August 14, 2018

“Once upon a time, on a dusty road, I met a girl. It was in one of the most isolated countries in the world. Seventeen years later, I’m still here.”

So begins “Our Man in Tehran,” an unusually personal Frontline series by New York Times correspondent Thomas Erdbrink. The first part aired last night and it concludes tonight on PBS.

In this extraordinary documentary, Erdbrink starts at the last solar eclipse of the 20th century, where he, a visiting Dutch journalist and bartender, meets a photographer named Newsha Tavakolian in rural Iran. Erdbrink expands the narrative to observe and to talk with family, colleagues and people across Iran’s spectrum. He focuses on the human connection: how people adjust their lives to fit Iran’s many and often vague rules.

Director Roel van Broekhoven positions Erdbrink as a kind of good-humored but persistent guide to a nation that officially opposes America, though many of Iran's people adore it. The two seek a certain candor from sources on, among other topics, marriage, clothing restrictions, pop music, the internet, faith and martyrdom. To do so, Erdbrink often has to open up about his own life (like why they don’t have children) or his failed Iranian film career.

"I don't like to put myself out there, but I felt I had to," Erdbrink told me. Why talk publicly about children? “In Iran,” Erdbrink said from the Iranian capital in a Skype call Monday that he warned could be monitored, “everybody is involved with your personal lives.” In return, he has the liberty to ask strangers about new cars, nose jobs or their families.

His Farsi skills, earnest nature, longevity in the country, marriage to an Iranian and status as a "neutral" outsider — not American, Israeli or British — aids him as he talks to citizens at the dried-up River of Life in Istafan, the shrine to beloved poet Hafez in Shiraz or the street currency trading market in Tehran. (One trader pulls out stacks of dollars to show his admiration for the U.S. currency and its "In God We Trust" motto. “Dollars are the best,” he tells Erdbrink. “You should always buy them.”)

The idea for an American network broadcast began a year ago in Tehran over meat stew at the downtown restaurant Dizi, Erdbrink said. His lunchmates, visiting documentarians David Fanning and Martin Smith of Frontline, were in town producing their own film (“Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia”). Fanning had seen video snippets of Erdbrink's video reporting from The New York Times website.

“Are you doing more?” he asked Erdbrink.


“I want this.”

“Are you sure?” Erdbrink asked.

Erdbrink and director van Broekhoven had produced a four-part, 180-minute series that won Dutch TV's highest award in 2015. Last year and early this year, they created a five-part, 225-minute followup. The U.S. version compresses each season into two films, each just shy of two hours.

Erdbrink acknowledges jitters about the American version's reception — in the United States and Iran. An Iranian censor tells him, on air, that higher-up officials disliked aspects of the first series, including the portrayal of a fierce theocracy defender known in Iran as Big Mouth, and tensions among cosmopolitan women. Both themes re-occur in the second series, three years later, as U.S.-Iranian relations have taken on a more bellicose tone.

Among the objections: a lunchtime scene in which Newsha Tavakolian acknowledges to her family, initially wary of Erdbrink, that she proposed to him — not the other way around. It's my favorite scene in the series.

“Are you still happy?” Erdbrink asks her.

“I’ll tell you later,” Tavakolian replies, smiling slightly, as the table erupts in laughter.

The correspondent hopes these first two segments may open the door for a third look. He said the video project, the filming of which had been approved but not previewed by Iranian officials, complements the news and normal foreign correspondent fare. The news and the documentary together, he hopes, could give a person a broader and more nuanced look at a fascinating culture and nation.

(Disclosure: I was a long-distance colleague of Erdbrink at The Washington Post, where he worked before joining the Times in 2012).

Quick hits

FINAL INSULT: Four black trans women have been shot, three fatally, in Jacksonville, Florida, in the past six months. The handling of the investigations has stirred outrage, ProPublica reports, with the sheriff's office repeatedly identifying the victims as men, and by different names than those they chose in life. The common use by authorities in Jacksonville and elsewhere of unused former names — which the transgender community calls "deadnaming" — not only denies respect but may hinder the investigations, advocates say. All three Jacksonville murders are unsolved. (h/t Daniel Funke)

DETAINED REPORTERS: Chinese police detained a Voice of America Mandarin-language service correspondent and his assistant for more than six hours. The two had been trying to interview a retired academic who was dragged off two weeks ago for talking to the press. Before their release before dawn Tuesday, VOA director Amanda Bennett said, “It is outrageous that two journalists have been detained for nothing more than doing their jobs.” 

WHAT'S THIS ABOUT A HOSPICE?: Did Facebook really raise the scenario to Australian news executives that if they don't work with the social network, Facebook would be holding their hands, like in a hospice? That's what The Australian reports — and Facebook denies. Nieman Lab's Josh Benton looks at the brouhaha — and the truth behind Facebook's plunging traffic referrals to publishers.

MANHANDLED: A New York Post reporter who had the temerity to ask New York Mayor Bill de Blasio a question at a public event on Sunday. Two bodyguards removed Kevin Sheehan after he asked the mayor, who styles himself as a champion for press freedom, for reaction to a Page One story on de Blasio's 136 documented meetings with lobbyists over a three-month stretch this year. 

New Yorker coverMORE THAN IT SEEMS: Of his subtle, arresting new cover of The New Yorker, R Kikuo Johnson says, "The timing seemed right for a new spin on a classic illustrator’s theme, the family summer getaway." (h/t Françoise Mouly)

EXPANDING: OZY Media has formed an in-house production studio, OZY Studios, doubling the size of its video team, The Wrap reports. The outlet has sold three series to broadcast networks so far, including “Breaking Big” and “Third Rail With Ozy” to PBS.

RELATED: Eater wraps up its first TV  series tonight on PBS. "No Passport Required," featuring famed chef Marcus Samuelsson, focuses on the wide-ranging immigrant traditions on cuisines woven into American food and culture. Tonight's finale is set in Washington, D.C. Here's Samuelsson, an immigrant from Ethiopia, talking with Vox Media's Ezra Klein on his journey.

PROMOTED: The Verge's Liz Lopatto, from science editor to deputy editor, overseeing both the site's science and transportation teams. Other news from The Verge: William Joel moves from art director to design director, reporter Dami Lee joins the outlet's Circuit Breaker team and social producer Mariya Abdulkaf joins its video team.


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