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Watch 'Our Man in Tehran' for a Personal Look at the People of Iran
August 13, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Instagram is sweeping the nation and the older folks who have been fighting ideological wars all their lives complain that young people don’t care, that they only want to party.

No, silly, we’re not describing America. We’re describing Iran.

Well, at least the Iran of Our Man in Tehran, a two-part PBS Frontline series that premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings) and concludes at the same time Tuesday.

Our specific man in Tehran is Thomas Erdbrink, a Dutch journalist who has risen to become The New York Times bureau chief in the Iranian capital.

Erdbrink, who has lived in Tehran for 17 years and has been a frequent guest on American television news shows in addition to his work for the Times, explains that he is one of the few foreign journalists still allowed by the Iranian government to report from there.

He also explains that it took him several years to get permission to film this documentary, which is directed by Roel Van Broekhoven.

It was filmed under strict controls, with government permission apparently required at all stages. One long segment revolves around Erdbrink’s attempt to learn exactly what Our Man can show on film of an Iranian woman who leads a Zumba exercise class.

Per Iranian law, her arms are covered to her wrists, her legs to her ankles. A scarf covers her head, though her neck is bare. After lengthy discussion and a consultation with a clergyman, Erdbrink is advised the woman could get in considerable trouble if everything below her neck isn’t blurred out in the final version.

Her crime would probably be dancing, which remains prohibited under Iran’s interpretation of Islamic law.

That’s not the only segment where the cultural gap between Iran and most of the world, never mind America, becomes vividly clear.

But Our Man In Tehran doesn’t take any of the easy routes in its portrayal here. For starters, Erdbrink repeatedly stresses that the fact something is illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.

Alcohol, for instance, is banned under Islamic law. Anyone caught drinking can and probably will be whipped with a leather horsewhip, dozens of times.

Erdbrink films an Iranian AA meeting, at which men and women admit they were alcoholics, and for which the government has approved the printing of an Iranian version of the American AA manual.

Erdbrink’s Iran is not a country where angry people walk around chanting about death to the Great Satan. Nor is it a country where the masses secretly envy the freedoms of the West even as their theocratic leaders thunder on about decadence and purity.

In the broader picture, it’s a country where the political entity of America is recognized as an adversary even as the people of America are seen in a softer light.

The first night of Our Man In Tehran, filmed in 2015 after the international economic sanctions against Iran had been lifted, captures a moment of at least modestly rising hope.

The second night, filmed recently, shows both the major cultural changes over the past three years – notably the explosion of the once-restricted Internet, which has created Instagram stars and put social media on millions of to-do lists – and the backlash against this freer lifestyle among cultural hardliners.

President Donald Trump’s apparent intention to reinstate sanctions, which was just strong speculation at the time this documentary wrapped, clearly is creating anxiety, since its specifics and its implications remain unclear.

Our Man In Tehran does not, in any case, attempt to take the pulse of the whole nation.

It focuses on stories of several people close to Erdbrink, including his Iranian wife Newsha’s family. They seem like a pretty relaxed bunch of in-laws, accepting of social changes like an increasing role for women. Newsha herself is a well-known photographer.

Erdbrink’s assistant, Somayeh, talks about her difficulty, as a divorced woman, in finding anyone who would rent her an apartment. She talks about leaving Iran to study elsewhere, though she also talks about trying to change the country from within.

Somayeh’s conflict is echoed in other stories, like those of a dissident journalist who keeps getting locked up and an Iranian woman who lives happily in America and whose daughter wants desperately to return home.

Collectively, Our Man In Tehran plays eerily like what a reverse documentary on America might look in Iran. There’s some disconnect between posturing leaders and a more humanistic population, yet there are genuine differences in the way many ordinary people look at the world.

Erdbrink clearly hopes that his honesty about those differences might show Americans that the differences shouldn’t prevent respectful coexistence. And that without the posturing leaders, they probably wouldn’t.

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Thankfully, for those of us who may have missed it the day of, this documentary is also found on the Frontline website.
Aug 18, 2018   |  Reply
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