A Well for Uganda
A project that promises to help people and push me to my limits. A reality between moments of lethargy and the pressure to perform. Steven Hille travels to Africa to build a well.
I’m sitting with my friend Ali in a skate park in the centre of Teheran. He’s telling me about the park’s first months, since he built it with a few friends: ‘In the first weeks we organised a little skateboarding competition. More than 1,000 people came. It was very peaceful, with a great atmosphere. The next day I read the headline LSD Party in the Skate Park on the front page of the daily paper. For more than ten years I’ve been working to promote skateboarding in Iran … it’s not always been easy!’
My mother is German and my father is Iranian. At home we celebrated Christmas and Easter instead of the Persian festivals, and ate sausages and pretzels for breakfast. I still don’t fully understand why my father largely steered me clear of Iranian culture. Perhaps he wanted to leave the past and his memories behind him. Perhaps he was also a bit too lazy to speak Persian with me, or he wanted me to put down roots in Germany.
From time to time we flew to my father’s homeland to visit relatives. But I was always more interested in the places you could skate than in spending hours drinking tea with my uncle.
An old photo of me, my relatives are drinking tea and I’m bored.
The older I got, the greater became the urge to make up for everything I’d missed out on, and at the age of nineteen I moved to Tehran for a couple of months to learn Farsi. It was during this time that I met Ali. He became my best friend in Iran.
An idea began to grow in me: I wanted to shoot a film about the skateboarding scene in Iran. Filmmakers and journalists don’t lead very safe lives in Iran. Out of 180 countries, Iran is no. 173 in terms of freedom of the press.
I think of my relatives who were persecuted there, acquaintances who sat in jail for years and the countless Germans who thought my plan was officially crazy.
In 2010 the director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and given a twenty-year ban from working on the grounds of producing ‘propaganda against the system’. His films engage critically with Iranian politics and society.
Although I know about the murders of journalists and the imprisonment of directors and artists, I firm up my plan. I’m flying to Iran to shoot a film.
The skateboarders‘ stories have to be told.
The closer I get to filming, the more worried I get about security. Not just about my own, but about the people I’m featuring in the film, who might find themselves in difficulties if they express critical opinions, and about the safety of my cameraman, Lukas. Worst case scenario, however, Lukas could turn for help to the German embassy in Teheran. I can’t, since I’m entering the country as an Iranian.
I got to know Mehdi through an acquaintance. He’s a filmmaker from Teheran, having worked in the Persian film industry for ten years, mainly working on independent productions. He advises me not to work without a filming permit and offers his support.
As we finalise preparations in Germany, he takes care of the application. I send him a description of our project, from which he takes out words and phrases, editing it so as not to arouse any undue suspicion among the authorities. The film we’re planning is actually quite uncritical, but their decisions about these applications are often arbitrary.
Nowhere does he mention that Lukas and I come from Germany.
* * *
I’m prepared for anything – or so I think.
‘Hopefully it’ll all be fine.’ ‘Don’t get arrested.’ ‘Hopefully we’ll see you again.’ I’ve been hearing a lot of this over the last few weeks. I’ve been extremely reticent about going public with the project, and have only told a handful of people about my plan, so as not to draw unnecessary attention. I’m too afraid of getting on the security service’s radar for ‚propaganda against the system‘ before my journey has even begun. Friends tell me that they were refused entry because they had cameras in their rucksacks, being put on the next flight back to Germany.
The first passport check. I give the policeman my passport.
Policeman: ‘Where are you going?‘ Me: ‘Teheran.’ Policeman (surprised): ‘Willingly?‘ I’m silent. He wants to know what I’m doing there. I explain that I’m visiting relatives – from that moment on, it’s the standard lie throughout the shoot.
We’re sitting on a plan to Tehran. I’m afraid.
When we land, the women put on their headscarves.
We set foot in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Lucas and I split up. He stands in the immigration queue for foreigners. His turn comes immediately. I’m waiting in the queue for Iranians, with at least fifty people in front of me.
I notice the officials stamping Lukas’s passport, and I’m a little relieved, at least.
I prepare myself mentally for my turn. ‘Only speak English,’ I say to myself. Unlike with Farsi, of which my knowledge is rudimentary, that way I won’t be inferior to the official.
Now it’s my turn. I slip my passport through the slot. ‘Hello,’ I say quietly. I attempt a small smile. I think the official is surprised for a moment. Behind him stand two other policemen, staring over his shoulder.
‘He looks like Harry Potter’
comments one official in Farsi with a laugh, confident that I won’t understand. They don’t exchange a word with me, instead simply stamping my passport. I realise that I’ve cleared the first hurdle. A weight is lifted from my mind – but we’re not out of the woods yet.
