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Photo: Jake Burghart

Behind the Scenes of the VICE Guide to Iran

Check out photos and a new documentary from VICE founder Suroosh Alvi, whose crew got incredible access to Iran just before everything fell apart.
April 15, 2020, 6:32pm

Back in November 2019, a documentary crew of four, headed by VICE founder Suroosh Alvi, went to Iran. We were lucky enough to have no particular brief, so we took the opportunity to travel the length of the country at what we thought was a time of upheaval but what turned out to be the most peaceful that country has been ever since.

We wanted to meet people from all walks of life, all over the country. So we made the conscious decision to take a small crew and travel light. Along with the usual cine style camera rigs we normally take, we took a Sony Handycam, a cheap little camera that would more often be wielded by confused tourists in Times Square or some kid making his first skate video.


The result was the VICE Guide to Iran, a film featuring a level of access to ordinary life in Iran that we, despite a bunch of previous visits, hadn’t been able to capture before. When we took a 22-hour train ride to Bandar Abbas, the port city from which Iran dominates the strategically vital Strait of Hormuz, we were able to meet people and film the whole journey without the usual problems of people crowding around us or cops shutting us down. These days everyone has some sort of little camera so no one thinks twice.

When we met with the head of Iran’s government-sanctioned militia, or filmed at the old US embassy building with a guy who tortured US diplomats back in 1979 (and has since died of COVID-19), we used the Sony FS7 shoulder rigs we typically use on VICE shoots.

We wanted to see some parts of the country that the cable news crews -- on the rare occasion they go to Iran -- don’t bother to visit. So we visited Qeshm Island, Bandar Abbas, the Strait of Hormuz, and parts of the capital, Tehran. We met with everyone from a struggling but awesome metal band called Chaos Descent to the former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as Iran's Vice President of Women's and Family Affairs Masoumeh Ebtekar.

Days after we left the country erupted into mass protests, then the Iranian military shot down a civilian airliner (the military later said it was by mistake), then half the government got coronavirus, then so did everyone else. So the trip was a special chance to travel the country before it changed, like a lot of the world in 2020, for good.


These photos were all taken by Jake Burghart on his grandfather's Pentax K1000 and we think they are a nice insight into the trip. We hope you like them and the film.


Photo: Jake Burghart

Right off the plane we jumped on a 23 hour train ride from Tehran in the far north to the Strait of Hormuz in the far south. This photo is at 6am after the four of us rolled out of our bunk beds. The train crew wasn't serving tea until 7am, and they made a big show of how it was impossible to get it early, bribes were out of the question, and then randomly they just brought it for us. (Photo: Suroosh Alvi and Alex Chitty.)


Photo: Jake Burghart

Keegan Gibbs was our second camera operator/sound guy/b-unit producer/… with a four person crew everyone gets a lot of hats. We bought this little handycam a few days before leaving with the intention of filming everything. Luckily we did because filming anything on the train was strictly forbidden, but then we brought out this camera and the train crew was all, “Oh that’s fine.”


Photo: Jake Burghart


Photo: Jake Burghart

Railside prayer stops just after sunset. The train stopped, everyone piled off, and people started casually taking turns to enter a small mosque. No one was concerned about us and our camera, people couldn’t have been more pleasant.


Photo: Jake Burghart

Straight off the train this was the beach scene. Oil tankers passed on the horizon of some of the most contested waters in the world, while beachgoers waded into the ocean to take selfies.


Photo: Jake Burghart

Next we took a boat to Qeshm Island—if we wanted to make a travel doc, we were definitely getting that part done. Here we are waiting in the van for the customs officer to go through our stuff, which was definitely more of an island vibe than the Tehrani version.


Photo: Jake Burghart

In the tiny fishing port on Qeshm we saw this boy swimming off of a sunken ship. Accustomed to the modesty of Tehran, seeing anyone’s bare skin felt taboo, but we pretty quickly shrugged that off along with our t-shirts and joined him for a swim.


Photo: Jake Burghart

This particular beach was like a full Daytona spring break party scene. BBQs, impromptu hookah lounges, camel rides, parasailing, lots of music, and just general great vibes. As a cameraman you get lost in a scene like this, I forgot we were working and just began to wander.


Photo: Jake Burghart

As the sun set the tide drained out enough to expose a land bridge to another smaller island. People all made their way out there and the party continued.


Photo: Jake Burghart

Makeshift hookah lounge out on the smaller island. This was literally one wall from an abandoned structure, and a guy had brought some hookahs and tables. Behind me is the ocean, to the left is a guy grilling kabobs, and just on the other side of them the sky is littered with parachutes from the super sketchy land-based parasail operation. Coming from Florida I was pretty at home here and didn’t want to leave.


Photo: Jake Burghart

But, we flew back to Tehran. Even the thought of being on a plane again after traveling by boat and by rail was so unappealing. This is Suroosh doing stand-ups at the Imam Khomeini Shrine back in Tehran. Coming from the beach, this is needless to say a very different vibe, but nonetheless they did have a gift shop and they did sell ice cream, so… It’s definitely not all as it’s portrayed to us.


Photo: Jake Burghart

The Iranians call this the Den of Spies or the Nest of Espionage, both titles way better than what we call it, the former U.S. embassy. It’s a weird time capsule of a museum that seemed to not really be open. This is where we met Hussein Sheikholeslam, a top Iranian politician who took part in the hostage-taking at the embassy in 1979. He died in March of COVID-19.


Photo: Jake Burghart

This is outside of the embassy. After the revolution artists painted anti-American murals on the walls; for the 40th anniversary of the revolution they had new ones done. This is the unveiling of their anti-semitic, anti-American Ramones logo.


Photo: Jake Burghart

This guy, Bigmouth, is famous as the hype man for anti-American rallies.


Photo: Jake Burghart

If Bigmouth is the hype man, these are the dancers. Kids bussed in from suburban schools all around Tehran dress up in their best anti-American street mime attire. They are all super pleasant to talk to and assure you it is only American governments that they hate and not the people.


Photo: Jake Burghart

“I am in thy service Khomeni”: These religious students seemed a little more hardline than some of the others.


Photo: Jake Burghart

The end of the parade or carnival or protest—we’re not really sure which best describes it. A street vendor rinsing the paintball stains from his Trump poster in an open sewer, poetic on so many levels.


Crew shot on the last day at the market. L to R: Suroosh Alvi, Alex Chitty, Keegan Gibbs, Katty Arsinjani, Jake Burghart.