Synergy: Going with God
You can’t get programs like ours on to official Iranian television, because the content would probably be deemed as anti-Islamic or even Zionist or whatever else the Iranian government labels anything that fosters true diversity and understanding between its people. The protagonist of our show is a Baha’i and Baha’is are the largest persecuted minority in Iran. It’s the story of a medical student who, barred from studying in her own country, travels to unveiled South Africa, leaving her Moslem fiancé behind. You’ve got at least three more taboos in the eyes of the Iranian authorities just in the sentence above. So our only other broadcast options would be diasporaic satellite channels that get beamed into Iran. Even if we get the show on to those channels, the likely scenario would be that we’d have to buy airtime and would struggle to find a befitting slot for the unique short format that we’ve had to apply – again, due to our lack of resources.
Being only 5-6 minutes long, we’ve decided to launch the first 9 episodes on the web. Our original pilot script was for a half-hour format, but without funding, you can’t access gear, actors or a crew that will have enough time to sustain full half-hour episodes. Anyone in professional episodic television knows it’s a full-time job! So we resorted to shorter episodes, a handy cam and friends. These friends are lawyers, teachers, students, financial planners, secretaries who have never acted a day in their life. Above all, while excited by the concept, it’s something they can only give their spare time to, which means random morning, evenings and pieces of weekends.
As a result what should have taken us 3-4 days in total shoot time, has taken us several months with people’s hairstyles changing and beards growing. Let me tell you about one specific day that would have to be the flagship of hard shoot days. I had just woken up after rescheduling all the scenes we were going to shoot at one of our locations, which we used as a university, orphanage and medical clinic all at once. I had sent out reminder emails to all my actors a few nights earlier, reminding them of the exact outfits they should bring, what lines to learn and when to be “on set”. One of our main actors texted me to say that he wasn’t going to make it, as he hadn’t seen his wife in weeks and wanted to fly down from Johannesburg to Cape Town, where she was in the middle of completing her MBA. I started convulsing at the prospect of once again calling all my actors, apologizing and rescheduling them all. But luckily my husband managed to guilt our rogue star into changing his flight by another day.
The following morning I woke up with the worst headache, nausea and fever. I just couldn’t get out of bed. When money isn’t a factor, you have nothing but your conscience to go on, so canceling the shoot after putting my friend’s marriage on the line wasn’t an option. We called emergency medical services and I got poked with antibiotics and vitamin B complex shots. Within minutes I was better, but forgot knowing my lines. We finally made it to the location where soon I realized no one else had learned their lines either. We created cheat sheets we’d hold up and broke up the scenes into short shots that made it manageable. I knew I’d had to deal with the consequences later, because the English parts of our show had already been painstakingly translated by Iranians who would definitely cringe at the prospect of adjusting the subtitles again.
Let me take a little excursion into the world of our subtitles. I wrote the scripts in English, sent them to a bunch of real Iranians who translated everything literally and sent it back. I would then slowly read the Farsi (if I were fast, I’d have translated it myself in the first place), try and ascertain where things were awkward and send the script back with notes such as “’I want to be dead and buried’ on the spot does not refer to an actually desire for suicide, but can rather be understood as a cutesy expression of shame”. All the same, we ended up with strange translations, which, once edited together evoked some eye-rolling.
In some cases, the lines were so off, that we had to call people back into our “studio” (our living-room) to dub certain words and lines and make them match lips and background sounds as best we could. And with nobody to watch out for continuity there are scenes where I’m wearing two different kinds of earrings and scenes where my co-actress is wearing her hair up in one shot and down in another. But thanks to my ingenious and talented husband, we blew up those shots and performed other little miracles of sound and image, which, all in all, has led to a very viewable and engaging result.
Which brings me to the miracle that is synergy. Synergy is the interaction of elements to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. Needless to say that each of us as an element fell short of the desired effect or the professionalism required for an undertaking like the one we embarked on. But this little word, synergy, is the magic that happened on this shoot and has fueled us through all our negative-profit, under-appreciated projects in the last few years and which happens when two things occur: unity of vision and sacrifice.
Every single person involved in the project participated because they had been touched by the vision of creating a story that would help bring hearts together in whatever little way and because each and every single person, Persian, black or white, had some very real connection to the people of Iran. Because of this, all our actors and those who opened their homes and gave of their time, including my helper, made very real sacrifices: from postponing trips to see their beloved spouse to missing important lectures, from skipping a night of sleep to skipping, as my son did, a day’s worth of breast-milk. But in the end that sacrifice meant that we’d get something bigger and sacred in return for what we’d chipped in.
“Dr. Elham”, as the show is called, has begun airing on our website, www.elham.tv, with new episodes releasing every Sunday. For now our audience is small, but loyal, diverse and hooked – qualities any filmmaker can appreciate. The diversity is, perhaps our greatest strength, as we venture into sharing the project with more people who are interested in or directly affected by Iran and its people. The viewership is also very proactive in that they share our web-series in ways that take great effort. Some people within Iran are downloading the content and spreading it in their own ways, in an effort to circumvent the government censorship on our website, on high-speed internet and anything “Baha’i”.
As with many of our recent products, we’re making it available for free, hoping that the synergy will one day pay off in some way so that we can produce more such content. Already, a viewer from Luxembourg has offered to buy us equipment to support the production of more similar content. With all that, the power lies in the collective support of those who help make and those who watch the project and perhaps most of all with “dios” – but surely least of all with us, the filmmakers.