Watching Art-House Movies in Tehran

Iran after the journalists were silenced.

This dispatch was written by a freelance journalist working undercover in Iran.

Read more from Slate’s coverage of the Iranian election and its aftermath.

A protester demonstrates in Tehran

TEHRAN, Iran—We had barely finished exchanging pleasantries when he leaned in and whispered, “Are you from the BBC?” The bearded university student was my seatmate on the bus to Qom, the seat of Iran’s hard-line clerical elite. His wariness foreshadowed my one-hour tour of the local police station the next night, when the cops decided a foreigner in one of the country’s most conservative cities must be up to no good. They were right.

Iran’s post-election crisis has become the most serious existential threat to the ruling regime since the Islamic republic was founded 30 years ago. But there are few journalists to report on the story. For the most part, they’ve been jailed, expelled, or intimidated into silence. A little over a week ago, Newsweek’s Maziar Bahari was paraded in a mass show trial after spending more than a month in the notorious Evin prison and writing an 11-page confession of his “crimes.” Greek-British freelancer Iason Athanasiadis left the country in mid-July after extensive back-channel diplomacy and after enduring nearly three weeks in Evin.

Iranian journalists fare even worse. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 38 local reporters are behind bars—making the regime the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders claims Iran is “on the way to becoming the world’s most dangerous place for them to operate.”

Working undercover in Tehran amid severe reporting constraints means I can’t chase the important stories: Who are the real players in the regime? Does the opposition leadership have a plan to prevent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from further radicalizing the government in his second term? What is the power dynamic inside Iran’s vast security apparatus, and who’s in control there?

Instead, I spend my time in the streets covering the still-formidable demonstrations, dodging the feared basij militia alongside protesters brave enough to film the frequently brutal scenes with cell-phone cameras. Although this has been called the Twitter Revolution or the Facebook Revolution, the truth is that most of my Iranian friends turn to Western media to get the bird’s-eye-view perspective that can be missing from blog posts or tweets.

But the simple act of living in Tehran, where I bump into Iranians of all stripes—one man in his late 50s bragged about the clever signs he holds when he protests in front of the British Embassy; a university student in her early 20s explained how to make Molotov cocktails to use against the Revolutionary Guards—opens up the culture. Look beyond the mullahs, ayatollahs, Sharia law, and head-to-toe chadors, and you’ll find a stifled culture and a young population eager to embrace the West and the freedoms we represent.

Take this last weekend, when I watched Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers. It was a big deal—not because the DVD was pirated (there are no copyright laws in Iran), but because in a country where shorts are banned and women are required to wear head scarves in public, I was watching an NC-17 art-house film bought off the streets. A friend tells me the movie is increasingly popular with young Iranians because of its scenes of the 1968 student protests in Paris.

The night before, I was at a party held in a private apartment, where booze was served and dancing encouraged (both are forbidden in the Islamic Republic). At one point, two guys debated which exiled musician, Shahin Najafi or Kiosk, was most critical of the Ahmadinejad government—and, therefore, which they admired the most.

Neither the inspiring street demonstrations nor the behind-closed-doors infighting among the hard-liners will bring about the collapse of the regime in the next few months—after all, it took more than a year to overthrow the despotic shah in 1979. But the theocracy is on a death watch. From what I’ve seen in the last two months, the current level of repression is not sustainable in the long term. Tehranis are fed up of living under Big Brother, where one-third of taxi drivers are rumored to be in the pay of the ministry of intelligence and undercover basij routinely harass people for religious infractions.

Even outside the capital, Iranians are surprisingly cosmopolitan. Many have relatives in the United States, Canada, Europe, or Australia. They know what they’re missing, and the under-30s that make up 70 percent of Iran’s population will not kowtow to 70-year-old clerics in Qom for much longer. But until then, they’ll have to be satisfied with bootleg DVDs, grungy underground parties, and the occasional visit from the neighborhood basij.