Our Secret Cinema

Tehran, Iran—Watching American movies was a risky ordeal. If the secret was out, if the Iranian religious police found your satellite dish on the roof, the shiny silver metal protruding outward into the open sky, you were in trouble. 
In our house, we kept the secret safe. My eldest brother Feri loved cinema so much that he made it possible, at least for a couple of years, for our family to bask in the pleasure of watching uncensored films. In times of danger, he cleverly hid the dish on the balcony and covered it with bed sheets. He tried every little trick he knew and finally got us a few channels where American films were shown. He took multiple trips from our living room to the rooftop, then yelled from above for Mom to see if we were getting signals. And he always made it work.

One night he told us he had recorded a great movie from satellite to VHS. Feri was very particular about how he wanted us to see things. Everything had to be set up properly. Everyone had to be still and quiet, carefully watching. No one was allowed to leave the room and disturb the cinematic effect. It was almost like he was directing. Though he never got his degree, he learned enough to make a few commercials, direct a movie, and understand the basics of cinema; what he created in our home was only a small snippet of his talents. The six of us sat that night and watched the first half of The Sound of Music, what would later become one of my favorite childhood films. I don’t know how much everyone understood, but I am certain that at least my older siblings were more familiar with the English language than I was since kids weren’t taught English until middle school (even then it was just basic grammar and vocabulary). But my mother had already seen a dubbed version and she was familiar with the story and the songs. A few days later she sang “My Favorite Things,” the Farsi version, which had a completely different meaning than the English (as I learned later), but was on its own a beautiful song that made sense in our native tongue. The first verse went like this:

A plate full of fruits

A garden full of flowers

The flight of a butterfly

The song of a bird

I remember the excitement as I saw Maria (Julie Andrews) parading her love for music in the fields, singing in her big, chilling voice. Even though I didn’t understand a single word, I understood her passion. There was something about the film—its characters, even the relationship between Maria and Captain Von Trapp—that I didn’t need a dictionary or a translator to understand. My favorite scene was when Maria makes a dress out of the green curtain in her room and later gets caught by Captain Von Trapp. He dismisses her, but he has this spark in his eyes, as though he secretly admires her mischief. I was so proud of her for being independent and standing up to the very serious, authoritative man who appeared to have little fun in his life. I admired Maria and her childlike energy, her sweet voice that captured everyone and made you want to sing.

That night we stopped at the intermission. I pleaded to watch the rest, but everyone was tired and Feri said we had to wait until the next day. I thought about Maria and what would happen to her. Would she come back even though there was another woman in Captain Von Trapp’s life? After we watched the ending, content with Feri’s pick, I continued to watch the entire movie for the next weeks, months. Sometimes, I fast-forwarded to my favorites scenes. Other times, I watched it all, getting up to dance around our living room or hum the tunes. My mother worked on her embroidery in the same room and she often said to me, “aren’t you sick of it yet?” I never got sick of it.

The uncensored VCR days lasted a couple of years. After Feri left for Belgium, my brother Hamed took the responsibility of entertaining his youngest sister. Every few weeks he brought me a new Disney cartoon. The Little Mermaid, Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Aladdin were just a few. When my younger cousins weren’t around to play, watching cartoons became a ritual activity. I watched each one a ridiculous number of times and memorized the scenes. I imagined what they were saying. I imitated their dialogue, never once bothered by my English language shortcomings. And sometimes when other kids came to our house and we had nothing to do, I let them pick a cartoon and we’d all gather around the television. Even my older sister had her share of movies. Every now and then there came a man on a motorcycle, often at night so he wouldn’t get caught, to drop off movies at the door. He would ring, my sister would go downstairs, give him the money, return the old movie and exchange it for a new one. These movies were often copied and had terrible quality and sound. But my sister was persistent. Unlike me, she watched them multiple times to better her English. Once, I sat with her as she watched the first Scream movie. With the dictionary on her lap, she read the subtitles and paused every time she needed to look something up. After a few minutes, I left the room.

One day, my sister received a suspicious call from downstairs. Someone had rung the bell and my sister had picked up the intercom, sensing that something wasn’t right. From my aunt’s, who lived on the first floor, she called Mom and told her in whispers to hide the VCR. Moments later, a couple of men in uniform came to our home and searched the living room where the television was set up. My mother and sister told me to stay aside as they tried to convince the men there was nothing to look for. For fear of being fined and possibly more trouble, we gave up our VCR and the men left. They took the VCR because it represented a point of access to the demonic Western world. My mother and sister angrily cursed them for days. We were still fined, however. My uncle went to court for us since my father was already in the States and paid what was then a big sum. They took more than just a VCR from us, they took away, as they always did, dignity and more importantly, Feri’s gift to our family—the love of movies. It was the first time that I felt anger. Even though I didn’t understand the politics behind the intrusion, I knew just by watching my mother’s face that these people had done damage and that they would continue their harassment.

Years later, when we immigrated to the States, I watched The Sound of Music as a fluent English speaker. I remembered all my childhood feelings and I realized that I hadn’t missed anything at all. The language barrier had not taken anything away. Even now when I am flipping channels and The Sound of Music is playing, nostalgia overcomes me and I can’t help but watch. For Feri, cinema had meant freedom from Iran’s censored regime, an escape from his limited day-to-day life. Today, he recalls the developing hunger and even nostalgia from the movies for the American cities he had never been to. The first time he went to New York, he said it was as if he had returned to his own city. He recognized it from all the movies he had seen and loved. To me, cinema wasn’t an escape at 11 years old; I didn’t have many expectations as a child and was too ignorant of politics to realize what the regime was doing. To me, films were simply good entertainment that saved me from boredom. I remember the days that Feri took me to the small theater where he worked. The first time I went, I saw a film version of Jack and the Beanstalk, alone in a crowded room of strangers. Even in a censored world, I had the privilege of seeing movies without knowing the fear and risk people took in making them available. I was a happy kid, unaware of the freedom I had in a country that persecuted artists and denounced art. Those childhood films were my favorite things.