In his exciting new documentary, “Our Man in Tehran,” Thomas Erdbrink creates a rarely seen image of Iran. Focusing mostly on family members and acquaintances, Erdbrink introduces us to Iranians who lead ordinary middle-class lives in the midst of an unpredictable and oppressive regime.
At the beginning of the film Erdbrink says that he wants to avoid the clichés of “behind the veil” documentaries, films that dramatize Iranian’s private lives: what happens behind closed doors when the women take off their veils. The film does offer a more complex representation of Iranian society, but its most powerful insight is not about Iranian society but our own.
Erdbrink, a Dutch-born journalist, has lived in Tehran for 17 years and speaks fluent Farsi. He has an ebullient, carefree manner that gives the film its upbeat tone and fast-paced rhythm. As Erdbrink interviews Iranians from different social classes and political factions, it seems that he can put just about anyone at ease.
Many of the Iranians featured in the film are women. Erdbrink’s wife, Newsha, is a talented and charismatic photographer. We see her hold her own in arguments with her husband and her moderately conservative family. Another strong woman, Somayeh, works as Erdbrink’s assistant. In the first part of the film, she is stopped by Iran’s Morality Police for wearing a headscarf that doesn’t completely cover her neck and hair. The bright yellow scarf is loosely draped around her head. After modeling another outfit, an all-black head-to-toe ensemble with a tightly wound black scarf, she says that even these clothes got her into trouble. When the principal at the school where she teaches told her to go home in the middle of a lesson, Somayeh felt humiliated.
Despite these restrictions, middle-class women and men lead Westernized, ordinary lives. They use cell-phones, drive cars of the latest models, and live in apartment that could be part of a duplex in California. Despite Erdbrink disavowal, the viewers do get a glimpse of Iranian life “behind the veil.” Behind closed doors women take off their veils to reveal dyed hair, take Zumba classes, and meet with male and female fans to listen to banned popular music.
There is one outlier in the film, the Islamic hardliner known as Mr. Big Mouth. Big Mouth is known for taking the front row at the Friday prayers and chanting loudly, “Death to America! Death to Israel! Death to England!” When Erdbrink visits him at his home the two men sit on the carpet while Big Mouth’s wife stays in the kitchen, fully veiled. Erdbrink tries to get Big Mouth to disavow his expressions of hatred, but doesn’t get very far. Mr. Big Mouth eventually emerges as an eccentric, self-contradictory character (rather than the fanatic stereotype), but there are few insights about his motives.
Similarly, we don’t learn as much as we could about the cult of the Shahid, the holy martyr. There is a fascinating interview with Mojtaba, a young father who fought against ISIS in Syria, and is more than willing to go back. Mojtaba tells Erdbrink of the “darkness” of the battlefield as his young daughters sit next to him on the couch, ignoring his imprecations to join their mother. We see a chilling Instagram video of a wounded soldier being led away through bullet fire — one of the many instances where social media emerges as a political tool. Yet we never fully understand the appeal of martyrdom: why would this man, who lives in a comfortable suburban house and seems to care about his family, want to end his life on a foreign battlefield?
Where “Our Man in Tehran” really hits home is in its reflection on Iran’s middle-class in the second part. We return to Iran three years later. With Rohani in power and fewer economic sanctions, Tehran is clearly better off. In a sleek coffee shop, a barista expertly pours a cappuccino, while young people chat or work on their laptops. If not for the ubiquitous headscarves, this could be a Starbucks in Chelsea.
Elsewhere in Tehran things seem equally quiet: men and women drive to work, speak on their cell-phones, travel abroad. Almost everyone seems to dream of going to America, if only on a visit.
But even under Rouhani most of the restrictions on dress and personal freedom are still in place. A woman who protests the veil by removing her headscarf and climbing on top of an electric box is arrested and receives death threats. A middle-aged academic is arrested on the charge of spying and soon dies in prison. His wife is prohibited from leaving the country.
Travelling to the Caspian Sea, Erdbrink interviews Isa, a dissident writer who is periodically imprisoned for his work. When Erdbrink asks him about the lack of political engagement in Iran, Isa comments that middle-class Iranians have too much to lose to take part in protests. Preoccupied with private life, they limit their political involvement to voting in official elections, which he thinks makes little difference.
In capturing the contradiction between calm, affluent everyday life and the realities of an autocratic regime, Erdbrink’s film evokes deep unease. This is where “Our Man in Tehran” truly breaks the conventions of “behind the veil” films and says something that hasn’t been said before. Rather than simply offering up an image of middle-class Iranians who are relatable because they resemble the film’s audience, Erdbrink implicitly turns the camera lens on us.
The middle-class Iran that we see in the second part is a mirror image of our own society. Of course, the oppression we experience in the U.S. is of a different kind and of a different order, but it certainly exists — and more so for some groups than others. If other films allow us to forget it as we fall into the sentimentality of “look how terrible it is over there,” Erdbrink documentary doesn’t. For a moment we may wonder: how can middle-class Iranians sip cappuccinos while their countrymen are imprisoned and killed? But we can’t wonder for too long. We realize that we are afflicted by the same complacency.