March 20 marks the celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It’s Iran’s first Spring festivities since the death of Jina “Mahsa” Amini, the 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish woman who died while in police custody for allegedly wearing a loose headscarf.
On Nowruz, which means “New Day,” Iranian activist Naza Alakija is paying tribute to Iran’s “Woman. Life. Freedom.” movement with the release of a powerful short film titled “Rise” about a young woman who, like Amini, pushes back agains Iran’s morality police and is kidnapped from the streets of Tehran.
Alakija, who is the founder and CEO of London-based Evoca Foundation, produced the short – which features British-Iranian actress Yasaman Mohsani (“Secret Invasion”) as the victim – with partners who have chosen to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from Iran’s security forces, as has the film’s female director.
“Rise” features the words of Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” and the music of Kurdish artist Hani Mojtahedy and Iranian rapper Gdaal. The short will premiere on Monday afternoon at an Everyman Cinema in London, followed by a global launch on the foundation’s social media channels.
The mass demonstrations sparked in Iran by Amini’s death last September – the largest popular revolt there since the 1979 revolution – have led to more than 500 people being killed in the ensuing crackdown by Iran’s security forces and thousands arrested. The chilling repression appears to have caused Iran’s anti-government protest movement to lose some momentum lately, though unrest across the country has not entirely subsided and could flare up again, according to analysts.
Alakija spoke to Variety about her hope that “Rise” can help keep the fight of Iranian women – and of the country’s progressive society at large – in the global spotlight and contribute to regime change which she sees as being just “a question of time.”
Why did you decide to produce this short which clearly evokes Mahsa Amini’s death?
With what’s happened in Iran, it’s been very hard to be an advocate. But at the same time you can’t just stand by and do nothing.
Why is it so hard to be an advocate for the Iranian protests?
Because when you’re advocating for it, you have this overwhelming sense of guilt that you’re encouraging people to get out on the streets and encouraging a revolt. But simultaneously, it’s happening. So, do you support it and continue to advocate for it? Or do you stay silent? I think for me personally, and for the creative director who’s also Iranian – she’s a Kurdish Iranian [who has chosen to remain anonymous] – we both felt like this [“Rise”] is something that we could do to explain and really make people understand. I mean you saw it, it’s a pretty violent piece. But it’s the reality of what most Iranian women are experiencing and living. So it’s essentially to show the world that this is what’s happening, and this is why people are standing up to this oppressive regime. And to encourage to please keep sharing their stories and amplifying their stories. That’s where we wanted to go with this.
“Rise” reminded me of the video that recently went viral of five girls dancing without headscarves in Tehran to “Calm Down” by Nigerian rapper Rema. They were reportedly arrested and forced to record an apology video.
Yeah. So look, I tried to envision myself in their position. And I asked myself: “Would I be brave enough to go out on the street [to demonstrate] knowing that I could potentially lose my life?” In fact, would my family even allow me? My mother would probably lock me in a room and not let me leave the house. But the reality of it is that the situation has gotten so bad that people would rather pour out into the street than be concerned about their life. They’re like: “well, it’s this or the other [current life in Iran]; because I can’t go on living like this.” So for us the message is like: despite what you’re going through; despite what you’re experiencing – and especially to the ones who have gone to prison and have experienced emotional, mental, sexual, physical violence, those are the ones we’re trying to reach. For us it’s: despite what has happened to you, despite what you’re experiencing, we will still rise.
“Rise” is being released on Iranian New Year shortly after the wave of suspected poisonings of hundreds of schoolgirls across Iran which some consider to be a government tactic to create fear among young women participating in the protests. What’s your take on this?
We don’t know. There’s confusion around who actually is causing the poisonings that are happening in the schools. Very inexperienced professors based in the U.K. came out with: “Oh, it’s mass hysteria, it’s not actually poisoning, but it’s just anxiety, and this is why it’s only affecting women.” Now going back to October, we saw videos coming out from these high schools where these young girls are taking off their hijab; they’re sticking their middle finger up at the Supreme leader; and they’re writing things like “Women. Life. Freedom” in the classroom. The point that I’m trying to make is that this regime is terrified even of young girls, even of children who might not necessarily even understand the consequences to what they’re doing, which is why some of them have been killed. So I am making a subjective assumption that this has been done by the Islamic Republic.
Do you think there is a chance that the movement sparked by Mahsa Amini could topple the Iranian regime?
Well I think if we weren’t hopeful, we wouldn’t continue to advocate. We wouldn’t still be talking about it. The other side of me also acknowledges that primitive leadership only lasts so long. You have to look at the history of Iran, or the history of any form of leadership. If you are no longer serving the masses, then how are you going to survive? So for me, it’s only a question of time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.