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A Familiar Connection

A Familiar ConnectionDocumentary filmmaker Justine Shapiro seeks to show life in Iran beyond the newspaper headlines in her latest documentary "My Summer in Tehran."

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.13.10] For most of her life, award-winning documentary filmmaker Justine Shapiro (J'85) aspired to be an actress, but soon after a stint teaching English, her career goals took an unexpected turn.

"I taught English as a second language for over a year and I heard all these very real stories about immigrants crossing the border into the U.S. and their cultural struggles," says Shapiro. "Here I was aspiring to get parts in these television shows and commercials as if they were the most important thing in the world, and it made me question-is this really what I want to be doing with my life?"

Then and there Shapiro decided she would no longer try to be on film, but instead make films, hoping to share the real stories of the world to a broader audience. With one film and several awards under her belt-and a stint as host of the "Global Trekker" television program-Shapiro has recently moved on to her second documentary "My Summer in Tehran."


The documentary chronicles Shapiro and her 6-year-old son Mateo's trip to Iran during the summer of 2007, going beyond the newspaper headlines and giving viewers a glimpse into daily life through the lives of three Iranian families: a religious family that is pro-government; a secular, westernized family with a hard-working mother; and Shapiro's counterpart-an actress and a single mom.

The United States has had no diplomatic presence in Iran since 1979, when the U.S. embassy was overtaken and Americans held hostage during the Iranian Revolution that ousted the Shah and ushered in a hard-line Islamic government. In the 1980s, the U.S. backed Iraq in an eight-year war with Iran, and in more recent history the U.S. and U.N. have sought to bring sanctions against Iran for its uranium enrichment program, used to make nuclear weapons.

Shapiro, who has traveled all over the world as host of the Travel Channel's "Globe Trekker," wanted to show a less radical, more "ordinary" side of the country.

"Normally you don't think of Iran as a boring place, a place where people go to the supermarket," says Shapiro. "I wanted to be able to show mothers and fathers and children and grandparents laughing, smiling and living their lives."

The birth of her son in 2001 prompted Shapiro to establish the Global Moms Project, a venture that she hoped would help her show the common bond families share all over the globe.

"As a mom, I started to look at this big picture," she says. "I thought, my son is growing up in this world where the cycles of violence seem almost inevitable, where the headline news is people's window into the world.

"Maybe one way to connect Americans with the rest of the world is to remind them that everyone around the world is doing what we are doing," she adds. "They are raising kids. The sense of family and the sense of taking care of one another is absolutely fundamental in the survival of the human species."


A Brave New Frontier

Shapiro was born in South Africa and grew up in Berkeley, California. After graduating from Tufts, she appeared in films and television movies, before her stint teaching English to immigrants inspired her switch to documentaries. Her first film "Promises," which followed the lives of seven Israeli and Palestinian children in Jerusalem, was nominated for a 2002 Academy Award for best documentary.

With "Globe Trekker," Shapiro explored much of Europe, Israel, Mexico, Morocco and the Palestinian territories. Even with years of travel experience, Iran would be a brave new frontier.

"I thought, ‘I'm going to choose one country, and of all the countries in the world that we need to understand right now, it is Iran,'" she says. "I think sometimes when you are so passionate you don't think things through all the way. Being a Jewish-American woman and taking my [young] son to Iran, it didn't occur to me that there was something sort of impossible and crazy about it."

Shapiro says the importance of family is something that is immediately evident in Iran.

"Iran, historically and culturally, is a society where family is very tight and where children are indulged."

She adds, "I think the thing Mateo disliked most about being in Iran was that he got his cheeks pinched 25 times a day by total strangers. There is no sense of personal space when it comes to kids."

Among her many goals for "My Summer in Tehran," Shapiro hopes to change viewers' perception of the developing world.

"We have no consciousness that educated people live in developing countries and that a middle class exists in many of these developing countries," she says. "It may not be middle class in the sense that they have two cars in their garage, but whatever disposable income they have goes toward education and improving their kids' futures. Developing countries are not synonymous with war, famine, disease, poverty and death."

The Deeper Story

Shapiro is putting finishing touches on the film and is continuing to fundraise, an effort she says will help her develop educational outreach and community engagement programs that will bring the film into middle and high schools, universities and policy institutes. Though the film is slated to be broadcast on PBS sometime near the end of 2010, Shapiro says their fundraising efforts are crucial to the film's success.

"A lot of people think, ‘oh great, it's going on TV, you have reached your goal.' But this film could have such a huge impact in middle schools, high schools and organizations working with U.S.-Muslim relations, U.S.-Iran relations and diplomacy," she says. "We need support for that, otherwise it will just go on TV and that would be a real shame."

Being a documentary filmmaker is a labor of love, says Shapiro.

"Most people don't make independent documentary films because they want to be famous or they want to make money," she says. "They do it because they want to get the stories out. I think more and more people are starting to distrust the news and are turning to documentaries for news because they understand that that is the deeper story."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.


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