any real alternatives. Today we are still facing the same kind of frustrations.
P: It seems like everything is reaching a peak these days. People have been suppressed for so long that the atmosphere is very explosive. Now the protest movements are being called a revolution that is led by the women of the country. Can you tell us more about the important role of those women?
H: First of all, I want to express my admiration for these brave women who are leading this protest. Until today for four decades, the regime has been strongly violating women’s rights, even their very basic rights. The fight now is not against the hijab per se but against the mandatory hijab. This is important to recognize as some supporters of the regime try to present an image in the Iranian mainstream media that the protestors are against Islam. That’s why Muslim countries didn’t say anything about the protests. The way it is presented is a big lie. So, now the protests are led by women, united, especially by the younger generations like university students and school students. Now just taking off your hijab is a big act of protest. You don’t need to do anything more.
P: How have the intensity and the topics of the protests developed in the last three months? It started with the outrage about Mahsa’s death but now it has become so much more.
H: It became a very inclusive protest. We have our revolutionary song called “Baraye” by Shervin Hajipour, which means “Because of”. In his song he underlines what people find important to be fighting for and what to stand up for. The song which is made up of peoples’ tweets gives a good overview their demands, longings, and wishes. Their feelings, rights, and needs have been suppressed and oppressed for so long that the general discontent has many reasons. It has to do with the violation of human rights, economic issues, a big gap between social groups inside Iran, bad relationships with other countries and the world, and so on. Now when I follow the news, every day I hear about cities and places in Iran joining in the protest which I haven’t even known before. Even in small towns, people come to the street and chant against the regime. The common chant which is uniting everybody is “Women, Life, Freedom”. It doesn’t matter anymore what the reason for your disappointment and frustration is. The Islamic regime and its rules have become the common enemy of all.
P: Where do you see the protest going in the next weeks or even months? What do you think can be achieved?
H: This time many people have lots of hope because these protests are different from previous ones; if I compare them with the Green Revolution in Iran for example, around 12 years ago after the presidential election with Mousavi. He was a candidate of the reformists yet still under the umbrella of the Islamic Regime. So now people are very clear that they are against the whole regime and their target is its fall. The essence of this revolution is different. The women’s role in this is very powerful. Many men come to the street to support the women’s will. Likewise, the women support the men as everybody is fighting in the streets side by side.
P: The separation of women and men is not possible anymore.
H: Exactly. That is an important point and a really brilliant facet of the protests this time. So, I think in the upcoming weeks or months, not too far, not too close we will face the result of this revolution which is the fall of the regime.
P: Do you already see a possible alternative to the regime?
I could not name a person to take over as the main opposition to the Islamic Regime at this point but there are many people standing up as Iranians’ voice and creating lobbies with high-ranked politicians outside of Iran, like the son of the Shah for example, even though he mentioned that he doesn’t want to be in power anymore. I hope he is right! Other important voices for example are Ali Karimi, an Iranian soccer player, Masih Alinajad, a journalist and women’s rights activist, Nazanin Boniadi, an actress and activist, Golshifte Farahani, a famous actress, and Hamed Esmaeilion. Esmaeilion is an author and social activist, who got very involved in fighting the regime after his wife and daughter died in a plane (PS752) that was shot by the regime while flying from Tehran to Ukraine in January 2020, which led to the death of 176 innocent people. So, there are a few people but I couldn’t name just one leader and maybe it is good like that because if you introduce a leader many people would not identify with them. Again, having a multitude of voices in the public space from different parts of life speaking out against the regime is a strong mirror for society—being united against one enemy. I am sure something good is about to happen. I am very hopeful.
P: So, what exactly is the role of the Iranian diaspora?
H: There is a huge community here and Iranians living abroad from different fields such as students, artists, scientists, and doctors are stepping up to be the voice of Iranians who live inside the country. For example, students are doing performances or are publishing statements against the regime on university websites. Artists are using their spaces like their galleries to exhibit video art, lectures, talks to educate and bring more and more attention to what is happening in Iran right now. All of this is very important. Just think about the huge protests in Berlin in October. Esmaeilion organized the biggest protest against the Islamic Regime in history outside the country and Iranians from all over Europe came to Berlin to be part of it. We were around 100,000 people and that sends a strong message to the outside world. After that, European countries understood they need to act on it as well. It became obvious that the Iranian people do not want this regime.
P: How do you understand art in the context of a revolution? What power does it have to deliver messages or even to fall a regime?
