Why Iran is so misunderstood, and how to film adventure travel
Filmmakers Tom Allen and Leon McCarron found it hard to pay for anything in Iran, so hospitable are its people. They saw another side of the country too, their run-ins with police giving an idea of what life is like under a repressive regime
Paying for a loaf of bread in Iran can be as difficult as trying to pick up a dinner bill in Beijing.
“There’s a definite ritual for this kind of situation,” says adventure filmmaker and writer Tom Allen. “Every shopkeeper in Iran will tell you that the bread’s worthless, and you don’t need to pay for it.”
The correct response is not to take the bread and walk off. You insist until, after much persistence, they reluctantly tell you the price.
“So all these travellers come back from Iran, and say ‘I can’t believe it! I never had to pay for anything, everyone was giving me all this stuff all the time,’” says Allen.
Allen is the filmmaker behind Janapar, an award-winning 2012 documentary about his attempt to cycle the world. He’s called in for a video chat from his home in Yerevan, Armenia – where he met his wife Tenny, who turned his cycling film into an unexpected love story.
Joining us on the call is his fellow adventurer and cameraman Leon McCarron, from his current base in Muscat, Oman. The two have just released their latest film, Karun, in which they travel by foot, bicycle and inflatable kayak along Iran’s longest river, the Karun. Their aim? To change the way people perceive the Middle Eastern nation.
The first time Allen went to Iran, it struck him how different it was to the way it’s represented outside of the country. “All the Iranians I met were so concerned, so insecure about how they were portrayed to the rest of the world, and I didn’t think that was right,” he says. “I figured going on an adventure, making a film of it, and showing what happened should speak for itself.”
McCarron sees adventure as a tool for educating people – something he learned from a trip he took walking across China, from Mongolia to Hong Kong in 2011 with Hong Kong-based adventurer Rob Lilwall. He filmed the TV series Walking Home From Mongolia for National Geographic, while Lilwall wrote about it for the South China Morning Post . “It was the first time I’d done a really long, slow journey where I was completely immersed in somewhere new,” he says. “And that gave me a chance to show a place that a large western audience thinks they know quite well.”
While planning their trip to Iran, they came across two polarised perceptions of it. “There’s the media representation, which is almost wholly negative – stories of a brutal regime and human rights violations. And then there’s everyone who’s ever been to Iran as a traveller, who go on about this very friendly place,” says McCarron.
Karun aims to reflect both elements of the country. A central theme is the overwhelming hospitality, which Allen puts down a blend of Islamic tradition, Persian social etiquette and national pride. The pair took their camping gear but of the five weeks they spent in Iran, they only camped out once: the rest of the time they were invited into locals’ homes.
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At one stage, McCarron lost his paddle after falling out of his inflatable kayak in the Karun’s strong currents. “We walked up to this town, and this taxi driver literally threw some Iranian customers out of the car, closed shop and drove us around for 12 hours looking for a paddle in the middle of the mountains,” recalls McCarron.
Later in their trip they headed into Isfahan to buy a couple of cheap bicycles. They met a man on the street who turned out to be a bicycle fanatic, and within minutes had set them up with two of his bikes.
Hospitality is not solely reserved for visitors. Allen recounts a time he was hitchhiking and the man giving him a lift stopped at a tiny store to buy a light bulb: the purchase took him an hour, because he had to sit, drink tea and talk politics with the shopkeeper before he could pay.
“The culture is that everyone’s trying to outdo each other in terms of how much they’re putting themselves out,” says Allen. “Some people say they can’t deal with it, they just want to be left alone, but that’s missing the point of being a foreigner in someone else’s country.”
They’re wary, however, of seeing the country through rose-tinted spectacles. “We also found another story about how it feels to live under a repressive regime,” says Allen. “It turned out to be a very honest film because of that.”
They didn’t anticipate how sensitive the authorities were about filming, and as a consequence had numerous run-ins with local police – to the point that they became a little paranoid.
“We’d begin to worry a bit about people walking past – that they were plain-clothed policemen. We even started suspecting farmers and old ladies doing their shopping,” says McCarron, laughing. “We must have looked even dodgier for it as we were always hiding our camera underneath our jacket and sort of shuffling around corners.”
Unless you’re wandering the countryside with a big video camera looking suspicious, you’re unlikely to have any problems with the local police. Iran is a surprisingly accessible destination with a good tourist infrastructure. It’s also extremely affordable – the pair took just over US$500 with them each and came back with a couple of hundred dollars in their pockets.
They recommend taking the time to talk to people and getting a feel for who they are before accepting an invitation to stay at a stranger’s house.
“If it feels right, most of the time it’s a genuine offer,” says McCarron. “Having spent years travelling, and hundreds of nights in strangers’ homes, I can think of only one or two that have not turned out ideal.”
Unlike with buying bread, however, if you do accept hospitality in Iran, don’t even try to offer any payment – your host will be quite offended.
Five tips on making an adventure travel film
“Internet, the inexpensive cost of travel, the tech we have available to us now – it’s completely revolutionised, democratised filmmaking,” says McCarron. Here’s his and Allen’s advice on filming your own adventure.
1. Be flexible. The best adventures happen when you leave plenty of room for deviation. Don’t try to second guess everything that’s going to happen, and go with the flow when it does happen.
2. Tell your own story. The audience doesn’t want to see you saying ‘Wow, this is awesome!’ for an hour, they want to see you suffer, get blisters, get lost – they empathise with these moments.
3. Keep it honest. Show the good, the bad, and everything in between, says Allen. “And don’t up the drama; it’s obvious when it’s fake. There’s enough overdramatic telly out there.”
4. Build a following. “We’ve spent many years building up a lot of friends and getting to know this adventure world very well,” says Allen. They pitched Karun on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, and raised around US$40,000.
5. Know when to leave your camera behind. “Above all, think carefully before you decide to film your adventure,” says McCarron. “Especially if it’s your dream journey, because when you film anything it changes the whole experience.”