Behind the Blue Screen
پشت صفحه‌ی آبی

Amsterdam, October 2014

The amount of news that reaches us every day is massive. Tweets, video footage, photos, and reports pour in from the far corners of the world. At the same time there are countries from which, we in the West, do not hear a many stories at all. Countries like Iran, where the state censors journalism, and only a few Western correspondents are allowed. Director Jaap van Heusden and I wanted to explore new ways of digital storytelling.

Countries with high levels of censorship on the World Press Freedom index, Reporters Without Borders, 2013.

Reporters without Borders creates a World Press Freedom Index each year, with countries rated by press censorship, jailed journalists, and internet monitoring. All the way at the bottom you find countries like North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and Iran. As a journalist it is difficult or even impossible to your job here, and this becomes apparent by the limited amount of stories we hear from these countries.

Dutch newspaper treated by Iranian censor. From Censorship Daily, Jan-Dirk van der Burg, 2012.

Censorship Daily

One of these countries is Iran. In 2012 there were only three Western correspondents allowed in Iran, a country of 80 million people. They were not allowed to travel outside Teheran without permission, and could not report on demonstrations. When Reuters did a report about women’s martial arts, they were banned from Iran for a year. The last BBC correspondent left in 2009, and Iranians that worked with the BBC were jailed. Thomas Erdbrink is one of the last correspondents, reporting for the New York Times and the Dutch NRC Handelsblad. He received his Dutch newspapers with blue tape meticulously applied by the Iranian censor to cover any nudity. In 2012, photographer Jan-Dirk van der Burg made a book called ‘Censorship Daily’ with facsimiles of the newspaper clippings. Inspired by their work, we adopted the blue tape as a method to circumvent censorship.

Teheran streets during our trip in December 2014. Photo: Ruben Pater

Forced Marriage

Our project started during a masterclass of the the Dutch Cultural Media Fund. At this masterclass two people from different disciplines are brought together to develop a new media project. This is how I came to work with director Jaap van Heusden, who is a renowned film director and screenwriter. A mutual interested appeared to be countries that are underrepresented in the daily news cycle, and the use of methods like citizen journalism. Because we had some connections with Iranians we decided to focus on stories from Iran. They told us stories about everyday life in Iran we had not heard before. In addition Iran also is highly educated and has the second highest internet connectivity of the Middle East. We wanted to record personal stories from Iran as video selfies, which we would collect, translate, and publish in the Netherlands.

Digital Traffic Jam

We decided to use mobile devices to record the video stories. However using the internet to transfer the stories turned out to be not that easy. Internet traffic is monitored in Iran, and by sending the files digitally we would not know who could see it, and with what consequences. We did not have any political objectives, but we did not want to take any chances either. It is well known that the Iranian Cyber Police is well equipped and highly effective, and several free press NGOs have told us they work in almost many countries except Iran, precisely for this reason. Since our project was about storytelling, we did not want to use encryption or anonymous browsers, but a more social way of sharing the stories.

Wireframe still from ‘Scramble Suit’, Kyle McDonald, 2011.

Sneakernet

Disappointed with the limitations of digital data transport, we turned to analogue transportation. Before digital networks, information was transported between two computers by simply using a floppy disk. This method of carrying digital information in an analogue way is called a ‘sneakernet’. Used in Burma in 2000 to smuggle data out of the country, it has been used for secure transportation of data. We chose to transport the data through sneaker net We knew people that travelled between the west and Iran, and we could use mobile devices to bring the stories back. All we had to do was to create an application capable of recording our stories with a relative safety.

‘Body and Soul’, John Baldessari, 1989.

Art as activism

Our recording application needed to have some safety features to make sure stories could be recorded with a minimal risk of identification. First we would delete all the metadata from the footage, and secondly, we let the app generate a mask for each person telling a story. Face recognition technologies today are advanced, and the most sophisticated ones are used by governments for security purposes. We wanted to use the same technology for protection. A developer helped us to design a mask that would automatically cover the storytellers face. The mask needed to have the facial features, so the emotions of the storyteller would be preserved.

News anchor in front of a blue screen.

The color and design of the mask was inspired by the blue tape of the censor, the rest of the image was made black and white. The blue screen also referred to news organizations who cannot work in countries like Iran and use a blue screen to record news from abroad. The image of the videos reminded us of the works of conceptual artist John Baldessari, who often blocked out people’s faces in his works. This artistic angle was on purpose. Journalistic projects in Iran are risky, however if it is an art project, the government is much less likely to see it as a threat. Art in this case is used to mask a broader application of the stories.

The Video Series

After about six months we had collected more than 30 stories, and six months later more than 70. Some stories were just too long, or just not relevant for a Dutch audience. Eventually we selected about one in every six stories for publication on the Dutch website ‘De Correspondent’, our publisher. De Correspondent (the correspondent) is an online journalism platform focused on background stories and investigative reporting. They had started in 2013, and seemed like a perfect fit for our project.

Stories from Iran

In October 2014 we published the first three stories, and again in November a second series of three stories. We were pleasantly surprised the quality of stories we received, which dramatically changed our perception of the country, and hopefully of other viewers as well. Stories about young men trying to get out of the military service, stories about dealing with strict religious laws, but mostly human interest stories about the daily troubles and passions of people.

We premiered the videos during a special evening ‘Storytelling in Iran’ in Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam, organized with De Correspondent. Moderated by journalist Bahram Sadeghi we invited a political scientist, a storyteller, a journalist, and a reader to share their stories about Iran. The public was involved to ask questions and share their experiences about stories from Iran.

Presenter Bahram Sadeghi in the Zwijger. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

Although this project started as an investigation into journalism, we do not consider our project to be journalistic per se. It is an ongoing attempt to find stories which are otherwise unheard. We are avid fans of print and TV journalism and the work that journalists do is more valuable then ever. Unfortunately due to cutbacks, investigative journalism is becoming more difficult, and we need to develop different methods of journalism as well. The stories we bring are human interest stories that can help us counter the stereotypes that are widespread in the media.

Questions from the audience in the Zwijger. Photo: Janus van den Eijnden

Read the article about the project and watch the videos here.

Official Selection South by Southwest festival 2015, Austin Texas.
Nominated for a Dutch Directors Guild Award, 2015.
Selection for the Dutch Film Festival, 2015.


Made with Jaap van Heusden. Production Jos de Putter. Deputy editor-in-chief Karel Smouter. Funded by the Dutch Cultural Media Fund and the Creative Industries Fund NL.