Once Upon a Timein Iran explores religion as the key to understanding Iranian society.
Once Upon a Timein Iran explores religion as the key to understanding Iranian society.

TX: Once Upon A Time In Iran
Broadcaster:Channel 4 and PBS
Producer:Maya Vision International
Start:9pm, Thursday 22 February
Length:60 minutes
Commissioning editor:Angus Macqueen

TV commissions are usually hard won but in a rare turn of events director Kevin Sim was handed one on a plate early last year. Fellow film-maker Angus Macqueen had just been appointed Channel 4's new head of documentary and was looking for a director to take over his project about Iran.

Macqueen was keen to make a film about Iran because of the country's central position in the so-called 'axis of evil'. Although Iran regularly makes the headlines, mainly because of its president's enthusiasm for nuclear power, we know very little about its people.

Believing that religion might provide the key to understanding Iranian society, Macqueen wanted the documentary to follow a group of Shi'a Muslims on the often dangerous pilgrimage from the Iranian capital, Tehran, to the holy shrine in Karbala, Iraq. He hoped that the journey would not only throw light on the pilgrims' lives, but also reveal how much religious belief shapes Iranian society.

'Iran is an amazingly important country,' says Macqueen. 'In the context of nuclear weapons and talk of invading Iran, it is surely significant that martyrdom is at the heart of this theocratic state's faith.' While Macqueen wanted the documentary to explore this central idea, he did not make any other demands on Sim. 'I didn't give him instructions. I said: 'Iran is very interesting and complicated and you are free to do what you want.''

With carte blanche to make the film his own, Sim teamed up with indie production company Maya Vision International, a veteran of filming in Iran, last March. Together they started the long process of gaining permission to shoot. 'We worked like mad to get access,' says Maya producer Rebecca Dobbs. 'Our film was passed to the press section of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Iran.' Dobbs also wrote a letter to the ministry detailing all the earlier work Maya had produced in Iran. The letter was crucial in separating Maya's team from the glut of foreign TV crews angling to get the inside story on current affairs. 'There are millions of journalists trying to get in there to do the nuclear stories, so we had to prove that we were doing what we said we would,' says Dobbs.

As the application inched forward, Sim began to feel the pressure. 'It was a very uncomfortable time,' he says. 'The little development money we had ran out and we were left sitting on a good story until the visas arrived. There were times when we thought, how long can we hang on?'

To diffuse the tension, Dobbs suggested Sim take a trip to Iran. 'There is no substitute for going to see ancient things and getting a sense of the place,' he says, of the 10-day trip in June. By the middle of August, Sim was able to return to Iran, this time to start filming. Dobbs considers this five-month turnaround for an application to film as something of a feat. 'That was very fast for Iran,' she says. 'The last time it took us six months.'

After one week of scouting out locations on his own, Sim was joined by the film crew in Tehran. Together they got on the pilgrims' bus bound for Karbala and were immediately struck by the atmosphere onboard. 'They were serious religious people and this (pilgrimage) was a chance of a lifetime,' says Sim. 'The first thing they did when they got on the bus was cry.'

The atmosphere was further darkened by the murder of other pilgrims. 'There was news on the road that 14 Pakistani Shi'as had been tortured and killed on the way,' says Sim. The pilgrims, however, were prepared for the worst. 'All of them got on the bus knowing there was a chance they might get blown up,' says Sim. 'They understood they might be martyred on the way. Many of them had made wills. They are ordinary people with a belief that sets them apart from us.'

At the border with Iraq, the UK team had to get off the bus and hand over to an Iranian production team, who, being Muslims, could accompany the pilgrims all the way to the shrine. 'We weren't allowed to go into Iraq,' says Sim, who found the switch hard to take. 'The pilgrims were out of my control at the film's climax. It felt really wrong.'

While Sim returned to Tehran to do some ancillary filming, the Iranian crew spent an eventful week with the pilgrims in Iraq. 'Our cameraman, Bahman Kiarostami, got arrested two or three times,' says Sim. '[On one occasion] he was trying to take a shot of the roof of a temple but he failed to see a police station in his line of shot. However, they didn't fail to notice him and ran to him firing guns in the air.'

Arrests aside, the week of filming in Iraq went smoothly and the UK crew rejoined the bus when it crossed the border back into Iran. Sim rounded off the four-week shoot with footage of the pilgrims returning to traditional homecoming celebrations in Tehran.

With a February transmission date looming, the team has since been editing the film. Offline editing was completed in the last week of January, followed by one week of online editing. Dobbs has also been trying to track down archive footage from Iranian public channel Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. The footage, which covers historical events such as the Iran/Iraq war, is being used to underscore key moments in the pilgrims' lives. 'This is another huge problem,' says Dobbs. 'It takes a lot of time to explain what we want and why.'

While the team has spent months lobbying, first for access and then for archive material, Macqueen believes the hard work has paid off. 'Kevin has created a film with the present, the past, the overthrow of the Shah and the war in Iraq all woven together through the central image of martyrdom, which is at the heart of the Shi'a faith,' he says.

Production credits
Director:Kevin Sim
Producer:Rebecca Dobbs
Production manager:Sally Thomas
Editor: Gregor Lyon
Assistant producer and research:Golnoosh Golshani
Cameraman:Paul Otter, Bahman Kiarostami,
Sound: Adam Toy, Babak Salek
Post-production:Pepper and Aquarium
Production in Iran:Zohreh Majidian
Online editor:Richard Cradick
Dubbing mixer:Ben Baird
Colourist:Dan Coles
Original music: Samuel Sim