In 2011, Iranian photojournalist Zohreh Soleimani walked into the offices of the Center for Investigative Reporting with the story of a young Afghan woman.
Soleimani, then a fellow in the graduate journalism program at University of California, Berkley, first started reporting on the rights of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban fell in 2001. In 2011, she met Soheila, who was jailed for running away from an arranged marriage and having a relationship and a child with another man. The jail was filled with women in exactly the same circumstances.
Every year since, Soleimani has returned to the offices of the CIR with more footage, more stories of women in Afghanistan and more on the life of Soheila, whose father and brother pledged to kill her.
“Jailed for Love,” part of Soleimani’s story on Soheila, which has been guided along the way by CIR, airs Friday on PBS NewsHour. The 30-minute documentary Soleimani directed and produced in partnership with CIR, “To Kill a Sparrow,” premiers this weekend in Paris at the 2014 European Independent Film Festival.
Soleimani, who lives in Iran, has a way of getting people to open up to her, said Sharon Tiller, executive producer of special projects at CIR. And Soleimani wants to hear everyone’s story, the fathers, the brothers, and the women involved.
“She has this extraordinary ability to get people to talk and to give her access,” Tiller told Poynter in a phone interview.
“Even with the father, she had this great empathy,” Tiller said. “She wants to understand, how can a father who loves his daughter actually put her in jail and later be determined to kill her if she insists on being with her lover and the father of her children?”
After Tiller first met Soleimani in California, Soleimani returned to Afghanistan for more reporting in 2013, and to see what had become of Soheila. Soleimani found the woman in a safe house for women, part of a network in Afghanistan that works to protect women, not from the laws or the constitution, but tribal customs. She tells Soheila’s story, Tiller said, but it’s not one that’s uncommon.
Over the years, Tiller, senior producer of video Stephen Talbot and editor Stephanie Mechura worked with Soleimani on the project, teaching the photojournalist video skills and helping to shape the footage into a story.
And through that time, they had to find a home for the report and continue making the case for funding, Tiller said. CIR is a nonprofit and often works with other outlets, such as NewsHour. Part of the work on the U.S. side, Tiller said, was convincing people to spend money and resources even though “Jailed for Love,” and “To Kill a Sparrow” didn’t then have dedicated places to air.
“And we said, this is one of those stories that must be told,” Tiller said. “And it will reach an audience, and it will have a home.”
The process of working with Soleimani has also caused them to look at their own ideas about journalism, Tiller said. After reporting on Soheila for years, Soleimani wants to help her, to do something for her. Journalism isn’t always dispassionate, Tiller said.
It’s also been challenging producing an investigative documentary in a country where there’s no FOIA, no solid numbers on what you’re reporting. But Soleimani was able to get into places many have not, Talbot said in a phone interview with Poynter.
Soleimani spoke with CIR for a Q&A before the film festival about her reporting. Here’s a part of that, where she was asked why she chose to tell Soheila’s story:
I think because many of [these women] are illiterate, they can’t even really tell their own story, and many of them were afraid to talk, were afraid to be shown on TV or any media, and then they were afraid their family would do something against them.
But Soheila, I think she’s a very brave woman and she was the one who could talk and tell her story, but many others that I’ve met in the same situation, basically they didn’t do any crime according to the constitutional law of Afghanistan. They want to live as any human being. They want to live with the partner that they want to, not the one that fathers force them to be with because of a piece of land, or money or because of exchange in the family.
This weekend, while Tiller and Soleimani are in Paris at the film festival, Afghanistan holds national elections. (It’s still a dangerous place to report: AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed there today, and reporter Kathy Gannon was injured.)
When the U.S. went into Afghanistan, Talbot said, the treatment of women was a chief concern. In 2014, it still should be.
And Soleimani plans to return again, to find Soheila and complete her story. She’s currently waiting on a divorce, working with lawyers who know the law and may be able to make that happen. CIR would also like to stay with that story.
“This is one of those projects that’s so extremely important,” Tiller said, “that I think we have to keep doing it.”