A young boy sits on rusted tank tracks in the desert bordering Iran and Iraq. His head is bowed, and he’s sobbing. A few yards away, a dozen bearded men gather around a Shiite cleric. The men weep as the cleric recounts the story of a fearless martyr killed during the Iran-Iraq war. He compares the soldier to Imam Hossein, the revered third Imam of Shia Islam, massacred in the battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.
These men belong to the Bassidj [Basij], the voluntary paramilitary force formed in the early days of the Iran-Iraq war, who now serve as the plainclothes foot soldiers of the Islamic Republic. The militia was largely behind the brutal crackdown on protesters during Iran’s recent election fallout. Filmmaker Mehran Tamadon spent three years immersed in their world. Without hiding his liberal secular views, Tamadon sought to understand their convictions and engage in a dialogue.
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excerpts from Bassidji.
The film begins on the Iran-Iraq border, at an open air museum dedicated to the martyrs of the war. Among throngs of pious pilgrims, the audience meets the film’s protagonists, a pair of Bassidji loyalists. Nader Malek-Kandi, 46, is a veteran of the war who now runs a publishing house for religious propaganda. Mohammad Pourkarim, 28, commands a unit of Bassidji guards in the Tehran neighborhood of Nasr.
In the spirit of dialogue, Tamadon diligently listens to his friends. But when Pourkarim encourages him to ask questions, an uneasy conversation ensues, including a scene where four Bassidjis sit facing the camera, answering anonymous questions by angry Iranians. The tension builds with each long silence, as Tamadon struggles to get answers to complex questions. The result: a rare glimpse into the lives of men devoted entirely to Shia Islam and the Islamic Republic, and a fascinating dialogue between unlikely friends.
Sanaz Meshkinipour: How did you come across this topic? And what did you originally set out to do?
Mehran Tamadon: I made a documentary about the mothers of martyrs at Beheshte Zahra [the largest cemetery in Iran, located outside Tehran] who have come to the cemetery every week for the past 27 or 28 years since the death of their sons. Here I met the main character of the film, Nader Malek-Kandi. Some Bassidjis came every week, sat on the grass behind the cemetery, shared war stories, and talked politics. So I started talking to them, joking around and pestering them, and I saw it was possible to talk! So I decided to see if I could build relationships with them.
I’m from a leftist family, the kind who believes people of all backgrounds should interact. The motivation for the film came from my hatred of strict categories between people. I began the project wanting to test these boundaries. But later, I realized the situation was far more complex. The Bassidj is a political instrument, and the Bassidjis in my film are political people. You can’t simply examine their world through an anthropological lens — it’s impossible.
And they were willing to go along with your project, knowing your background?
They look at your clothes, your face, your mannerisms, [and] they inevitably know who you are. I had told them my opinions about the Bassidj. As it turned out, they liked that I spoke so openly with them. They were open and comfortable with me. I promised to be forthright about my criticism of the bassidj, my intentions, and the direction of the film, that I wouldn’t create an entirely different movie in the editing process. I wanted to create a situation where at the end, we could still look each other in the eye.
There seems to be a great deal of trust between you and them, but of course, there are boundaries to that trust.
They were always thinking, “What are his intentions?” They kept saying, “Our conscience is clear. We know our words hold the truth. We have already answered to God.” But in terms of trust, I think I’m a very relaxed person, I don’t have too many censors. I once told Malek-Kandi, “I don’t own a television in France,” [but] he didn’t believe me. I said, “Well if I did, I would see what you guys do on the streets, and I wouldn’t be talking to you.” He laughed. So I teased them, especially Malek-Kandi, we had a joking relationship.
There are two types of relationships in this film. One takes place between two individuals, the other takes place between an individual and a government. On one hand, Malek-Kandi tells me in the film, “You’re a good person.” But there is a layer of ideology between us that doesn’t allow our relationship to progress. There’s a red line, and it’s the same one that has created Iran’s polarized society. If I would not have forced the conversation to reach that red line, then I would have lost.
