Imams Go To School

Imams Go To School

Movie Reviews: International Documentary Film Fest in Amsterdam

Greetings from the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam (IDFA), the most important event of its kind in the world – although, given the subject matter of so many of its films, you might call it the Injustice Documentary Festival of Amsterdam. A case in point are the elections of 2009. Whatever happened to those images of Iranians celebrating in green scarves and t-shirts in the streets before the countrys last allegedly fixed elections of June of last year, and then running from the police who beat them bloody?

These pictures were taken on the cellphones and video cameras of much of the population that turned out in huge crowds to support Mir Hossein Mousavi, the last opposition candidate for president. Moussavi lost and, as we see, the clerics and the police won. Or did they? Should they be worrying?

In Ali Samadi Ahadis documentary, The Green Wave, this brief taste of freedom is a seismic shift in the population of Iran, were told by longtime observers of the countrys human rights crisis who saw a new possibility for freedom seize hold of the general population.

Ahadi tells that story from the perspective of the mostly young Iranians who took to the streets, or who took to the internet with messages that range from bliss at seeing likeminded people acting as if they lived in a democracy (however briefly), to mourning when they gather the dead left by the police in the streets. Not all the dead have been accounted for, were told. In case you havent guessed, the Imams who led the Iranian Revolution arent mourning them.

The Green Wave

The Green Wave

Can you make a grim cartoon show out of this ? Much of the film is animated, drawn from the descriptions of events that came in messages over the internet.

Ahadi says he turned to animation because he needed images to accompany the text and voices that were sent out during the protests and the crackdown. Re-enacting the events from Germany, where hes lived since he and his brother fled during the Iran-Iraq War, was not an option, at least not a credible one. Seen alongside the moving pictures of the streets, the animation makes you feel the savagery of a regime that perceives its own people as a potential threat which becomes as real as crowds of hundreds of thousands can be. You hear and see members of the citizens militia as they recall beating demonstrators to death day after day. Demonstrators tell of torture in prison that sounds much worse than what the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi described in her book about being imprisoned (and eventually freed) before the June 2009 events began. The book is Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran (HarperCollins).

The violence against its own citizens worked for the Tehran regime for the past year, but the government faces the troubling demographic fact that 70% of Iranians are under the age of 30.

You might remember that the Ayatollah Khomeini was living in France when he called for the overthrown of the Shah of Iran in the 1970s. France at the time was a lot more comfortable for the cleric than one of the shahs prisons.

Imams Go to School by Kaouther Ben Hania from France (see trailer above), takes us to a course conducted by the Institut Catholique in Paris, in which the imams who are pastors at mosques throughout France (and students at the Grand Mosque across town) learn the principals of the French Republic. Voltaire could have conceived of this droll situation. As part of this course, conducted under the auspices of such agencies as the Ministry of the Interior, which also runs the police forces, one of the teachers is a former police official. Its about assimilation of leaders of groups that might view themselves as outsiders.

A key principal in France is secularism, which bans the wearing of headscarves by Muslim teachers in schools. The University of Paris (which includes the Sorbonne) does not give courses on religion, so it fell to the colorful Olivier Bobineau of the Institut Catholique to teach this one as if he were performing onstage. Bobineau explains to his students that the once-dominant Catholic Church fought any obligation to be subject to French laws – it lost that battle in 1905 — and he warns the imams that they and their congregations are protected by laws that ban the privileging of any particular religion.

The students listen in silence. Most of them cant match Bobineau in rhetorical fervor, and they dont try. When it comes to talking to a TV crew that wants to film a story about the course, they wont say a word to the media whom they distrust. Nor do they say much as Kaouther Ben Hanias camera follows them walking in incomprehension past statues in the corridors of the Institut Catholique, or looking at murals in churches. So much for expanding the discussion among religious groups in France. But who said it wasnt a work in progress?

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