Mehrdad Oskouei documentaries rediscover Iranian visual histories

Traveling from Iran to the United States is not something easily accomplished in today’s world, but the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences was fortunate enough to bring well-known documentary filmmaker Mehrdad Oskouei to Williamstown last week to screen four of his films at Images Cinema and to talk about his work on the visual history of Iran. On Oct. 12, Oskouei spoke at the Oakley Center about his project involving postcards from throughout Iran’s history; as his native language is Persian, a translator was present. 

The idea of researching postcards began two years ago when Oskouei found a book of postcards in Paris from all around the world. The Iranian postcard featured women in Burkas and was captioned “human nest.” Oskouei realized that there was a huge gap of Iranian history that had no existing visuals to accompany, support or dispute the written history. Although he had little money, Oskouei began to collect postcards from everywhere he could. He would get permission to search people’s attics and basements, or have people come to him with postcards they had found. At first, no collectors had postcards in their store, but as time went on and the word about his project spread, they began to collect them to sell to him.

In 2010 Oskouei won the Prince Claus Award for his documentary films, which included The Other Side of Burka, one of the films screened at Images about the high suicide rate among young Iranian women. Oskouei was able to use the 25,000 euro prize from the Dutch Foreign Ministry to help continue his work on Iranian postcards. “I wanted an interdisciplinary approach to the context of these postcards,” Oskouei said. A total of 20 researchers worked on the project, including anthropologists, historians, language specialists and photographers who all brought different perspectives to the photographs.

Four volumes of postcards were collected and put into books organized by categories such as daily life and the social life of women. Each photo was then accompanied by a small amount of text with the hope that other researchers would expand on those descriptions in the future. “These postcards are not only a bridge to the past, but also to the future generations so they can build their own bridges,” Oskouei said. “We have a very rich history and a very complex history, and this is one of the only ways to bring that history to life.”

During the Q&A session following the talk, Oskouei elaborated on some of his favorite and most surprising postcards. He described one series of three pictures that documented the time a swarm of locusts plagued a town and another series that he wasn’t able to keep showing that contained photographs of the women of a harem and the shah completely nude. “That was surprising,” laughed Oskouei.

On Thursday, I chose to see It’s Always Late for Freedom out of the three Oskouei films that were being screened that day. At just under an hour long, It’s Always Late For Freedom was a documentary that highlighted the lives of young boys placed in the Tehran House of Correction. The boys were aged 13 to 15 and had been placed in the corrections facility for problems with addiction, violence and poverty. One of the boys admitted without pause that he was a crack addict, while another spoke to a social worker about why he stole a motorcycle; yet another talked about a fight where he stabbed his opponent. While it would be easy to condemn these boys, Oskouei did a fantastic job of showing them as what they are – not monsters but children who are byproducts of their childhood environments.

In the corrections facility, the boys eat, clean, play and pray with each other for one to two months without seeing their mothers or family except on visiting days. The film showed many of the boys crying on the phone or looking longingly out the window, wondering when it would be their day for freedom. Oskouei also questioned them about their family life, at which point the film revealed that many of the boys were afraid to go home because they might be beaten. New York Times writer James Yong said in his article profiling Oskouei in May, “His knack, experts say, is to capture these deeply personal scenes almost as if neither he nor his cameras were in the room.” It was obvious even without an expert’s opinion that Oskouei’s films give an empathetic view into the lives of his subjects.

While I did not get the chance to see Oskouei’s other documentaries, my experience with It’s Always Late For Freedom suggests that those other films also dealt with Iranian issues with the informative sensitivity that Oskouei has perfected. Those who saw him speak or saw his films are lucky to have been a part of art that is both socially powerful and revolutionary for its time and subject matter.

PHOTO courtesy of Williams Oakley center for the humanities and arts A Persian sweet seller is foregrounded on one of Oskouei’s postcards from the Qajar era.