When I was young, my eccentric grandmother would come to stay a few times every year. As I left the for the school bus each morning she would conspiratorially press 50 cents into my hand, as if to suggest that I could get on that bus, miss the stop for school and just keep going… I have always cherished the thrill of the possibilities of that extra 50 cents in my pocket. I could go anywhere.
When I was executive director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, for six years I did indeed travel to many places: from Cannes to Berlin, Vladivostok and Buenos Aires. And just over a decade ago I visited Tehran for the Fajr Film Festival showcase of new Iranian cinema.
The day I was set to leave, there was a news piece about how Tehran was in flames; the Revolutionary Guards were throwing students out of their dormitory windows. At the time there was a moderate president, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, and more reactionary, conservative forces were expressing discontent. But I only knew a little about those circumstances – let alone the city, that country and its history, the Persian civilisation – except through the extraordinary Iranian films that I’d recently started devouring.
Tehran is a vast city and the week I spent there was revelatory.
It completely upended everything I’d been led to believe. From the sprawling Central Bazaar with sights and sounds, fragrances and flavours that I had no sensory register for, to being overwhelmed by the city, its people and its heritage.
Where I’d anticipated soldiers at every turn, I spotted only a few policemen here and there at busy intersections, near embassies and government buildings. I was taken to a narrow valley deep into the Alborz Mountains just beyond the suburbs where young people gather and drink tea. To my eye they laughed and fooled around like young people do. The young women had veils that covered most of their hair, the boys wore T shirts and high top sneakers like their counterparts from home, and I was told the Revolutionary Guard rarely frequented this idyll. I visited the remarkable Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, worthy of any major museum in any great city I’d been to. And I saw many diverse Iranian films presented in the showcase at Kanun, the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults where Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami spent his formative years.
Of course the country and the city have seen great tumult. My guide, a local academic and the father of an acquaintance from Melbourne, pointed to where the Iranian government officially changed the name of the street where the British Embassy is based from Winston Churchill Street to Bobby Sands Street, in 1981 two years after the Revolution.
Of course I was only a tourist there, an invited guest and perhaps was led on a carefully curated tour of one version of that city and its people. On the day before I departed, my guide introduced me to his friend, the head of a local radio station who showed us around the studios. We sat and observed a live talk show, where after a few minutes, the presenters beckoned to us animatedly as they were on air. They asked if I’d like to be interviewed, so I went into the studio and fielded talk back calls. Many enquiries about Australia and if kangaroos really existed, but most asked about my week-long experiences in Tehran – was it what I expected, what did I think of their city, did I meet many local people, what were the differences between my home and theirs? I answered via the interpreter as best I could. At the conclusion of every call they urged me to relate my Tehran souvenirs to my friends and family back home, that we needed to know that they exist like we do, albeit that their culture is distinct and different to ours. This is why cinema serves as such a vital intermediary, even emissary between cultures, most particularly when we know so little about Persian culture, about the Muslim faith, and that their people exist like we do.