‘Sara is typical of the generation of young women activists in Iran,” says Sepideh Farsi, speaking about the heroine of her latest film, Red Rose, which had its Israeli premiere at the 30th Haifa International Film Festival. The festival runs until October 18.
“The women are more provocative and radical than the young men, the way they speak and act. They believe that you need to free your body, change the way you dress. They are more outspoken. I feel it when I go on Facebook, when I read their tweets,” she says.
Red Rose is an intimate, heartfelt movie that examines the political situation in Iran through the relationship between two people, a young woman named Sara (Mina Kavani) and Ali (Vassilis Koukalani), a middle- aged man. Ali is planning to leave Iran for good and join his wife and child abroad, but he can’t seem to pack his bags. Red Rose opens the day after the disputed elections in 2009, demonstrations broke out all over Iran, as the mostly young protesters called for justice, and the Green Wave movement was born.
As the demonstrations turn violent, some young people take shelter in a building, and beg Ali to allow them into his apartment.
Moved by their plight, he allows them to hide with them, although he has had nothing to do with the protests. After a few hours, they all leave, but Sara, an activist who tweets under the name PersianStar, finds herself attracted to Ali and she returns to his apartment. The two have a passionate affair, which unfolds in the shadow of these protests.
“The film shows a conflict between the generations. You’re always more radical when you are younger. Ali is a middle-aged man, he is disappointed and skeptical, but she falls for him and through this impossible relationship, she opens him up. I’m from Ali’s generation,” says Farsi.
She grew up in an educated Muslim family in Tehran, the daughter of a civil engineer and a housewife, who at first welcomed the revolution against the Shah, but were then appalled by the extremism of the Islamic leaders who took over.
In the early years following the Islamic Revolution, Farsi was jailed for eight months for her political activities.
“You’re not conscious of the risks you are taking at that age,” she says, downplaying her own bravery. “My parents were supportive, they agreed with me, but were trying to stop me from being politically active because they were concerned for my safety.”
In prison, she met serious political activists as well as common street criminals.
“When I got out, I couldn’t go back to high school,” she says. “And I was banned from university.”
It was clear she had to leave the country, but a plan to study in the US fell through, so she went to Paris, where she had to learn French before she could continue her education.
After studying math, she became interested in photography and then moved into making both features and documentaries, several of which are about her homeland, among them the award-winning Tehran Without Permission, a portrait of the city in which she grew up.
In 2009, together with screenwriter Javad Djavahery, she began researching the Green Wave movement, partly through social media. “The main idea for the film was his, he lives in Paris as well,” she says.
Red Rose was filmed in Athens with Iranian actors, and incorporates YouTube footage of the Green Wave demonstrations, as well as cellphone footage shot by friends she prefers not to name back in Tehran.
Many of the tweets Sara writes in the film were taken from Twitter feeds from 2009.
Another inspiration for Sara was Nahal Sahabi, a young blogger who was arrested, along with her boyfriend and roommate, a political activist. Sahabi and her boyfriend both committed suicide in prison.
While Farsi was clearly happy to discuss her film with journalists at the festival, and has visited Israel before, she had some reservations about coming here after the war this summer. A statement she read before the screening of Red Rose, said, in part: “The decision to come here was a complicated one for me to take, not only because of the complex political situation between Iran and Israel. But also because... when I received Pnina [Blayer, the director of the Haifa film festival]’s invitation, Gaza was under attack and my first reaction was: I can’t go to Haifa in this situation! And even though the war has stopped since, the damage is done. And the casualty figures are mind-blowing... particularly on the Gazan side, as you know.
“But then I called Pnina and said what I had in mind and she told me something very touching. She said, ‘you’re knocking on an open door.’ So I decided to come...and here I am, standing before you as an Iranian, and also as a world citizen, to say that this absurd and unfair war could have been avoided. And it’s important that we, as free citizens, stand up against what we believe is profoundly wrong, and I’m sure there are many people here tonight who agree with me on that. The path towards a mutual understanding, between Iran and Israel... between Israel and Palestine, are long but inevitable ones. It needs patience, and it needs courageous people who don’t give up on their ideals.”
Farsi has been able to visit Iran in the past, but she says, “After this film, for sure I can’t go back. I’m persona non grata.”
She knew she would pay a high price for making Red Rose, but she doesn’t regret it: “In 2009, for first time in almost 30 years, I felt that it was worth it speaking out loud saying things openly.”