Why Argo is hard for Iranians to watch
Ben Affleck’s film may depict a barely recognisable Iran but it is a sharp reminder of how young revolutionaries failed their country
People usually go to the cinema for entertainment, especially when it comes to Hollywood movies, but when I went to watch Ben Affleck’s Argo last week I knew beforehand that it was going to be a rather painful experience. Temptation outweighed the agony, I’m afraid.
I had prepared myself. “It’s a film, not a documentary,” I had tried to remember. But the claim that it was “based on a true story” created greater expectations in me. I didn’t try to fact-check – although others have done with some disappointment – but other things caught my attention.
First, it was Affleck’s desperate attempt to make a film set in Iran without having been either there in person or able to shoot within its borders. Having chosen to film in Turkey instead, Affleck has done his best – well, the best you can when making a film about Iran by shooting in a neighbouring country.
To be honest, the locations are not too bad. Buildings are similar to those in Iran, the houses are not that different, the bazaar is quite like the actual shopping centre in south Tehran. Banners, placards and signs are in Persian and many characters actually speak the language, although some with accents.
There are silly mistakes, however. In one scene, for example, the protagonist Tony Mendez (Affleck) says “salam” at the end of his conversation with an Iranian official. Salam means hello in Persian, not goodbye.
Minor mistakes aside, the film takes a black and white view towards Iranians, like many other western films about Iran. It portrays them as ugly, poor, strictly religious, fanatical and ignorant – almost in line with the young revolutionaries behind the hostage-taking at the US embassy in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution, which the film is about. The only nice Iranian in the film is the Canadian ambassador’s maid.
The whole experience is like asking an Iranian who has never been to the US to make a film (let’s say in Cuba) about the Columbine high school massacre. You’ll probably end up watching a film in which all Americans are crazy, have a gun at home and are ready to shoot their classmates.
As I was leaving the cinema with my Iranian friend (and I assume we were the only Iranians in the room), we were cautious not to speak Persian too loud to be noticed. “Oh my God, they’re Iranians,” we assumed others would say, as if we were from Mars.
But what troubles me most is how the film reminds me of Iran’s history, of how a group of my countrymen betrayed Iran, took a group of people hostage and brought pain and trauma to another country for 444 days.
For years at school I was taught that the hostage-taking of American diplomats was an act of resistance, heroism on behalf of revolutionaries showing their anger at US interference in Iran’s internal affairs.
Argo suddenly wipes out all that revolutionary rhetoric and reminds me of the other side of the story. It shows the yellow ribbons in the streets of Washington DC, the anguish and pain caused by the incident, and it makes me regret what happened more than 30 years ago.
Affleck’s film may depict an Iran I hardly recognise but it is a bitter reminder of how young revolutionaries and their leaders failed their country, putting Iran in a crisis that has had consequences for its people to this day.
In reaction to the film, some of the hostage-takers have defended what happened after 1979. But Argo should make them reflect and at least face up to the reality.
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