It is difficult to critique a documentary like Forbidden Voices without falling into alliance with the repressive regimes that the film denounces. The danger in that critique of the film's simple binaries (juxtaposing a free West and North and an oppressed and authoritarian East and South), however, is the danger of discourse in a world where the tools and agents of resistance the illegitimate children of the military-industrial complex.i There are no easy or innocent statements in this context, and no easy answers. Forbidden Voices unfortunately largely ignores these complexities in favor of the elevation of its three subjects—Yoani Sanchez of Cuba, Zeng Jinyan of China, and Farnaz Seifi of Iran—as uncomplicated protagonists of political struggle. This can be seen with particular clarity in the case of Seifi, whose case highlights the film's strengths, its failings, and ways in which changing the medium might undo some of these problems.
Seifi's section focuses at the outset upon state misogyny, with interviews from Seifi describing the devaluing of women in her home country of Iran. Her interviews are thus among the most valuable in the film, providing excellent insights into the political and historical context in which Seifi works. It is a context of feminist struggle that dovetailed in 2009 with the wider Green Movement, which emerged in opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before being brutally repressed. Much has been written already about the role of women in this revolution and the way in which the Green Movement offered hopes of feminist reform.ii In highlighting Seifi's first hand account of the way in which the Internet facilitated a strong feminist movement, the film makes good on the promise of its tagline (“How to start a revolution with a laptop”) and adds a valuable perspective to the Green Movement, suggesting that it is a coalition of different interests that are, by necessity, “stepp[ing] in unison with one another.”iii There are echoes here of the critiques of Haraway and Sandoval, which assert a need for a politics of affinity rather than a collapsing of individuals into identity experiences.iv
This history, however, is used in a frustratingly uncomplicated and unexamined way by the film. The statement by Zahra Rahnavard, wife of Green Movement leader Hossein Mousavi, that, simply, she “is no Michelle Obama,”v with all the political complexity such a statement implies, is particularly ironic when considered alongside film's use of Obama in the early framing narrative. Michelle Obama's statements of support for female bloggers, despite her specific references to Yoani Sanchez, are framed in such a way that they appear to encompass the experiences of all the bloggers (and perhaps all bloggers in general, although this speech occurred before Chelsea Manning emerged as an embarrassing and inconvenient counterexample). It is juxtaposed with an image of lines of information radiating out—the World Wide Web realized in glowing light—across the globe, originating with the film's three subjects and their geographic locations. The three bloggers and their experiences are thus equated in the same way that a global, international feminism has sought in the past to discover an essential female experience.vi
Another striking quote comes from Seifi herself, in a segment where she discusses tactical organization. She states that “When you are an activist who is outside of Iran, the really helpful thing you can do is to support those inside Iran and try to be their voice.” She goes on to discuss the way in which she and Reporters Without Borders have facilitated connections between activists in exile and activists still within the country. This section is quite useful in the way it explores the affinities and material strategies for cyberfeminist resistance.
However, there are two key issues with this presentation. First, while the message of this section seems to be one of facilitation, the voice is still Seifi's, and one other expatriate whose interview Seifi and Lucie Morillon of Reporters Without Borders watch on a computer screen. The film thus shies away from actualizing the presumable result of facilitation: the presentation of a wider range of voices. This highlights the second issue with the film as a whole and Seifi's activism: the film draws simple binaries in which it is not just desirable but actually possible for one voice to speak for millions of men and women within a country. And yet, a very cursory glance around the Internet shows a far more diverse coalition of voices than the film's construction of an easily cross-mappable experience suggests. Consider, for example, the contrast between the aforementioned Dr Rahnavard's apparent support of traditionalist religious modesty with expatriate blogger Leila Mouri's vehement condemnation of the compulsory Hijab.vii Or consider the reported alliances between Iranian expatriates and neoconservative think tanks, which other expatriate journalists decry as a betrayal of the spirit of reform that drove the Green Movement.viii In a world where state-sanctioned extremism in Iran occurs alongside Western assassinations of politicians and civilians within Iran, the simple binaries of the film between authoritarian actors and liberating actors become highly contested. An interpretation of these actors as members in various coalitions, as per Sandoval and Haraway, and the material realities as propositions in a multiverse of articulate possibilities, as per Bruno Latour, is not a postmodern slide into relativism but an honest assessment of complex affinities and alliances of convenience.
It is possible—even likely—that the film's ability to grapple with these nuances was hampered by the limitations inherent in conducting interviews in a powerful state dedicated to forbidding Farnaz Seifi's voice, as the title suggests. However, any conjectured problems are certainly compounded by a series of strange and counterproductive directorial decisions. While it is possible, for example, that no other participants in the Green Movement were available for commentary on the impact of Seifi's writing and the writing and activism of other women, that context could have been provided by interviews with a wide range of expatriates that, like Seifi, have left Iran and found refuge for their ideas with Western and occasionally even Middle Eastern media sources. Furthermore, a greater presence of the director herself and her overt choices and perspectives would have been welcome. While the absence of a singular authoritative voice-over that, in outdated modes of documentary production, asserted absolute objectivity is welcome and fitting, it has been replaced by three voices reduced to a singular experience. The words of the film's subjects are literally inscribed in the sky, transforming into an even more elevated collective figure than the outmoded voice over could have been. With a total absence of the director's hand, and a dearth of other voices, the film falls into a trap of oversimplification and an excessive veneer of objectivity.
