Active Cultures: an Iranian woman looks into the sun 

When Mansooreh Saboori was 19, her father, a popular Tehran physician, was imprisoned for speaking against the shah of Iran. "One of the accusations was that he was a communist, which was a common accusation at that time," she says.

Police raided the family's home. "They came in and put all of our books, like a mountain, in the backyard. I said, 'What are you doing with our books?' My father said to be quiet. They were looking at novels written by Russian writers. They took some and never brought them back. Then they took my father. We didn't know where he was. Finally we found him in one of the shah's prisons. He was there for a few years. I was very innocent--I wasn't political at all. But after that I was very political."

Saboori married and earned a degree in biology at Tehran University before moving to the U.S. in 1972. The Watergate scandal was heating up. "I came from Iran, where you couldn't even speak against the shah," she says. "Here I was seeing the president put on trial." She and her husband eventually landed in Carbondale, where she earned a BA in communications at Southern Illinois University and gave birth to a daughter. In 1979 she earned a master's in educational TV, divorced, and returned to Tehran with her daughter--just in time to see the shah overthrown. "It was a tremendous, full-blown revolution," she says. "It was exciting at the same time. But I did not want to raise my child there. Things were changing so fast you could not catch up with it."

After ten months Saboori returned to the States and took classes toward a PhD. She moved to Saint Louis, where she worked as a media specialist for the public schools and became active in social justice organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee.

Six years ago the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Saboori a pair of grants to make a documentary about modern Persian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, whose candid poems of the 1950s and '60s sparked a women's literary movement in Iran. She did some of the background work for the film--I Shall Salute the Sun--at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and Center for Middle Eastern Studies, where she was given a research membership. She set up a nonprofit company called Irandukht Productions ("dukht" means daughter), which she operates out of her home in Rogers Park. She also completed the video Another Birth, about 23-year-old Iranian poet Maryam Hooleh.

In August 1999 Saboori traveled to Tehran to work on a new video about women writers. Then she got sidetracked by preparations for the upcoming total solar eclipse. "I was drawn by the huge organizational activities that were going on. It was a nationalistic feeling, and a reaction to what was going on politically," she says, referring to the student uprisings against the Islamic regime that convulsed the country that summer. She decided to turn her camera on eclipse activities in the west-central Iranian villages that would be plunged into total darkness.

"When you have zero budget," she says, "you develop the idea then and there and shoot as much as you can." But she didn't have permission, and that caused problems. At one point a village guard told her to stop. "My sister started to say something to him--'Oh, she is just visiting.' But my camera is different than the tourists', and there weren't that many tourists because of the uprising.

"Also, I act differently from the women next to me. After the revolution, the women have been forced to wear this Islamic dress. It's not like it's a big deal, but it confines you to a certain behavior. For example, I move my hands a lot, I laugh a lot. I had to wear a scarf and it would fall and I wouldn't care that much. This behavior is not normal over there. I tried not to be too rude, but they could spot me."

The August 11 eclipse was "the most beautiful thing you could see, especially in the sky of central Iran," she says. "I have never seen anything like it. I started saying, 'Wow, wow, wow!' Everybody around me was shouting, 'Allah akbar!' [God is great]."

Saboori returned with 45 hours of footage, and after extensive research she completed Children of the Sun, an hour-long documentary that examines the cultural history of Iran by focusing on religious practices that date from as far back as the second millennium BC. "They have a special prayer for the eclipse," she says. "It's Islamic, but I'm pretty sure it has roots in the Zoroastrians. I saw people doing it everywhere."

Though she works without a budget--Saboori says she makes "a little here and a little there" from the sales of her videos--she wants to return and shoot more footage. But as her reputation grows, she's worried that access will become more difficult. "They show my films on the satellite, so they all get it in Iran," she says. "Now they know me. Before I could just go in there. Now I don't know."

Children of the Sun will be shown at the Oriental Institute's Naw Rouz (Persian New Year) celebration on Wednesday, March 28. The event starts at 6 with a tour of the institute's Persian Gallery, followed by a discussion of Naw Rouz at 7. The video will be shown at 7:30 and a poetry reading by Heshmat Moayyad concludes the evening. It's at 1155 E. 58th and it's free; call 773-702-9514 for more information.

--Cara Jepsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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