Making a film about Iranian dissident Mohammad Nourizad is proving a formidable task for his son, Abazar. Last time he tried, in 2011, seven months of work went down the drain when regime agents stormed the filming location outside Tehran, confiscating the footage and his filming equipment. Now, four years later, he’s going at it again from the United States.
“This is just one small story, one small step in telling more important stories,” Abazar Noorizad, 35, told The Times of Israel in a phone conversation from Los Angeles, where he has been residing for the past 13 years. “These stories explain how brutal, unjust and fascist the regime is.”
Growing up in the home of Iranian journalist and filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad was not easy. Once a religious conservative and personal friend of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the elder Nourizad would not allow his eldest son to develop his talent for singing, viewed as a grave sin in Shiite Muslim faith.
“The relationship was really bad. He was an extremely religious person who imposed his vision on all his family members,” Abazar Noorizad said. “I always wanted to have my freedom and enjoy my rights.” At 22 he left for the United States and enrolled in the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, as a film editing student.
“He was ashamed of having me and told me as much,” he said. “It got to a point where it was unbearable for me to live there.”
Today, however, Mohammad Nourizad is an outspoken oppositionist, considered one of the foremost critics of Iran’s clerical establishment. Still based in Tehran, he travels the country, documenting human rights infringements perpetrated by the regime and posting them on Facebook, where his official page boasts nearly 180,000 followers. Just last week he was deported from the western Ilam Province for documenting regime oppression, his son said.
Abazar Nourizad was born outside Atlanta, Georgia, where his father was enrolled in college. Back in Iran, the Islamic Revolution had just begun, and Mohammad Nourizad was eager to return home and take part in the exciting political revival unfolding there. One-month-old Abazar and his parents moved back to Iran, where Mohammad Nourizad soon started working for the Ministry of Rural Development in the remote southeastern province of Sistan.
When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in September 1980, he returned to Tehran and began hosting a patriotic TV program called revayat-e fath, or “the tale of victory,” documenting the fighting on the front. Later, he started writing for the ultra-conservative daily Kayhan. Abazar Nourizad remembers his father in those years as a dyed-in-the-wool supporter of the Islamic regime.
“He would cry when watching speeches of Ayatollah Khomeini on national television,” he said.
The elder Nourizad’s turning point occurred in September 2009 following the Iranian presidential elections, widely believed to have been rigged by the regime. Dismayed by the brutal crackdown on protesters across the country, he penned an open letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei, whose home he used to frequent regularly.
“As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, you didn’t treat people well after the election. Your agents opened fire, killed the people, beat them and destroyed and burnt their property. Your role in this can’t be ignored,” read the letter, published online. “Your apology can cool down the wrath of the people.”
But instead of apologizing, Khamenei had him sentenced to three and a half years in jail for his comments. He was sent to the notorious Evin prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement and went on a six-day hunger strike that almost ended his life.
Abazar Nourizad was visiting his family in Tehran when his father was released in April 2011. He could barely recognize him.
“He lost so much weight and looked extremely weak and much older,” Abazar said. “He was a completely different person, both physically and ideologically. He was like a new father to me.”
Visitors soon began flocking to the house to hear about Mohammad Nourizad’s prison ordeal. The stories Abazar heard during those visits sparked an idea in the mind of the budding screenwriter.
“I was extremely fascinated. I said ‘let’s turn these stories into a script’.”
Wishing to sound the voice of Iranian dissidents across the world, Mohammad Nourizad agreed to star in his son’s film. Abazar set up a secret filming location in his grandfather’s vineyard outside Tehran, and production commenced at full speed. By November 2011 the film was almost done, when two squads of regime agents stormed the site in Shahriar County as well as Nourizad’s home in Tehran.
“They confiscated everything: footage, cameras, computers. Only the script and storyboards survived. Luckily, they didn’t know I was involved in the movie, so they didn’t arrest me. A few hours later I had exited the country,” he said.
Today, the regime accuses him of “spying on behalf of Hollywood,” and he cannot return to Iran. It took him nearly three years to overcome depression and start raising the funds to recommence filming in the United States, this time with an actor depicting his father. The 90-minute feature film, titled “Classified, the Stolen Movie, Actually,” is being produced on a shoestring budget of $110,000, which he is hoping to raise through an online croudfunding campaign. For Abazar Nourizad, realizing the film is more than just about telling his father’s story; it’s about giving voice to an entire generation of Iranians vying for political freedom.
Looking back at the tenuous relations with his father, he has no hard feelings.
“There’s no anger or hate left whatsoever,” he said. “Just admiration.”