Lukas is already waiting at baggage reclaim. He sees me coming. ‘Daniel, you ok? You’re so pale!’
The suitcases arrive quickly. Almost too quickly. I haven’t quite got over passport control before the next hurdle presents itself. An old baggage carousel on which the bags are X-rayed before you’re finally allowed to leave the airport.
All bags have to go on the conveyor belt, including our camera bag with three cameras, lenses, two microphones, a sound recorder and all sorts of other odds and ends.
The man in front of us is pulled out of line, and has to open his suitcase in a security area. I don’t want to look too closely, trying not to draw attention to myself. I stare at the end of the conveyor belt. First suitcase, second suitcase, camera bag.
I stare at the bags, grab them purposefully, turn ninety degrees and march directly to the exit. Any second I expect to hear the police shouting after me. But I march briskly onwards … done!
Outside Ali is already waiting for us. I give him a hug and the strain melts away. He laughs at me – I look so pale! I laugh awkwardly. We’ve arrived.
* * *
We drive through the night. Loud music, Ali’s laugh – that’s what I remember. The smells drift past me. Teheran! Everything feels so familiar.
We drive to Omid’s, a friend of Ali. We’re sheltering here for the first few nights.
I spend the first couple of days busy organising things: getting sim-cards, changing money, letting relatives know I’ve arrived safely (they’ve only known about the trip for a few days, because I wanted to spare them unnecessary worry).
I also call Mehdi, the filmmaker who helped us obtain a film permit. ‘Hello, Daniel, it’s great to have you here. Unfortunately I don’t have the permit just yet. Please hang on a bit longer before you start shooting.’ I obey, as I don’t have any other choice.
We meet the people who will feature in our film to discuss the timetable and the progress of our project. They’re all very open-minded, and are looking forward to starting.
I want to depict the everyday lives of three young skateboarders in Tehranas precisely as possible, trying to convey a sense of their living situation. They’re all apolitical and passionate skaters.
As a large number of skaters in Iran are female, it’s very important to me to get a woman’s perspective in the film. In contrast to the German scene, the Iranian one seems to me to be less dominated by gender roles. The skaters are enjoying a burgeoning scene – whether they’re men or women isn’t important. In her free time, Elham teaches the female pupils at Ali’s skate park.
Erfan has been skating for years, spending lots of time with Ali, and is very keen to promote skateboarding in Iran.
On the third evening we visit the filmmaker Mehdi and his colleague Farid for the first time.
Mehdi has a magnificent moustache, a friendly face and is in his early thirties. He runs a production office with Farid, devoting themselves to independent and low-budget underground films. Every now and again Mehdi edits commissioned works, to pay the rent and get by. He is one of the few filmmakers who hasn’t yet fled the country.
He makes it clear what we’re allowed to do and what we’re not under any circumstances allowed to film. ‘If anybody asks, under no circumstances should you mention the permit. Just say you’re filming a few skateboarding tricks for the internet. Don’t draw attention to yourself in public, and hide your equipment if the police show up. Don’t use the word ‘documentary’.’
When he asks where we’re currently staying, I can only shrug my shoulders in embarrassment and describe our situation. He immediately offers to let us stay in the office. I turn him down, out of politeness. Then again. And again. He insists, and at last I hesitantly give in.
Inside I’m overjoyed.
He leads us to the empty room. It’s about twelve square metres, with a narrow folding bed. Perfect for me and the two-metre-tall Lukas. We’re also allowed to use the bathroom, kitchen and PCs. It’s everything we need. ‘You can move in tomorrow.’
* * *
We’re waiting in front of the gate. One hour, two. The director of a TV team is already there, but hasn’t got a filming permit, even though he’s shooting for state television. It’s that famous capriciousness again. So he waits, making telephone calls and standing around in the sun. After three hours he cancels the shoot, putting it off for another week.
We turn back too. In the first few weeks we’re planning to shoot in the houses of the people in the film, so we can operate more freely within a protected space.
Their parents mostly don’t think much of skateboarding, but they accept it, because they can see how much joy it brings their children. The skateboarders behave politely and obligingly towards their parents.
Skateboarding is a gentle kind of rebellion, one they don’t want to worry their parents with.
We’re met with extraordinary hospitality, and no matter how ambitious our shooting schedule we’re constantly supplied with hot tea and politely – but resolutely – required to take breaks.
One morning Mehdi arrives at the office accompanied by an older man, whom he introduces as his business partner. They go straight into the conference room. Door closed. After three hours he says goodbye and leaves the office.
