Screenwriting In Quarantine
By: Mostafa Azizi
Translated by: Neda Mihandoust
Around the world, the way of life for many of us is very similar these days due to social distancing and the coronavirus. The world has shrunk to a space behind walls and everyone is trying to figure out how to survive the isolation. Some doubt that they will be able to stay the course.
I was well prepared, because I survived one of the most terrifying experiences of isolation: locked in an Iranian solitary confinement cell for 40 days. What I learned is that the mind has creative powers I had never suspected. And it is a lesson that is badly needed in these difficult days.
As a screen writer, I was already used to working in a small room without interaction with others. But writing requires a computer, a typewriter, or at least pen and paper.
Now imagine being locked in a room without a window, no pen and paper to write, and three meals per day delivered through a small slot in the door. Do you think you could still write a screenplay? Or even survive without emotional breakdown?
My answer was yes. You only need a good idea and the determination to create something meaningful out of it.
My harsh lesson began on February 1st, 2015 when I entered Evin prison in handcuffs and blindfold, and was transferred to solitary confinement in ward 2A accused of insulting supreme leader and spreading propaganda against the Islamic establishment.
Ward 2A is completely separated from other wards and is run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Service. An interrogator laid out my charges and then I was medically examined while blindfolded, moved to another room and ordered to remove all my clothes. I was given three pieces of clothing and three blankets, one of which was ripped. Then they transferred me to my cell. My captors refused to return my glasses.
My cell was 3.5 metres long and 1.5 metre wide, and had a toilet and sink at the end of the room. The floor had a carpet with images of 108 flowers. At the bottom of the door was a slot that had a piece of cardboard beside it. The guard told me to push the cardboard through the slot whenever I needed something. He also warned me to not drink water from the sink. I was given a bottle of water and my new identification number: 93180.
Every day, I would get breakfast, lunch and dinner from the same slot at the bottom of the door without any interaction with anybody. I was only allowed to get fresh air twice a day by walking around the yard behind my cell for 20 minutes while blindfolded.
I quickly found that solitary confinement can lead to a lot of self-talk, overthinking, and circular thoughts, which can be very dangerous as those can be communicated unintentionally to the interrogator. Therefore, I tried to make my mind busy with solving mathematical and physics equations. To keep a semblance of normal life I had to find a good idea for a screenplay.
The interrogation started a day after my arrest. I was taken to a very small room with a big two-way mirror on top of a platform. My blindfold was removed. Through the mirror they could see me from the other side, while I was not able to see them.
From the first day of my interrogation, I acted very cool and calm although I was really anxious. After a lot of questions, the interrogator suddenly showed me a picture through the slot below the mirror.
It was from my Facebook page. It was of a political protest that was held at Mel Lastman Square in May 2015 about an incident in ward 350 of Evin Prison in which the guards beat up the political prisoners. It was one of many protests by Persian communities around the world due to this incident.
Looking at the picture brought back memories. In the picture, there was a woman holding a Persian national flag that belonged to a time before the revolution in Iran. The interrogator asked me to write down my explanation of the picture, and asked who those people were and why I attended the protest.
At that moment, a golden idea occurred to me: what would happen if while looking at the picture the prisoner recalls a memory but they write something else on the interrogation sheet? In this way, there would be two different versions of the same story and then the interrogator would add the third version!
This idea saved my life, as it was the beginning of the story for my screenplay. Then my solitary cell became a new place for me. The characters of my story surrounded me and I was not alone any more. Every day and night, I started to think about my screenplay and review it scene by scene in my mind while walking in my cell.
I had always walked around while mulling over my screenplays. But I could not type or even write with no access to pen or paper. So I could only walk, create the characters in my head, and save the scenes in my mind.
During the first 17 days I completed my screenplay in my mind from the first scene to the last. The story was about a woman who was arrested and accused of killing her husband and reviewed her memories while being interrogated. I named the screenplay, “Blindfold”.
After 40 days of solitary confinement, I was moved to a general cell where I had access to a pen and paper. So I started to transfer my screenplay from my mind to the paper. I felt a great surge of creativity and actually wrote two other screenplays. During this time my novel “Shirin’s Fortune” was born. Two years later, when I was released, the novel was published in Iran and only small parts of the book were censored out.
Now, during these days in quarantine in Canada, I am working on my new screenplay, “Senik”. I am not afraid of isolation, or how long it would last. Whether the body is imprisoned by an authoritarian state, or a ruthless virus, the lesson is the same. However harsh the conditions the mind has no boundaries: you have only to set it free to soar.