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Two-Night PBS 'Frontline' Film ‘Our Man in Tehran’ is an Affecting, Intimate Look at Day-To-Day Life in an Isolated Country
August 13, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Our Man in Tehran, the often illuminating, occasionally moving two-part, four-hour PBS Frontline documentary, was four years in the making.
Right from the start, then, you know this is no knock-off, done on the cheap or made on the fly, like so many of today’s news programs.
Our Man in Tehran debuts Monday (check local listings) on the first of back-to-back nights, and while that seems a lot to take in over a short period of time, it’s worth the effort.
The exquisitely personal account of the day-to-day life of Dutch-born reporter Thomas Erdbrink (left), long-time Tehran resident and bureau chief for the New York Times, and his Iranian born-wife, photographer Newsha Tavakolian (left), is a tonic in this age of journalism-by-tweet and jumping to quick conclusions based on flimsy evidence. Fake news it ain’t.
Fluent in Persian, Erdbrink has been watching, living in, and writing about Iran for 17 years, most recently for “the failing New York Times,” competing with and working alongside fellow journalists — and friends — who work for “the failing Washington Post” and its ideological handmaiden, the (“failing”) Los Angeles Times.
If you’re even considering sitting down to a four-hour insider’s look at Iran today, you know that any western media organization that goes to the effort and expense of maintaining a bureau in a far-flung corner of the world unlikely to drive newspaper circulation — not too many tweet-friendly, TMZ-style Kylie Jenner or Kanye West anecdotes to be found here — can hardly be said to be “failing,” but that’s the world we find ourselves living in.
It’s precisely that, though — the world we’re living in today, the real world and not some fake, made-up world — that gives Our Man in Tehran its power. This is a story, simply told, about real, genuine people, living their day-to-day lives, under an oppressive, ever-watchful regime, who — surprise! — are really no different than anyone else living anywhere else on the globe. It’s gently disarming in its simplicity, but it’s shot through with poignancy and an almost unbearable tension — hardly any of which has anything to do with today’s headlines and bellicose pronouncement announcements about sanctions. The real issue facing most ordinary, everyday Iranians today is being able to marry the one you love and carving out a better, more hopeful future for your kids — in other words, life pretty much as it is anywhere else.
Please don’t think Our Man in Tehran a dirge or a lecture to the converted, though. There may be more urgent, restless Frontline programs in the weeks and months to come, eye-opening programs that demand attention and galvanize one to action — the most recent Frontline program on the root causes that drove last year’s Charlottesville rally, being a perfect example — but none are likely to be as moving or affecting as this intimate glimpse inside ordinary lives.
Erdbrink was granted unprecedented, unique access as he embarked on his four-year journey, camera in hand and trailed by a Dutch film crew, with his family and friends, breaking bread literally with other families, who welcome him into their homes and share their stories. There are young women who want to do the things young women everywhere else around the world do, and there are young men anxious and ambitious for a better life. There are older people who’ve seen all this before, in different guises — the shortages of food and other life staples owing to sanctions imposed from outside; the unreliable electricity, in an oil-rich country, that shuts off and on with little warning; and the judgmental, watchful gaze of true believers, the religious police, and agents of the state, as epitomized by the Islamist, would-be cleric “Mr. Bigmouth,” seen towards the end of Monday’s first program, railing against the Great Satan, Jews from Israel, and how the roads in Tehran were perfectly safe and easy to navigate until women started to drive, too. The Great Satan is evil personified, “Mr. Bigmouth” tells Erdbrink, and Jews are worse — but later, in a town square, surrounded by merchants and money changers flashing thick wads of freshly minted US $100 bills, Erdbrink ask passersby about why they like American culture and money so much if they hate Americans, he’s told the people don’t hate Americans — it’s their government that hates America.
Our Man in Tehran starts out as a love story of a man for a woman on the personal level, and of an outsider for a different and yet strangely familiar culture on the macro, big-picture level. “The best way to show a country like Iran is from the inside,” Erdbrink says. And while that may sound obvious, public misconceptions about the real Iran show that it’s easily overlooked.
Iranians, Erdbrink tells us, are friendly and curious by nature. Over the course of the four-hour program, though, we learn how the circumstances of day-to-day life can change even the most outward-looking, gregarious way of dealing with the world.
Iran, much like many countries in the West — Canada and the US included — is burdened by an ideological split. Rural areas tend to be conservative, insular, and religiously judgmental; urban areas tend to be more liberal, open-minded, willing to assimilate, and tolerant of others. The six-hour journey from Tehran, “a sophisticated metropolis,” to the village home of Erdbrink’s friends and new family, is like stepping back 20 years in time, he tells us, to a place where most if not all women are still dressed in black.
Erdbrink describes his work and the work of his reporter colleagues as “Iran under the veil journalism,” where conversations are held in private, and one has to be ever mindful of the potential consequences of a person’s willingness to share private confidences with someone from the outside, especially a westerner working for one of the big media agencies like the New York Times.
When Washington Post correspondent and close personal friend Jason Rezaian is arrested by the authorities — just days after talking to Anthony Bourdain in one of Bourdain’s most memorable episodes of Parts Unknown — Erdbrink has a crisis of confidence of his own, and wonders if his future and that of his family is safe in his adopted home. Rezaian’s arrest and subsequent conviction for espionage — in a closed-door trial in 2015 — marks a turning point both in Erdbrink’s life and in Our Man in Tehran the film. “Everybody builds a wall around himself, to be safe,” Erdbrink is told. (Rezaian was released in 2016 as part of a prisoner exchange, negotiated, it must be pointed out, under the auspices of then-US President Barack Obama.)
When a video of Pharrell Williams’ Happy goes viral, many young Iranians put their own spin on the dance and share their own videos — and run afoul of the religious police in the process. “Happy,” as a concept, is meant both literally and ironically, and the video becomes its own form of protest.
By the end, the viewer is left with a single, inescapable conclusion: Despite the politics of the moment, talk of nuclear proliferation, the daily scrutiny of religious zealots and yet another round of pending sanctions, the people here are quite normal. How weird is that?
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I have a fascination for foreign countries and Frontline satisfies my curiosity. Apparently, filming in Iran is a big no-no. Especially if you're an American, unless you don't mind being imprisoned for it. Kind of like the Washington Post journalist in Iran who was imprisoned for months because a group of teenage Iranians decided to make a parody of the song titled, Happy by Pharrell Williams and film it. Even though the journalist had nothing to do with it. But that was the reason that was given for why they had imprisoned him. It's still a mystery as to the real reason why.

The teens who made the parody were also punished with fines and lashings, though I believe the lashings weren't actually doled out. That's improvement for Iran. But alcoholics do receive the painful lashings, with a leather strap no less, because alcohol is forbidden. Can you imagine that being a law in America?
Aug 15, 2018   |  Reply
Alex, I apologize for my comment that I meant to put under David's Hinckley's review because it focuses on a couple things that he didn't talk about. But now that I've read your review too, I see you already wrote about the things I mentioned. Sorry about that.
This was a fantastic series though I do have one complaint, it's too short.
Aug 18, 2018
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