When did you begin pushing the conversation to this red line?
I couldn’t allow them to use my camera to advertise their message. At a certain point, I was forced to take the film into my own hands, show a stronger presence, and find some way, step by step, to move forward to reach the red line.
I wanted to ask a question about Ramin Jahanbegloo [the Iranian intellectual imprisoned in Evin for four months in 2006]. And I knew this would be the last question of the film, because if I asked that question early on, I wouldn’t be able to ask any other question. That’s why I took things very slowly to get to that breaking point.
Why did you decide to keep all of the silences in your final cut?
During that same scene with the line of men staring at the camera, I think the silence showed my inability to ask my questions, as if I had a mental block. I thought to myself, “How do I say it so that Malek-Kandi truly hears me out and isn’t offended by me.” And of course the silences showed my fear.
Do you think you succeeded in your dialogue with the Bassidji?
The moment the camera is pulled out, there are two types of power competing against each other. Inevitably, they transform into the Islamic Republic’s representatives, and I transform into the representative of all those who are against the Islamic Republic. Inevitably, the camera creates a space driven by power.
It was crucial for me to learn how to talk to the other side. Based on these standards, the film was unsuccessful because their responses were filled with rhetoric.
There was a dialogue between friends, but in the end, Malek-Kandi didn’t try to understand my perspective. But you can also say they were willing to sit in front of a camera and be judged by others and this was a step.
After you went through this whole experience, what was running through your mind as the protests were taking place this summer?
During that whole period, we were all sickened. But as the demonstrations continued, you could see people trying to speak with the Bassidj. The Bassidjis know they’re not supposed to talk to the protesters, they know they’re supposed to look at the ground, not talk, not answer questions, because if they do, they won’t be able to continue beating those standing in front of them.
The issue of the Bassidji’s victimhood comes up quite a few times in the film. Why so often?
Whenever you want to hurt someone else, you do it because the other person has hurt you — you claim you are a victim as an excuse. It’s rare that a government oppresses its people just out of stated malice. So when they oppress it’s because they feel like victims.
How do you gauge the Green Movement’s use of Shia references? It seems they are trying to usurp the Shia call, the story of Imam Hossein’s martyrdom, and use it against the government.
I think Moussavi’s use of Shia reference is more like an excuse. When they protest on Jerusalem Day, it doesn’t mean they are out in support of Palestine, they are looking for an excuse to protest. It’s less a reference to Shia Islam than a way to oppose the government and legitimize their position.
For example, Imam Hossein knew he was going to die. This is a very important aspect to the story; he knew he was going to be dead by midday but he goes ahead with the battle. In Shia mythology, the night before he goes to see his troops, he tells them it’s dark, no one will see you, if you want to leave go ahead, because tomorrow none of us will be alive. Some leave and some stay but he tells them you are going to die. Now, when the veterans of the Iran-Iraq war recount their war stories, they recall a reference to this story, where their superiors would come and tell them if they want to leave at night they can. And of course none of them leave; they don’t dare espouse fear after hearing a reference to Imam Hossein. This is prevalent amongst the Bassidji, but you can’t find this in the reformist movement or among the protesters. When ten Bassidjis charge at them, they all disappear. Because they are genuine reformists, they’re seeking peace — they’re not revolutionaries. A fearlessness of death doesn’t exist, and that’s the difference with the Bassidji.
Did you ever show the movie to your characters?
Yes, before filming the question & answer scene, I presented them with a four-hour rough cut. It was a means to convince them to participate in the next scene. This was quite difficult and it took about ten hours because they would argue over every single sentence. I told Malek-Kandi, “I want to know one thing: with all the good and the bad, would you show this film to your father?” He thought for a bit, weighed his options, and finally said Yes. Even this, you have to fight for. At that moment, he relinquished a small piece of power. It’s a start.
This interview was originally published by Tehran Bureau on 9 December 2009; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. For more information about Bassidji, go to <www.bassidjimovie.com/>.