When Sepideh Farsi faced government restrictions over shooting a film in Tehran during election season this year, she turned to her mobile phone. Using nothing more than a Nokia N95 camera phone, she roamed the streets recording conversations with taxi drivers, women in beauty salons, actors, magicians and restless youth in cafes. The result is an arresting documentary about life in the crowded, polluted capital city of a country under international sanctions over its nuclear energy ambitions and experiencing the worst unrest since the Islamic revolution of 1979. It's not quite fly-on-the-wall, since Farsi guides the conversations and spent six months editing one month's worth of material, but a covert picture of life emerges in “Tehran Bedoune Mojavez” (Tehran Without Permission) in only slightly grainy images that work on a large screen. The easy use and discretion offered by the mobile made people more inclined to talk, Farsi said at the Dubai International Film Festival this week where the documentary was shown. “The telephone is so banal that people talk more and it gives more intimacy,” she said. “A camera is always intimidating. They put a mike and flash a light – there is always this distance between the one filming and the one filmed. But here it's reduced to a minimum.” As it turned out, the mobile was the technology of the times. With the government cracking down on media as supporters of opposition candidates took to the streets to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection, Iranians used phone photography to relay images to sites such as Twitter and YouTube.
Farsi, who left Iran in 1980 and lives in France, hears stories about the state of Iranian society today that she says explain a lot about the protests. Around two thirds of the country's over 70 million population are thought to be under 30 years old. Women at the hairdresser's talk of the fad for nose operations, eyebrow tattoos and other procedures among ever younger women, even teenagers. Young men who talk to the camera complain of the spread of drugs, alcohol and prostitution in society despite the strict moral code imposed by the system of clerical rule. One, shot in a dark place to afford anonymity, says those in power prefer this situation and that society has become highly materialistic. Farsi, in the reformist camp herself, then flips to images from state television of senior clerics in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom casting their votes and a presenter attacking Western media coverage for claiming the initial turnout was low. She splices the film with the music of popular rappers such as Hichkas and another who addresses the post-election unrest. “(Hichkas) lives in Iran but is banned from doing concerts. He is underground. People told me about him there,” she said. “These guys are having a hard time. They are very active, they get hassled. They really struggle, and I'm proud of them.” She also meets street magicians and theatre actors who complain that no one has time any more for such traditions, with DVD and satellite TV culture all the rage. “I wanted to do something about street art and underground art. In the end, I tried to do a collage of the city, to show different aspects of Tehran that are disappearing, such as the theatre,” said Farsi, who has been making films since 1993. “I don't pretend it's exhaustive – how can one show everything in one film? I try to give a feel of the city.”