Filmmaker Justine Shapiro on Summering in Tehran

By Abigail Licad
Posted on July 13, 2011

The documentary Our Summer in Tehran (check local listings) follows Jewish American filmmaker Justine Shapiro and her 6-year-old son Mateo as they travel to Iran for the first time.  They establish friendships with unlikely partners and discover how, despite hardships, deep and lasting bonds can transcend cultural differences.

  

Why did you decide to visit Iran with your son Mateo? The film begins with this line in voice over: “I want to meet Iranian mothers in their homes before our sons meet on the battlefield.” I was in pre-production for this film in 2006 and the shoot was in 2007, at a time when there was a great deal of media coverage around the possibility that Iran would be the next country in line for war. So I felt some urgency about going there and showing a human side of Iran, before a war began.

This film is very much about the relationships between families. I didn’t want to go to Iran as a journalist or as a single woman or as a travel host. I wanted the Iranian families to regard me as one of them: just another tired mom who, like them, strives to balance motherhood with work. Mateo’s sweet and curious nature opened doors and hearts. I was so glad that he and I had this experience together. 

Can you describe the most surprising experience you had while in Tehran? 

SURPRISE NUMBER 1: That my shoot came to a halt just seven weeks into it. The Intelligence Ministry gave us 48 hours to leave Iran. And then, at the airport, the Intelligence Ministry confiscated ALL my material (75 hours of tapes)! Once I returned home, I spent four months calling the various ministries trying to convince them to release the tapes. Finally, Iran relented, with huge caveats: I could get back the footage but I’d have to come to Iran and edit the film there. So I flew to Iran three times in 2008 to edit Our Summer in Tehran, leaving Mateo behind. Each time I met with an official of the Intelligence Ministry. Finally at the end of the third trip this official gave me permission to bring home all my tapes and hard drives. And the edit began again! 

SURPRISE NUMBER 2: The closest friendship I formed was with a devout Muslim — a family’s matriarch, Marjan Torabi, whose husband worked for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. I didn’t reveal my Jewish heritage to her until the two of us had formed a bond.  Marjan wanted to take me inside the most holy shrine in Iran and I wasn’t sure if Jews could enter. I felt that she should know that I was Jewish before taking me inside. So I told her, on camera, while she was buying a chador for me. You have to wear a chador to enter this shrine. I was nervous. But she was, and is, very accepting.  She said to me “We are both people of the book.”  We email each other every few weeks.

What insight from your trip do you most hope your son will take away and carry into adulthood? At the end of the film I tell Mateo, “I hope that you will continue to move through this world, as you did in Iran, in wonder rather than in fear.” “Wonder” is being able to imagine possibilities. I think it’s helpful for young people to have experiences that inspire curiosity and wonder, and where they can get at some level that they are part of a much bigger world. We have maps all over our house — even our table mats are maps. Mateo’s dad lives in Mexico City and we’ve spent a lot of time there. I think that in part his sense of wonder is also an appreciation of the differences and a sense that the world is not fair. Why do some people live in houses and others live in cardboard boxes? So “wonder” is not necessarily all smiles and joy, it can also awe at the mystery of injustice. We are all on this planet together, and yet we are leading our lives amidst wildly divergent circumstances.  

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