The film as part of a wider institution, however, is more successful, and the way in which the Internet has been used to expand upon the documentary points towards a new, far improved mode of production and information distribution. The Forbidden Voices website includes a Flash-based map of thedifferent bloggers and, in a welcome expansion of the available voices, the blogger Ory Okolloh of Kenya and the Reporters Without Borders agent Lucie Morillon. This suggests that the film could be expanded incrementally to include a far wider range of voices and experiences that could even potentially be juxtaposed or counterbalanced with one another. There is great potential here if it was harnessed properly. Even more impressive are the interviews with the bloggers and the additional information on their political context. In Farnaz Seifi's interview reaction to the documentary, she describes the fear of a military strike against Iran, and dismisses sanctions against the country as ineffectual. This shows an element of political complexity not present in the film itself, where the West and East are placed into a simple binary. Her statements are accompanied by a fascinating Reporters Without Borders brief on the rise of draconian censorship policies in Iran. Fascinatingly, they point out that private contractors in the West are largely responsible for the technology that Iran uses to censor and monitor its citizens. Most stunning of all is an account of the production of monitoring technology in Israel, Iran's purported enemy, which is then shipped to a Dutch firm, which sells this technology to the Iranian government.
These strange affinities and disaffinities represent the world as it is: complex, tangled, devoid of innocent positions. The Forbidden Voices extended hyperdocumentary, seen specifically through the lens of Farnaz Seifi and her political context, is thus far more successful than its traditional core product. It is, more than the documentary itself, an interested entity that is capable of producing articulate propositions. This reaffirms the fundamental value of the Internet as the medium of choice for a complicated and politically fraught 21st century, and it suggests that an individual like Seifi—who is, after all, a profoundly brave figure worthy of our respect—need not be championed in a simplistic context to be championed at all.
iDonna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,” in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), 193.
ii“What we are witnessing in Iran is a natural consequence of years of feminist presence and the active participation of powerful women in the public sphere which has taught little girls that being a woman does not mean just being a mother or a wife and that women must be present and fighting in order to achieve their rights and demands.”
“Women have been undoubtedly a great part of the so called "Green Movement." Zahra Rahnavard, the wife of opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, became a key part of the campaign. Her presence meant a promise of a more open arena for women in the political scene and maybe some relaxation of the rigid social laws. Young women appreciated the attention that Mousavi gave his wife, treating her as his equal and a friend. They envisioned that such relationships would become more widespread in Iran if he became the next president.”
iiiGolbarg Bashi, “Feminist Waves in the Iranian Green Tsunami?,”
The PBS article links to a series of quotes from individual writers, which in turn lead to a series of blogs that, alarmingly, have gone offline since the article was published four years ago. The original quote, which reads: “we--as members of the women's movement in Iran and as civil rights activists from diverse areas such as NGOs, political parties, campaigns, press and trade unions--have realized that there are many ways in which to achieve women's demands. When it is necessary, we have stepped in unison with one another” presumably came from one of the lost articles.
ivC Sandoval, “NEW SCIENCES Cyborg Feminism and the Methodology of The,” in Cybersexualities: a Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs, and Cyberspace, ed. Jenny Wolmark (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 247–263. Donna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,”
v“Dr Rahnavard has been careful to present herself as a firm believer in the Islamic revolutions with books such as The Beauty of the Veil. She stressed recently: 'I am a follower of the daughter of the Prophet Mohammed, who has the same name as I do. I am no Michelle Obama. I am Zahra Rahnavard.'" Can I take a moment to step outside my academic neutrality voice to say that this woman is truly badass?
viDonna Haraway, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s,”
viiLeila Mouri. “Compulsory Hijab in Iran: There is No Room for Appeasement,” The Huffington Post, July 24, 2012., Kim Sengupta, “Has President Ahmadinejad...”
viii“Meanwhile, thousands of Iranian dissidents fled Iran and opted for the indignity of exile in the region, or in Europe or North America. Some of these dissidents joined intellectual US neocon operations and/or the pro-Israeli think-tanks to call for regime change in Iran. But the overwhelming majority of them opted for a full recognition of the dignified limits of what they could say or do from abroad and never joined the bandwagon of "regime changers", or the treasonous path of plotting against their own homeland.
The outdated monarchists and the discredited Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) tried to jump on the bandwagon of the Green Movement but failed. The main body of expatriate Iranians remained committed to the democratic aspirations of their homeland but equally adamant and vocal in opposition to the crippling economic sanctions that Washington neocons, their Zionist contingency, in collaboration with their Iranian allies, were seeking to impose on Iranians - or even talk of military strike - as a kind of 'humanitarian intervention'.” Hamid Dabashi, “What Happened to the Green Movement in Iran?,” Al Jazeera America, June 12, 2013.