In Iran, Berkeley Jewish filmmaker finds plenty of love

When Berkeley-based filmmaker Justine Shapiro announced she would be shooting her next documentary in Iran, she got a range of reactions.

It was 2007, and against the backdrop of continuing ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tensions were mounting between the U.S. and Iran, as well. Shapiro’s friends sent concerned emails and left worried voicemails on her answering machine. Not only was she a Jewish American woman heading to a country many people perceive as unwelcoming to Jews, Americans and women, she planned to bring her 6-year-old son, Mateo.

Shapiro was born in South Africa and raised in the East Bay. She’s traveled extensively, both in her personal life and as a host for the PBS travel show “Globe Trekker.” But something about Iran still worried those close to her.

“My father, in particular, was very concerned about me going,” she recalled. “He thought it was dangerous, and irresponsible for me to take my son, and he felt that he would never accept an offer to go to Iran, that he wouldn’t want to spend his money there.”

Justine Shapiro and her son, Mateo, edit “Our Summer in Tehran” in the Berkeley office of Promises Films. photo/© 2007 houman behmanesh

Four years later, Shapiro’s glad she didn’t let the worries of others stop her. “Our Summer in Tehran,” which makes its debut 11 p.m. Wednesday, May 4 on KQED Channel 9, is the result.

Part of Shapiro’s larger vision for an ongoing project called Global Moms, the hour-long documentary follows Shapiro and Mateo as they get to know three different Iranian families: one religious family with ties to the government; one secular, cosmopolitan family whose son spoke English; and a single mother working to support her family as an actress.

Shapiro’s last directing project was the 2001 Oscar-nominated documentary “Promises,” which looked at seven Palestinian and Israeli children who lived around Jerusalem, focusing on the commonalities between the two cultures. Shapiro went into her new project with a similar goal: By showcasing daily, middle-class life in Iran — a nation she felt was often misrepresented by the nightly news — she hoped to help viewers relate across geographical and political boundaries.

“What most of us know about the world is from crisis-driven news,” Shapiro said. “I’ve traveled a lot … and from what I’ve seen, I feel like the images we often see in the U.S. can be misrepresentative. You see children who have suffered malnutrition, in part due to U.S. sanctions, and I think when people are inundated with images of victims, that might inspire us to write a check, but it’s not going to inspire us to identify with those people.

“What I wanted to do with Iran,” she continued, “was move away from ‘those people.’ Whether it’s ‘Oh, those poor victims,’ or ‘Oh, those terrorists.’ I wanted to show what I experienced, which is that a lot of people on the planet are doing OK.”

Among the surprises in store for Shapiro in Iran: It didn’t matter to anyone she met that she was Jewish. In fact, the closest friendship she formed was one of the most devout

Muslims she spent time with — one family’s matriarch, Marjan Torabi, whose husband worked for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Shapiro didn’t reveal her Jewish heritage until the two had formed a bond, and the process was nerve-racking, she said.

Marjan Torabi of Iran (left) and filmmaker Justine Shapiro photo/© 2007 promise films

“Despite my experiences around the world and despite my knowing better, I did equate her bio with, ‘Oh, she’s going to hate me or reject me because I’m Jewish.’ I was very, very nervous,” Shapiro recalled. “But it really wasn’t an issue for her. She said, ‘We are both people of the book.’ ”

She’s also happy her son got to experience how warm and welcoming a different culture could be, and at such a young age. Working with educators to get the film into classrooms as a discussion tool is the main thing on her plate for the rest of the year.

“When you learn about the Holocaust in school, and see the news reels with the propaganda of how Jews were portrayed, it’s this process of dehumanization,” she said. “I think that has been a part of my motivation around both ‘Promises’ and ‘Our Summer in Tehran’ — just talking to people, giving them a voice. Showing not just what they have to say but what their living rooms look like, their brothers and sisters, the objects they own.

“It’s a simple thing to say,” she added. “But it’s harder to drop bombs on people when you know who they are.”

“Our Summer in Tehran”
airs 11 p.m. Wednesday, May 4 on KQED Channel 9. For additional showings, visit www.kqed.org/tv.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.