Iranian Filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei Awaits a Prison Sentence in Quarantine

The documentarian has been sentenced to a year in prison. He wonders if he were there now, amid the coronavirus, how would he spend his time? Photo: Courtesy of Mehrdad Oskouei

Three days before the announcement of the coronavirus coming to the city of Qom in Iran, I organized a one-day documentary-film workshop in which more than 80 people participated. My hotel was right in front of the Fatima Masumeh holy shrine. Early in the morning, around 4 a.m, pilgrims who had come from different cities began shouting loudly in the corridors as they prepared for pilgrimage. After class, I went to the shrine, and some of my students accompanied me; it was so crowded. There was no word yet on the virus’s arrival in Iran. After two days, they announced that the coronavirus had entered Iran, and that a Chinese citizen and an Iranian businessman traveling to China had tested positive. The following week, I had a workshop in Qom that I immediately canceled, and my wife, Mandana, and I quarantined ourselves. People in Tehran had not yet taken the virus seriously, but I would not leave the house at all.

As the coronavirus spread quickly to Tehran, and eventually all over the country, people went to pharmacies and bought masks, gloves, sanitizers, and alcohol. U.S. sanctions have prepared the Iranian people for emergencies, and many already had food in their house to last six months. Unfortunately, the sanctions have led to a shortage of some drugs and medical equipment in our country; many doctors and nurses have passed away while caring for patients as a result. Although the World Health Organization, other international organizations, and a number of countries have provided humanitarian assistance, the problem remains; the conditions are similar to those of war. Iran had years of experience in the war with Iraq, and this situation may have reminded people of the state of crisis during that time. So the efforts of doctors and nurses and medical staff to save people’s lives have been compared to the soldiers and commanders of the Iran-Iraq war. Several of my students went to hospitals in Qom shortly after the outbreak and made films about the efforts of nurses and doctors. Another friend was filming nurses and doctors dancing in an effort to beat people’s anxiety. I think constantly of those tired nurses dancing to entertain the patients and their colleagues in a polluted hospital environment.

After two weeks in quarantine, I drove to my office in the east of Tehran to pick up some stuff, and found the streets so crowded. I thought the streets and malls would be completely vacant due to officials’ warnings, but there were maybe about 30 percent fewer people outside than before. They were buying things for the Nowruz holiday — New Year in Iran, which begins on the first day of spring. So the authorities’ message was not taken seriously. According to some news, 8.5 million people in 19 provinces of Iran have traveled during Nowruz, which is very disappointing. As the number of people with the coronavirus increased in Qom, people in Tehran, especially in the north of the city, became less likely to come out. But perhaps because of the parliamentary elections, the authorities did not institute a quarantine, which made the situation difficult. A number of officials and representatives who were active during the election got the virus, and some unfortunately died. My cousin in Mashhad tested positive and she’s in home quarantine. Her lungs have become infected, which we all worry about. The parents of two of my students have died because of the virus. More than 20 people I know have died, mostly in the northern cities of Iran. As of March 25, 2020, Tehran was quarantined at the order of the president, and no car was allowed to leave.

In October of 2019, I had finished my latest film, Sunless Shadows, which had premiered at the IDFA Film Festival and had already screened at [New York’s Museum of Modern Art]. For a couple of months, with my distributor, we were trying to choose the right strategy for the film’s worldwide screenings, but then we encountered the pandemic. At the same time, I’d been working on a new project in southeastern Iran. My previous films were about boys and girls at correctional centers, and women in women’s prisons. An important part of my new film is about male inmates who are sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking, and their wives and children who live in a large village without a man. I’m always worried about these prisoners’ lives. My father and grandfather were imprisoned for political reasons. I also have a one-year prison sentence hanging over me for making the film; the result will be known in three months. Sometimes I wonder, if I was in prison at this time, how would I spend my time?

Due to the high risk of outbreaks in prisons, prison authorities have released more than 10,000 inmates and are going to release more prisoners by the end of April. But there is still concern for the remaining inmates. The girls in my two latest films, Sunless Shadows and Starless Dreams, have all been released. One of the three mothers sentenced to death in Sunless Shadows has also been released, but the other two mothers are still in prison and we are worried about them. Prison authorities have cancelled in-person meetings and reduced the number of outside contact with prisoners. I am in touch with some girls released from prison. I support three of them for their living expenses and their education. Fortunately, they have locked themselves at home and are well.

I was in quarantine with my wife until early March. I worked with my post-production office over the internet for my film. With the invitation of eleven international festivals, I decided to go to France to stay with my daughter, so that I could attend the festivals. Only one flight was allowed to leave for France; all flights were canceled afterward. I went to Paris first, and then directly to Rennes, in the west. I was shocked when I arrived in France: I saw no change in personal care. Paris was as busy as ever, even at the train stations. I was scared and tried to keep my distance from other people. I was wondering why the French government did nothing to prevent the epidemic. The French went to a home quarantine for two weeks on Tuesday, March 17. So now, I spend my days in home quarantine with sports, reading books, writing in my diaries, and trying to watch at least two documentaries and exercise two hours a day.

I’ve read three books by Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Also, The Plague by Albert Camus. Now I’m reading Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and a book by Iranian author Ahmad Okhovat to enhance diary writing. I practice diary writing. I see hundreds of photos and record my lonely thoughts every day. My daughter Alma is still working on her master’s thesis, “The Relation of Magic in Primitive Communities to Contemporary Art.” We talk a lot about what she has found. Maybe that’s why I wanted to read One Hundred Years of Solitude again. I’m working on my time-management technique, a skill to be learned with adaptation and practice. Time is the raw material of my life, so I try to make sure I engage in purposeful and enjoyable activities.

These days are so strange. Eight hundred people have died in Italy in just 24 hours. I can’t believe it! The kind, old people who came to see my films and watched them carefully and asked important questions, where are they now? Many of them come to my mind: Where are the gardener, the chef, and the architect from Florence? I know that I can do nothing and it makes me angry. I’ve had periods of depression.

But I also think about how the virus has reduced air pollution all over the world. The Earth is breathing and is appreciative. In Sardinia, Italy, dolphins have returned to the port of Cagliari and are swimming freely. On my daily hike on a forest road in the city of Rennes, I constantly wonder how an artist should reflect his time. How will human beings behave in the world after this crisis? What will happen to movie theaters? Will our filmmaking habits and the collective experience of watching movies disappear from our daily lives? What will happen to the tired nurses and doctors? When we know that death is so close to us, to what extent can we make humanity more meaningful? How will our thoughts, actions, behavior, and choices during this pandemic be judged by future generations?

I feel like we’re in the heart of a sci-fi movie. The coronavirus will divide the history of the world into two parts: before and after the virus. I hope I can survive and understand this change.

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An Iranian Filmmaker Awaits a Prison Sentence in Quarantine