Early Reactions To The Revelation That Iran Isn’t The Place People Think It Is

I don’t often use the word ‘crazy’ or any of its synonyms, for fear of offending the genuinely insane.

But the last few days have been very much a psychological minefield, simultaneously launching Karun: Misadventures On Iran’s Longest River, doing podcast interviews, switching continents (again) from Armenia to the UK, presenting at the Royal Geographical Society, fulfilling Kickstarter rewards for 665 people all over the world, and finding time to catch up with friends in London.

I head north tomorrow for Kendal Mountain Festival this weekend, at which Karun is being screened no less than 7 times; followed by a week of screenings in the South West (Bristol, Bath and Frome); and then another film festival back in London.

Two and a half weeks, then, of traipsing around the nation, baggage in tow, meeting hundreds of people, answering hundreds of questions, cutting a swathe through the UK’s adventure-travel-outdoor circles. I’ve done this before with Janapar and I find it simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting. Being on the introverted end of the personality spectrum, social events tend to drain my energy, and while I really do enjoy this element of adventure filmmaking, I’m always glad to withdraw to my own space at the end of it all.

In the meantime, though, first reactions to Karun have been very encouraging indeed…

We’ve worked as hard as hell to make Karun primarily an entertaining piece of adventure film, focusing on the twists and turns of an unplanned journey and the discoveries made along the way.

There are also several opportunities to laugh at me falling over. (You’re welcome.)

As Al Humphreys wrote in his review, the result is “a mixture of expedition excitement, adventurous travel, and cultural exploration” – a neat summary that’s very much in line with what we envisioned for the film.

The main audience reaction to Karun over the last few days has been “wow – Iran looks awesome!” (closely followed by “wow – isn’t Tom a total buffoon!”). Which is a highly distilled version of my and Leon’s experiences in the country, and a view which I am glad to see spreading through our audiences. Even Iranian friends of mine – some of whom were at the premiere last weekend – were amazed to see parts of their own country that they didn’t know existed.

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Then there have been the less-common reactions that have nevertheless fitted a pattern.

For example: “where are all the women?”

Good question. There are indeed no women in this film.

This is entirely due to circumstance. If we had hung out in Iran’s liberal cities, as I’ve done on previous visits, things would have been different. But we spent almost all of our time wandering remote valleys sprinkled with tiny villages, which are far more conservative in nature, as remote villages everywhere tend to be. In Iran, when two strange foreign blokes turn up unannounced in a remote, conservative village, they hang out with the local men.

99% of the time, this was just the way things were, and when we did hang out with the whole family, it certainly wouldn’t have been appropriate to start swinging video cameras around, because it would be entirely disrespectful of the Iranians’ highly-valued privacy in their own homes.

If, on the other hand, two strange foreign women had turned up unannounced in a remote, conservative village, they would have hung out with the local women. Gender segregation does not equate to gender discrimination, a point missed by some, eager to confirm misguided accusations of institutionalised misogyny in Iran.

One could look at statistics; university attendance ratios, for example – or one could ask any of the countless solo female adventure travellers who count Iran as among their most treasured memories. I’ve been at pains to point out in the couple of Q&A sessions so far that none of this should discourage women from visiting Iran.

Here, for the record, is a photograph proving that we did meet and hang out with at least one woman in Iran:

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A second reaction is that concerning the repeated appearance of the local law-enforcement authorities in the film. Without wanting to spoil the story, it turned out there were three characters on the journey – me, Leon, and the shadow of the Iranian police. Viewers come away with a dual perspective; the extreme hospitality and stunning nature on one hand, and on the other the “undeniable undercurrents that always keep their journey on edge”, as another reviewer wrote.

“But aren’t you trying to paint a positive picture of Iran?”, we’ve been asked.

The truth is that any attempt to mould the story of our journey into something it wasn’t – including the exclusion of major themes like this – would fall short of our duty as purveyors of truth. The picture we wanted to paint was a more nuanced one; not intentionally positive or negative, just honest.

We hoped, of course, that the view that emerged through Karun would be one that enticed viewers to consider travelling to Iran themselves; to discover nuances of their own. And in that sense, it seems that this unpredictable journey and the film that recounts it are well on track to succeed.

Have you checked out the film yet? What did you think?

Come and say hello at Kendal this weekend – or, if you’re in or near Bath, Bristol or Frome, check out the event listings. I’ll be attending all screenings in person for questions (and beer). It’d be great to see you there!