H: The kind of art we are facing in such a revolutionary situation can be called protest art. What is special about it is that you don’t have to be an artist to create. You can be an activist. You can be an ordinary person. Art becomes a very powerful medium to spread messages amongst people. I saw many amazing artworks circulating on social media. People get creative by making short animations and designing posters using symbols such as the hair of the women or hands drowned in blood. Later these images function as a reminder of the motifs of the protests.
P: Which feelings are present for you when you see the images and the filmic material coming out of the country with all the brutality? How do you deal with it?
H: As a person living outside of Iran of course I get very emotional when I see what is going on in my country and how people are being treated. Sometimes I feel like I can’t take it anymore to receive these videos with this kind of brutality and cruelty against the people. It makes me very sad and depressed. I receive many texts from my former students in Iran who say: “Please be our voice!” or from my friends who ask me to share certain material with the media. I try my best to support them but it is very difficult because we all have family and friends in Iran. Sometimes I have to ask myself if there ever will be an opportunity to see them again. Nowadays, if somebody leaves Iran, they cannot know if they will be able to ever come back, especially if they are protesting outside of Iran against the regime. Besides that, I see the huge level of bravery among my people which I didn’t know existed in such an extent. That’s why there is hope and equally sadness. If I want to make a triangle, I would say that hope is on the right side, sadness is on the left side, and on the top of this triangle I see the victory.
P: While you were living in Iran what were your means but also limitations to express as an artist?
H: The big problem in Iran is censorship. I faced many problems when I wanted to do some performances or theatre pieces. There is some kind of organization in Iran to which you have to show your creations before you can show them publicly. They either have to confirm what you want to do or they will give you a long list with parts of what you have to change. When you make a short film, for example, they could ask you to remove one minute from that film. So, it really blocks the creative process and it is like a cultural dictatorship. Now being outside of Iran I feel more freedom of speech. I feel safe in Germany to express myself. There is a big diversity of people with different nationalities I can surround myself with. I can speak with them about my desires, feelings, goals, and all kinds of topics. I can give them a different image of Iran also, different from what they might be used to from the media and the politics. I try to be a good representative of my people and I wish for the many layers of the rich Iranian culture to be seen. Cinema, for example, has the capacity to show all of these different facets and I am in favour of lectures, discussions, and dialogs happening where real images of Iran can be transferred.
P: What are your wishes for Iran and also for yourself personally?
H: I wish for the people to finally feel freedom after lots of suffering, humiliation and violation of basic rights. This time the light of hope feels very close to us. I hope to be in Teheran with all of my friends, my family and even my foreign friends chanting: “Iran is free!” It is like a dream but many times dreams come true. You just have to believe and follow your duty and task.
P: Where do you see responsibilities and possibilities of action for non-Iranians or for politicians outside of Iran?
H: Good question. Actually, it took time to initiate some actions because outsiders were first observing what is happening in Iran. Finally, the world starts to understand that the Iranian people are serious about wanting to get rid of the regime. Now slowly other countries including Germany began to take some action because people started to put pressure on them also. I think foreign governments shouldn’t make any deals with the regime anymore like selling weapons or army equipment to them. Although I believe that the Iranian people will determine their own freedom, foreign countries should take decisive action against this unprecedented violence of the Iranian regime.
P: Thank you Hamed for all your insights.
H: Thank you.
Update from the Author, 17.02.23:
Five months after the beginning of the present revolution a strong opposition in the Iranian diaspora, including prominent figures from the fields of culture, human rights and sports, has formed, which aims not only to amplify the voices on the ground in Iran, but also takes concrete political steps in order to fall the Islamic Republic. Meetings with heads of other countries are being initiated to raise awareness and receive support. For example, in February 2023 Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani talked to Olaf Scholz in the context of the Berlinale Film Festival. Before, Masih Alinejad, an activist and journalist living in the US, was talking to Emanuel Macron and other politicians. Inside Iran, prisoners drafted a statement under the lead of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been on house arrest since the Green Revolution took place. This proposal speaks out against the regime and demands new elections. Protests are still happening throughout the entire country, although in changing intensities due to the suppression coming from the government. At the end of last year, the biggest national strike in history took place in Iran.
Interview by Pauline Zimnoch. Pauline Zimnoch works as a somatic practitioner and massage therapist. Currently she is doing her Masters in Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin with focus on dance, (physical) mobilities and collective processes of transformation and healing. Some of her previous research included female dance practices and arts censorship in Iran. After having visited Iran in August 2022 she kept following the current developments inside the country. Berlin Centre for Advanced Studies in Arts and Sciences