The last time Farhad Mohammadi was in The Frederick News-Post, he had scored a goal for Frederick High School boys’ soccer. This time, the Chicago-based consultant has a different project: a documentary on photography, censorship and artistry in Iran.
“Fading Portraits” is an intimate look at Maryam Zandi, a photographer in Tehran struggling to publish a book of photographs from the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Some of the photographs were flagged as incendiary by the country’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance: specifically, photos of Mohammad Mosaddegh, a former prime minister overthrown by a Western-orchestrated coup, and of women without hijabs. But Zandi suspects that much of the censorship stems from her 2010 refusal to accept a “First Degree Medal of Art” from then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an act of political protest that attracted attention across the country.
“Still, no official explanation of the censorship was ever provided to her,” Mohammadi said. “That’s why it’s so frustrating.”
The film screens on Thursday and Friday at the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival, and it’s a sort of a homecoming for both Mohammadi — the producer and editor — and Boris Sklasky, the film’s composer.
The men met as sophomores at Frederick High School and maintained a friendship through college and after graduation. In the early 2000s, they collaborated on a record label and production company that eventually evolved into Ephemeral Arts, a studio collective from which Skalsky still releases albums with his band, Dead Heart Bloom. At the time, Mohammadi was also taking occasional film classes at New York University and the International Center of Photography, which bloomed into a desire to produce his own documentaries.
In 2010, he tried. Some of Mohammadi’s family still lives in Iran, and he took eight months off work to produce a film on the difficulties of obtaining a U.S. tourist visa for many of the country’s residents. But of the 70 people who applied for a visa while he was there, 66 had no interest in speaking on the record for the documentary. Of the four who did want to participate, only one could convince his whole family to agree to the filming.
“At that point, it becomes very limited storytelling,” Mohammadi said.
But the trip did help him connect with Ali Shilandari, a producer and director who was part of the National Iranian Photographers’ Society. Shilandari knew of Zandi, a well-known national artist and the only female member of the professional group. Her refusal of the presidential award had only increased her visibility.
“That’s when he approached her and asked if she would be interested in a project,” Mohammadi said.
Shilandari started filming Zandi around 2012, and Mohammadi edited the footage back home in the United States. Early into production, he also asked Skalsky to compose the score for the film, a synthesized instrumental track that takes pains to avoid a generic “Middle Eastern” sound.
“I didn’t necessarily want to use traditional Iranian melodies,” Skalsky said. “I didn’t want it to be cliched. [Shilandari] was sending back this very beautiful natural cinematography, and I had a very specific idea for filling that canvas.”
The natural footage — mostly from Zandi’s trips to the Iranian countryside — contrast starkly with her life in Tehran. In the years after the Iranian Revolution, hundreds of artists were blacklisted by the government. Others were arrested for taking photographs during a more recent protest before Shilandari started filming. As a result, Zandi fears taking photos on the streets of Tehran. She’s also dealing with professional frustrations. In addition to the censorship of her book — or at least as an outgrowth of it — the Ministry of Culture forbids Zandi from taking her elected position as the president of the National Iranian Photographers’ Society. Few in the male-dominated group step in to defend her.
“It’s hard to say that all her difficulties come from being a woman,” Mohammadi said. “Most artists in Iran are censored. But when it comes to the board, I think it does play a role. If other women were on the board of directors, maybe they would have stood up for her.”
The producer hopes that the glimpse into Iranian culture will help promote a better understanding of the country beyond its political dealings with the United States. He was inspired by “Feathers of Fire,” an international touring shadow play centered on epic Persian mythology.
“What I really loved is that it went to places like Des Moines, Iowa, and played to sold-out crowds,” Mohammadi said. “It’s a way to help connect people with our art and our culture.”
Follow Kate Masters on Twitter @kamamasters