Mehdi puts his arm round my shoulders and leads me away from the door. After a brief silence he says, ‚Daniel, that was a filmmaker who holds a senior position in the Iranian secret service. He’s in charge of film permits, and was interested in foreign filmmakers like you. I told him about your project and that you were worried about security. He then assured me that he’s aware of your film and will make sure nothing happens to you!‘
From this point on I relax, and can concentrate fully on the shoot.
I bow to the system in the hope of remaining unnoticed.
Three weeks in Teheran, three weeks living with our subjects and filming everything going on around us. Accepting gifts we’re given. From the outset, we know we don’t want any unwieldy shooting schedules or stage-management. The subjects of the film will be given plenty of freedom, as we shoot their everyday lives and the conversations between them and their friends.
In the evening we discuss with them what their plans are for the following day. We don’t generally plan more than a day in advance. In the mornings we usually start around twelve, with Lukas and I taking a taxi to the agreed-upon rendezvous. One day we’re picked up by a driver in his mid twenties who absolutely loves to sing.
Unfortunately he’s so focused on the singing that he completely forgets where we’re actually going. He asks what feels like twenty passers-by, all of whom send him in a different direction. An hour late, we finally arrive. These things aren’t much help in keeping to a schedule – every day is different.
We spend a lot of time with the skateboarders: chatting, going to restaurants, swapping stories, drinking tea for hours and driving aimlessly through Tehran at night.
We’re having a great time!
After we’ve filmed in their homes, we venture out onto the street, risking confrontations with the public, as that way the most exciting things emerge.
When people ask what we’re filming, the answer is always: ‘Nothing much. Just filming a few skateboarding tricks for the internet.’
There’s an element of truth to that. The film is going to combine observational documentary segments with skateboarding videos.
We never mention the film permit – it’s for emergencies only.
To curious taxi drivers, I always say that we’re spending three weeks visiting relatives in Teheran. They commiserate with us.
We want to film a skateboarder being pulled along through the streets by a bus. The streets are full, the surface pitted with potholes, and the busses are very old.
We wait for the bus, speak to the driver, then film as we drive along behind them in the car. In doing so we block the entire street, quickly gathering a row of cars honking their horns behind us. The bus driver, however, does not allow himself to be bullied.
* * *
Skateboarding on the streets of Tehran is still new and fresh. Only a few of the passers-by have heard of the sport. As soon as they hear the clatter of a board, everyone in a hundred-metre radius turns towards the source of the unfamiliar sound. Often you have to spend ages haggling with local residents to be allowed to keep skateboarding.
Cleaning women lend us their brooms so that we can clear a path. In rare cases we’re sent away. In Germany people are much quicker to call the police.
There are very few skateboarders (only fifty or so in the whole of Teheran), and it makes them love their sport all the more. They stand up against social conventions, instigating discussions about them with their parents, friends and relatives. There are no sponsorship opportunities available to them. They’re a small, hardcore band of skateboarding enthusiasts.
They are not free.
Everything that young people might enjoy is forbidden.
Women must comply with stringent clothing regulations, the economic situation is miserable and skateboards have to be imported the long way round from Dubai.
But skateboarding, an American symbol of youthful rebellion in the face of authority, affords them the opportunity to use the city for their own purposes and take back their freedom.
The skateboarders aren’t political, and I would never want to twist them to fit an agenda designed to make them seem more exciting. Skateboarding is their own kind of rebellion; they seek meaning and purpose in their lives through this hobby.
My conversations with Mehdi and the other filmmakers were also fascinating. They seem like the kind of intellectual Iranians who are eager to leave the country, yet they remain and they’ve made a deliberate decision to refuse any kind of state funding, to avoid the censorship that entails. After our last day of filming, Mehdi asks us, ‘Were you happy with your project?’ I answer euphorically:
‘Yes, it was a fantastic shoot!’
‘No matter whether it turns out good or bad, you should simply be grateful that at your age you can travel all over the world, doing what you love: filming! That’s what it’s all about – that and only that!’
Ali picks us up from the house at two in the morning. The old fear rises in my body, tormenting me as it did before filming began. The airport, the bag scanners, passport control, departure.
So this is the final hurdle. We prepare by hiding all the material in folders on the hard drives with names like ‘Holiday’, ‘Uni’ or ‘Grandma’s Birthday’. Lukas makes it through passport control quickly, and there are no hiccups for me either. A stamp is slammed into my passport. Then we’re sitting on the plane, taking off, leaving Persian soil.
We did it – we shot a film in Iran.
* * *
„Kids of Tehran“ will be finished by the end of 2015.
Some names have been altered to protect people.