• Our Man in Tehran, directed by Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein
  • Private Violence, directed by Cynthia Hill

There is a moment in Our Man in Tehran, Drew Taylor's and Larry Weinstein's documentary about "the Iranian hostage crisis and Canada's role in it," when former hostage William Daugherty describes being tortured. His hands were bound together with wire to cut off the circulation and make them more sensitive and then beaten with a hose. Daugherty calls it the worst, most excruciating pain he has ever felt.

There is something humbling and haunting about approaching another human being in the place where he has been hurt the worst. An action as perfunctory as a handshake before or after an interview can remind you of how much power—to cause pain or to promote healing—there is in the human touch, how words and deeds have consequences that will be felt for years.

Our Man in Tehran: "What's the Right Thing to Do?"

History is comprised of human lives, and one of the things that made Our Man in Tehran a highlight of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (held April 3-6 in Durham, North Carolina) was that while the personal narratives provided context for the broader historical narrative, they were never eclipsed by it. Co-director Larry Weinstein said he tries to shy away from voice-over narration partly because it can come across as spoon-feeding history. He prefers to let his film's subjects talk directly to the audience—and they do.

The "Man" of the title is Ken Taylor, the former Canadian ambassador to Iran who risked his own life and those of his countrymen to help six Americans who had fled the fallen embassy get out of Iran. Co-director Drew Taylor (no relation to Ken Taylor) told me the film was in the works before Argo and was categorically not meant as any kind of response to Ben Affleck's film or attempt to capitalize on it.

The documentary was made because the hostage crisis was "a very important moment in Canadian history," and also because the reticence of many who lived through the events, including Ken Taylor, meant that despite the great amount of archival news footage there were facts about the story that were not widely known. Among them are that Taylor helped the United States gather information to prepare for Operation Eagle Claw, and that Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark and Foreign Minister Flora MacDonald approved the historically unprecedented step of issuing passports for non-citizens which were handed over to the American government (and eventually used in operation Argo).

Article continues below

The remarkable thing about Our Man in Tehran is its ability (much like Rory Kennedy's Last Days in Vietnam which also played at the festival) to take a complex situation and distill it without being reductive. The Americans first called John Sheardown, who in turn informed Ambassador Ken Taylor that he had accepted his American colleagues into his home. In an understated but remarkable scene, Taylor relates that rather than asking for permission before making a decision with international policy implications, he informed his Foreign Minister and Prime Minister of what he had done after the fact.

As Weinstein emphasized in an interview with me, Taylor, Sheardown, Clark, and MacDonald all speak of their actions as though they were neither particularly heroic nor exceptional. They simply asked, "What's the right thing to do?" Integral to understanding the event and why it unfolded the way it did, Weinstein suggested, is that Prime Minister Joe Clark and President Jimmy Carter "were both highly moral men." His directing partner, Drew Taylor, concurs, saying the film depicts people making "moral decisions" and using their "basic instincts" about right and wrong to guide their decision making.

Challenging Political Cynicism

During a panel discussion with the audience, former Ambassador Ken Taylor was asked if, in retrospect, he agreed with American decision to admit the Shah of Iran to the United States for medical treatment, an act which ended up being a catalyst for the hostage crisis. He said the act "reflected a U.S. value" and that if asked he would have encouraged the United States to "take him in."

That answer provided important insight into the motivations of the participants. It was tempting while watching the film or interviewing the artists to wonder if such a value-driven form of decision making was specific to the time period or to Canada, because seeing people act in such a way challenges the viewers' cynicism about politicians and statesmen.

When I asked Drew Taylor and Larry Weinstein if they shared my sense of wonder at that part of the story, they both said "no." There are ample examples in our history and in our present of people—including but not limited to religious people—choosing to put others before themselves, choosing to do what they believe is right rather than what they know is safe. Our Man in Tehran provides several examples, and for that reason is an inspirational and encouraging film.

Article continues below

Private Violence: Understanding Domestic Violence

Cynthia Hill's Private Violence is another story of torture and terror that is paradoxically inspirational. The film profiles several women who are victims of intimate-partner violence and one advocate, Kit Gruelle, who trains responders, supports women, and interacts with court personnel to try to confront and dispel misconceptions about domestic violence.

"I'm the person who lives in the gray," Hill told me in an interview at Full Frame. "I'm not didactic." Such sentiments may make domestic violence seem a strange topic for the documentarian to choose, but Hill thinks it helped her avoid making a film that simply "beat audiences over the head" or "gave audiences the answers." She also conceded that she approached the subject with some of the same questions or attitudes that she assumed others would have: "Why don't they just leave?" and "I would never allow that to happen to me." By exploring those questions for herself, she gives audiences permission to ask them and, hopefully, draw their own conclusions.

As with most complicated questions, "Why don't they just leave?" has more than one answer. The documentary profiles several women who have been violently abused, but it eventually narrows its primary focus to one, Deanna. When she tried to leave her abuser, she and her daughter were kidnapped for four days. She is beaten repeatedly with fists and a flashlight, humiliated (her abuser held her down and urinated in her face), and forced to endure threats to her daughter if she does not comply with her abuser's demands. (The hospital photos of Deanna's injuries are gut-wrenching.)

As horrific as Deanna's story is, it also provides a lens into the at-times Kafkaesque ways society responds to her and those like her. A prosecutor asks Gruelle if she can find a doctor willing to testify that Deanna's injuries are "serious" and not just "soft tissue" injuries. Because Deanna was held in the back of a truck and could not testify exactly what county she was in when she was beaten, prosecutors cannot prove jurisdiction. "Assault of a woman" is still only a misdemeanor in many locations. Why don't abused women simply leave their abusers? Sometimes, as with Deanna's case, they do, but their abuser refuses to let them go.

Article continues below

What About Abuse in Faith Communities?

I asked Hill what messages she hoped a specifically faith-based audience might take from the film. She thought for a moment and replied that given statistics on domestic violence in the United States, the chances are that we all know abuse victims; we just don't know that we know them. She suggested that the reasons women suffering violent abuse might not leave (or even come forward) are complex and could vary from community to community.

A woman in a faith community, for instance, might struggle with feeling like "she may not be praying enough" or may feel communal pressure to deal with such matters privately. Such rationalizations or fears can seem misguided or even irrational in retrospect but physical abusers are more often than not also especially good at isolating those they abuse and subjecting them to psychological and emotional manipulation.

Hill made it a point to stress that "I did not want [the film] to feel alienating to a male audience." That is part of the reason for showing Gruelle training male police officers, including the testimony of a male doctor who examines photos of Deanna's injuries, and giving a voice to male family members of victims of intimate-partner homicide. Although the causes of violence might vary from community to community, Hill hoped that all of us, male or female, outside of a faith community or within it, could agree on one thing: "No women should have to be afraid in her own home."

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.