Farbod Ardebili’s new short film Forbidden to See Us Scream in Tehran asks a simple yet powerful question: what are you willing to do for freedom?
Shima (Mohadeseh Kharaman), a young Iranian woman who fronts an underground metal band in Tehran, gives us her answer. Shima’s position in the band, combined with its genre of music, is an affront to the country’s strict religious laws, forcing the band to be constantly vigilant for potential police raids. They practice in a sound-proofed basement, ready for the raid that could send them all to prison for blasphemy. One day, Shima’s fellow bandmate Farzad (Babak Kamangir) floats an idea to Shima: What if they held a large underground concert, then called the cops on themselves so they could get arrested and become an international news story, allowing them to seek asylum abroad more easily?
At first, Shima is horrified by this idea. Not only does she doubt the plan’s efficacy, but it would also intentionally endanger their friends and fans for the chance of her personal freedom. But after a random man accosts Shima’s deaf sister, Sherin (Sarina Amiri), in the street for showing too much hair, she decides to go through with the plan. When Shima explains her plan to Sherin, the two argue, as Sherin feels abandoned by her older sister. Shima tries to explain that this plan will help them both, but Sherin retorts that this plan is just about her freedom, not their freedom. As the tension heightens, Shima angrily signs that she has to leave because she has no voice here, something that obviously appears hollow to her deaf sister.
Although this film is fictional, it’s based loosely on true events in the writer-director’s life, and the dilemma it presents hinges on one that is too familiar to those of us engaged in refugee rights advocacy. The West largely does not allow individuals to be granted asylum unless they can prove they are fleeing political persecution. The U.S. government has repeatedly denied asylum to Central American refugees, arguing that “merely” fleeing your home due to gang violence or domestic violence is not considered to be political. This stance, of course, ignores that much of the violence in Central America today can be traced back directly to political decisions made by the U.S. government. And it can be hard to prove you are being directly persecuted by your government until, in fact, the persecution becomes up close and personal. By then, it may be too late.
As someone passionate about police and prison abolition, I was fascinated by the central moral paradox Ardebili presents, a paradox unresolved in the film as in life.
The film shows clearly why borders and the carceral state are violent and oppressive institutions. Yet finding individual freedom in this brutal system requires becoming a victim of the carceral state. Individual actions can never lead to collective liberation in a global imperial capitalist world system. Maybe Shima can get out of the country. But what about everyone else like her in Iran? What about the concert attendees? Will they get asylum? Even if they do, what about the next group of people who want to sing along to death metal in Iran? The violence won’t stop with one person’s escape.
It’s particularly complicated to speak on these issues from within the United States, the current world hegemon. The U.S. government has been interfering with Iranian politics for decades. It was the United States, with enthusiastic support from the United Kingdom, that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected secular left-wing prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 because he challenged the two countries’ economic and political interests. We installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and supported his autocratic regime for decades. This built up a strong resentment toward the West that led directly to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought the current theocratic government into power. The Reagan administration violated an arms embargo to sell weapons to the Iranian government to use in its war against Iraq, in order to fund the anticommunist Contras in Nicaragua, all while publicly supporting Saddam Hussein’s illegal invasion of Iran.
Neoconservatives and neoliberals have lobbied incessantly to build popular support for a military invasion of Iran to install a pro-U.S. government that would supply us with cheap oil. The United States has instituted brutal economic sanctions that have deprived Iranians of critical medicines and goods, strengthening anti-U.S. sentiment in the country. Meanwhile, because the United States is labelled as the cesspool of such “evils” as secularism, feminism, and democracy, the theocratic regime’s oppressive policies get recast as a form of anti-imperialist resistance.
Ultimately, freedom for all Iranians will come when they are able to create their own radical and progressive society. As socialists in the imperial core, it is our dual responsibility to advocate for asylum for all those fleeing violence and oppression in their homelands and to create the conditions for global proletarian emancipatory struggle at home.
Only then will all of us have the azadi (freedom) to scream to our hearts content.
Forbidden To See Us Scream In Tehran will be screening at the Oscar qualifying Show Me Shorts Film Festival from Oct 1st – Oct 21st and will be online on Omeleto in November.