The Canadian-Iranian filmmaker whose memoir inspired Jon Stewart's first film speaks out on the challenges faced by Iran's Baha'i community post-Revolution.
Times were much easier for members of Iran’s Baha’i community before the country’s Islamic Revolution of 1979.
“In those days you did not have to declare your religion,” says Iranian-Canadian journalist and filmmaker, Maziar Bahari, over the phone from England. His latest film, the documentary To Light a Candle, takes a look at the Iranian government’s systemic denial of post-secondary education to Baha’i Iranians. The film will be shown in 95 cities around the world, including Toronto, on February 27 as part of Bahari’s Education is Not a Crime initiative. But Bahari quickly points out that the Iranian government’s suppression of Baha’i rights does not stop at education.
“Baha’i homes are raided and their belongings confiscated. Their land is appropriated. They are not allowed to work and are shut out of the public sector, and their graves are often desecrated,” says Bahari.
Bahari might be best known as the Newsweek reporter who was detained and imprisoned in Iran for three months while covering the country’s 2009 elections. His subsequent memoir, Then They Came for Me, became the blueprint for Jon Stewart’s 2014 film, Rosewater.
“After my imprisonment I knew I could not return [to Iran], so I began to work on the films and subjects that I was not allowed to while in Iran,” says Bahari, who felt confined by the red lines around what one can and cannot say in public during his 12 years as a reporter in Iran.
Although not a member of the Baha’i community himself, Bahari uses the precarious position and persecution of the Baha’is as a barometer for change in his native country.
“The two issues that I really care about are journalism and the Baha’is, and I think if the situation of these two groups improves, if they were free to practice their trade and religion, then we really wouldn’t have to worry about anything,” says Bahari.
At no point in the film does Bahari tie in his own narrative. In fact, in conversation he often differentiates his own incarceration from the imprisonment of Baha’is in Iran.
“The situation of Baha’is in Iran is very different from the situation of Muslims in Iran. I have a choice and am not solely being persecuted because of my religion,” says Bahari, while speaking to a screening room filled with members of the media and Baha’i community.
Written, directed, and produced by Bahari, the feature-length documentary uses archival footage and interviews with various members of the Baha’i community to illustrate the severity of the crimes perpetrated against them in Iran and to highlight their non-violent resistance to it.
Since 1987 the Baha’i community in Iran has been holding underground teaching classes and has initiated the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), which has to date sent more than 100 students to graduate schools throughout the world.
According to statistics in the film, there are currently more than 100 Baha’i prisoners of conscience in Iran’s jails and thousands more have been executed for practicing their religion.
There are local connections, too: a member of Toronto’s Baha’i community, 79-year-old Mehri Mavaddat, escaped Iran in 1983 after the kidnapping and execution of her husband. She remains hopeful that raising awareness about these issues will have an impact.
“When I came out of Iran, no one knew about the situation of Baha’is, but now they know, and it is embarrassing for the Iranian government; everything can make a difference, even one little article in a newspaper,” says Mavaddat.
Bahari, like Mavaddat, is also hopeful that things will change and that the film is only the first step.
“The film is part of a global campaign, the nucleus of the campaign, and if the film can make one official in the Iranian government doubt his actions, then I have done my job. As an individual it is the best I can hope for,” says Bahari.
To Light a Candle will be screening at 7 p.m. at the Toronto Baha’i Centre at 288 Bloor Street West this Friday, February 27.