Single mother, Academy Award nominated filmmaker and world traveler Justine Shapiro takes her six-year-old son Mateo to Tehran for summer vacation where they spend time with three diverse families. It’s a simple set up that is poignant and effective in showing us real and very different perspectives on the Iran and its people than those gleaned from news footage. Justine wants to meet Iranian mothers in their homes before their sons meet on the battlefields.
With the help of her Iranian-American producer and a crew assembled from the vast pool of film production talent in Tehran, Justine and Mateo move into an apartment owned by Pari a feisty, grandmotherly woman who presents Mateo with a box of silkworms and mulberry leaves, something very Iranian child plays with. And they visit with the families who have agreed to this cross-cultural experience.
Leili and Sina Rashidi mirror Justine and Mateo; she is a single mom and actress with a son who like Mateo loves soccer. The Farahanis are secular, and have named their son Daniel so he can go anywhere in the world. (There is a huge brain drain in Iran, with well over 100,000 emigrants annually).
The Torabis are a conservative religious family. Justine says to her producer:
Don’t tell them I’m Jewish.
Dr. Torabi works for the Revolutionary Guard, which the U.S. Government has declared a terrorist organization. Mrs. Torabi, a warm and deeply faithful woman, has her own career as a pharmacist, custom blending facial products for a loyal clientele.
Our Summer in Tehran takes us into the culture of Iran, the dichotomy of the warm and hospitable transposed against the control of a religious government which takes a serious interest in maintaining the status quo by monitoring the content of intellectual and artistic expression.
During the celebration of Fatima, the Basij (volunteer paramilitary which enforce moral and laws) pass out juice and baked goods to drivers.
It’s nice to see you with a box of pastries instead of a baton
jokes one cab driver to a uniformed Basij.
We learn about food and customs, history and art, and that in we have shared hopes, dreams and goals despite theocratic differences. Justine and Marjan Torabi become fast friends despite their cultural and religious gaps. They travel with their respective families to one of the most sacred sites in Iran where Justine explains that she is Jewish–a non-issue for Mrs. Torabi. On another jaunt, Leili Rashidi takes Justine to a mountain retreat where young Iranians flaunt their freedom away from the eyes of the Basij.
But eight weeks into their three-month stay, Justine receives a phone call: She and Mateo have 48 hours to leave the country. Government officials have also contacted the three families and discussed the filming with them. What happens next is a testimony to friendship and the forging of true bonds.
During their final hours in Iran, Justine and Mateo visit the graves of men killed in the Iran-Iraq war, hundreds of thousands of martyrs, as the Iranian people call them. At the time of the war, America supported Saddam Hussein. With a sense of wonder and horror we see portrait after portrait of young men struck down in their prime; Mateo stares at one which bears a stunning resemblance to him.