He didn’t speak English, got picked on, and got into fights. True, this young Iranian had been born in Montreal but had moved immediately to Tehran. When he was 10, after the Revolution and during the Hostage Crisis, his family fled back to Canada. “My father was a doctor and didn’t want to get involved in politics. They were rounding up kids, mostly boys, and making them fight, and my father said it was time for us to leave.”
Future BFS parent Navid Khonsari finally found common ground with his fellow Canadian classmates by talking about Star Wars. Today, as an accomplished filmmaker and videogame director who rose to notoriety through his work on the Grand Theft Auto series, he has come full circle back to that turbulent time in Iran’s history and brought us all along with him, virtually, through his stark indie videogame, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.
“Games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed are not real,” he told the students gathered in the school’s library. “1979 is the first such game based on real events.” The eighth grade is currently reading Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, also about the Iranian Revolution (and made into an animated film in 2007), so the timing of Navid’s visit was linked to their studies.
“Persepolis introduces you to the story. 1979 allows you to live it,” he said. “Videogames can have a greater impact than books when capturing history because they put you directly in the shoes of those who have experienced it. I can’t believe I’m saying this in a library,” he chuckled. “I would have killed to have had a graphic novel in my school library. And games are better than films,” he went on, “because they let you get involved. The fact that I’m in a school talking about this shows that it’s a powerful tool.”
1979 Revolution features fictional characters inspired partially by himself, his family and over 40 people they interviewed, including real survivors of the era. “Some were parents worried about their 17-year-old kids. Some were 17-year-old-kids. As the revolution became violent people had to choose what side they were on.” Interactive elements include home movies shot in Tehran by Navid’s grandfather. All of the actors are Iranian-American. Much of his source material for the scenery came from real photos taken at the time by acclaimed French photojournalist Michel Setboun. One Iranian-American fan wrote in an online review that after playing the game at home and showing it to his family, his grandfather sat him down and talked to him about the revolution for the first time.
When the US-backed Shah, a monarch who had ruled Iran for nearly 40 years, threatened martial law, some 30,000 workers went on strike, causing a chain reaction that crippled Iran’s economy. The game’s protagonist is Reza, a teenager forced to choose whether to remain loyal to the Shah like his family or to join the excitement of the grass roots youth movement intent on deposing the leader and creating a new government based on self-rule.
Although not tame by any stretch, the choices offered to players are much more nuanced, dramatic and tense, like whether or not to throw a rock, whether or not to lie the police and your family. Such simple-seeming choices can drastically change a player’s outcome. Sometimes the the stakes are much more immediate and palpable. “Who do you save, your brother or your cousin, when the bullets start flying?” asked Navid. “You don’t change history in the game but you choose what you do within it.”
No judgment is made regarding which choices players make in order to survive. Navid explained it in broad terms. “It’s the same in any revolution. It’s happening in Egypt right now,” he said in reference to the derailment of the so-called Arab Spring by more conservative elements. “There’s the hero of the revolution who helped overthrow the dictator. Then the new leader becomes whoever is strongest and most violent, and the hero of the revolution becomes an enemy of the state.”
The Ayatollah Khomeini also makes an appearance, at least aurally. The revolution’s spiritual leader was living in exile in France at the time but communicated with his followers by circulating underground audiocassettes of his speeches. He was preaching a very different message to young Iranians than what we perceived about him in the West.
“Khomeini said, I believe in the equality of women. I’m not interested in politics,” Navid told the students, stressing that revolution at the time seemed like a great idea. “The real recordings convey that even Khomeini was playing a political game, and trying to influence people with rhetoric and not come through on it. 35 years later we have a perspective on what was truthful and what was a ploy to play the people of Iran. Women’s rights were taken away and he wanted to become the voice of God on all cultural, political and spiritual spheres.”
The game strives to dispel the current image of Muslim women as silent and docile. “Today what you probably know about Iran is from the news where you only see women covered up, men with long beards. No, during the revolution they were wearing bad ’70s clothes the same as people in Paris and everywhere else…Sure, when my grandmother prayed she wore a chador but when she went shopping that thing came off,” he proudly recounted. “She had flowing blond curls and wore modern clothes and wouldn’t take anything from the merchants she had to haggle with.” In the game, the leader of the revolution is a fierce young woman named Bibi, based on an amalgam of people he knew. “I was surrounded by strong women who took to the streets,” said Navid.
The Hostage Crisis is not addressed in the game. “Our goal was to focus on the Revolution rather than rush through one of the most momentous moments in the 20th century,” Navid explained. “Our hope is, if the game is popular, to have sequels that will cover the Hostage Crisis and then the Iran-Iraq War.”
This neutrality has drawn ire from both sides. “We got banned in Iran and they’ve labeled me a spy spreading US propaganda,” he told the students. “Fox News also doesn’t like us. I think we’re doing our job right…It’s really easy to make it black and white but in real life it’s all shades of gray,” he said. “The factions want to know who they are and that what they stand for is black or white and they don’t want to be challenged.”
It serves partly as an educational walking tour of Tehran and allows players to explore the city. One can take detours from the main action to learn how to play backgammon, which Navid explained is extremely popular there. “You can also learn how to pray in Islam. You can understand how it’s different from the radical extremism you see today. It’s a beautiful, spiritual religion no different than Christianity or Judaism.”
Although an exile himself now, Navid’s love for his homeland is palpable in his work and his words. “I hope someday I can take my daughter there.”
Navid’s visit was arranged by Middle & Upper School English Chair Rachel Mazor, and he was but one of several special Middle visitors throughout the school year. Quaker Witness and Outreach Director Tom Rothschild arranged for Mohawk elder Tom Porter to visit 8C to discuss his experiences growing up on an Indian reservation in connection with the class’s reading of Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
In conjunction with the entire eighth grade’s reading of Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel Maus, Holocaust survivor Ilse Korey, mother of Upper & Middle School World Languages Teacher Sue Aaronson, met with the entire grade. “Ilse has visited us in the past, and as always, moved the students and teachers with her compassion and grace,” said Rachel.
In a most unusual turn of events, the co-authors of the Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel All American Boys, Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, showed up to speak to the eighth grade about police brutality, white privilege and youth activism on the very day of the Upper School student walkout this spring. “They were scheduled to meet with ninth and tenth graders,” explained Rachel, “but instead found themselves veering witness to the student protest. They wrote a beautiful letter of support and promised to come back in the fall to meet with our students, whom they called ‘inspirational.'”
Navid is currently developing other projects based on real historical events on a variety of subjects, not all of which pertain to the Middle East. To learn more about his independent gaming company, InkStories, visit inkstories.com. To learn more about 1979 Revolution watch the Youtube trailer or download the game from steampowered.com. It made the leap to iPads and iPhones earlier this month.