When COVID-19 hit Iran earlier his year, filmmaker Jamshid Mojaddadi was working on a project about a zoo – not far from his home and office in Mashhad, a city in the northeast of the country.
Then, suddenly, like so many people in this extraordinary year, his life was turned upside down as emergency government restrictions began to bite, businesses shut down and people retreated behind closed doors.
Cut adrift from his crew and his usual subject matter, he began documenting his own daily life instead.
The resulting film – made for People and Power in collaboration with his colleagues in the United Kingdom, Ladan Anoushfar and Anson Hartford – is a fascinating and intimate portrait of life under lockdown in a country that is often misunderstood by the rest of the world, and which, even before the coronavirus pandemic, struggled with the economic consequences of international sanctions.
But this is not a film about global politics. It is a simple human story that echoes the personal experiences of so many of us in recent months – from Wuhan to New York, from New Delhi to Doha – of the small everyday battles everyone has fought to stay positive amid the isolation and anxiety caused by this dreadful disease.
By Jamshid Mojaddadi, Ladan Anoushfar and Anson Hartford
The way of working as a filmmaker has changed because of the coronavirus. The fact is, that now, we are very much working alone. No crew can work together and nobody really wants to meet up if you want to film with them.
It was in this situation that I found myself – just me and my camera. I had to quickly learn to refocus it on myself. As they say, “The only doors that can be opened are yours alone”.
My job is usually to get other people to relax in front of my camera, to stop them hiding things from me when I film. I always ask people to open up and be as honest as they can be. But as I filmed myself, I came to realise how difficult it is not to hide and not to reveal yourself fully on camera.
So I decided to just film everything and hoped the truth of my experience would be found in the in-between moments, the small moments of my everyday life in lockdown.
For me, it was important to try and show some of the things that were happening in my society. As a country and as a people, it is part of our history.
I have been surprised by people in Iran in the face of this pandemic. People felt they were facing a great danger, but instead of a feeling of separation, there is a feeling of people coming closer together.
There was more solidarity and caring for each other on a daily basis, and a feeling that, for a moment, people developed empathy for each other in Iran but also around the world. I can only hope these films can help support that.
When we spoke with Jamshid at the beginning of March about this project, the UK was not yet in lockdown. The situation in Iran seemed worrying and a lot of international media attention was focused on the country.
Being originally from Iran, I was worried about how it would manage to deal with the pandemic while struggling to deal with sanctions that are affecting not only its economy but the supply of medical equipment, medicines and other essential goods, thus creating an even more fragile situation for an already bruised and isolated country.
This film takes place during an annually important period of renewal for Iranians, with the Nowruz – Iranian New Year – celebrations taking place on March 21. During this time, people celebrate the arrival of spring by sprouting herbs, decorating houses with flowers, cleaning and decluttering, gathering outdoors and partaking in lots of other activities that could not take place this year.
Instead of the traditional “sabzi” or sprouted herbs displayed on a plate amongst other decorations for Nowruz, a virus had not only sprouted but was rapidly growing.
In the same way that Jamshid did not expect COVID-19 to spread to Iran from China that fast, little did I know that it would also spread its stems and buds very swiftly in London.
Just a few days later, on March 24, we ourselves entered a lockdown in the UK and what seemed like an exceptional situation in Iran, a country isolated for years, was also rapidly becoming the norm here (as indeed it did in the rest of the world).
The coronavirus cases in the UK soon surpassed those of Iran, and I realised we were not only making a film about Iran, a country often misunderstood and isolated, but rather about the similarities that exist in people’s everyday lives.
Jamshid’s intimate journey through the quarantine and this virus became an opportunity to just show life in all its mundanity, while at the same time as a way to dispel misconceptions held about Iran in the West.
On the other hand, while watching the raw footage, I was also struck by how Iranians seem to have acquired a sort of immunity to the hardship of particular situations. Despite the many detrimental repercussions sanctions may have had on the country, the virus seemed to also have given rise to a certain independence and perseverance in the face of adversity.
There were no stories of people fighting over toilet paper, or empty shopping shelves, or people stockpiling for the apocalypse. Somehow, I sensed a preparedness linked to this isolation, one that is free (for obvious reasons) from dependency on a globalised world. And within that matrix, people lived their lives and went on by, as did Jamshid and his surroundings.
This is a film of great bravery.
Jamshid not only lets us into his life, warts and all, at a very highly pressured point in time, but he does so in a country where revealing who you are is not always the easiest thing to do.
He navigates this line beautifully and does so with humour.
It is with this very human quality, one that is messy, imperfect, confused and yet always striving to do the right thing, that we get to the heart of the film.