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Video game maker Navid Khonsari on revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran

August 15, 2016 at 5:15 pm

The images above are screenshots of the video game, “1979 Revolution: Black Friday”.

It’s 1978 in Iran. The Iranian Revolution that will eventually unseat the US-backed Shah and change the course of Iran’s future is only just underway and the streets of Tehran are alive with protests. This is the setting of director Navid Khonsari’s latest video game “1979 Revolution: Black Friday”. The game follows 18-year-old aspiring photographer Reza Shirazi, who has returned to Iran after studying abroad. Playing Reza, you are forced to make a catalogue of decisions; how involved in the revolution do you want to be? Do you throw a rock at soldiers? Do you allow the revolutionaries to use your photographs?

None of the decisions Reza can make have a clear right or wrong answer; instead as the player you pick between an impossible set of choices where all options have repercussions. For Khonsari, this emphasises how historical events are never black and white, but have “multiple shades of grey”. The Iranian Revolution, he says, has been reduced to a clear cut narrative by the outside world, with it becoming the defining moment of the Islamic nation, creating the polarised relationship between the West and Iran and the isolation of the country.

The game is a much more nuanced depiction of what happened, showing different groups uniting in a bid to achieve a common goal, but also charting the fragmentation of the opposition and the early days of the new regime. “It’s really important to show how it all started out: multiple different groups coming together, putting aside their differences, hoping to actually overthrow the Shah and get rid of this dictator, but not really recognising what is about to happen in the power vacuum.” While the game is focused on the Iranian revolution, Khonsari insists that what took place in Iran can be applied globally. “We could take something that has taken place in Iran and show the universal impact of revolutions, whether you are talking about the Arab Spring or if you’re talking about what took place in Ukraine…the trajectory of revolutions seems to have a similar pattern.”

This event in Iran’s history has shaped its image to the outside world and Khonsari says people expect to see a certain way of life when they visit Iran because it’s called the Islamic Republic. But games like this one can alter this, he says. “I truly believe that we are at a new frontier with video games like 1979 Revolution.  It’s  the greatest tool we have in connecting people through virtual experiences and creating compassion and understanding for our world today because we experienced a day in the shoes of those who have truly lived it.”

Khonsari can remember the feeling in Iran when the revolution broke out. As a child, his grandfather took him to watch the early protests in Tehran. “I saw the hope and the change people wanted to bring about,” says Khonsari. “I also saw many months later, when it went from anti-violent protests to standoffs with the military and fires being shot and tanks rolling down the street, that things had massively changed.” His immediate family fled Iran when the revolution was over, the hostage situation was in full effect and the war with Iraq was brewing. Massive changes were happening in Iran, and with this came insecurity – schools had been shut down and his fathers’ position as a physician was becoming more unstable. On 22 December 1979, the family left for the airport, claiming to be visiting Canada for a holiday. For ten-year-old Khonsari, the family’s departure had a lasting impact. “It was influential enough to make me make a video game more than thirty years later,” he says.

The team at iNK Stories, founded by Khonsari and his wife Vassiliki Khonsari, interviewed over forty people as part of their research for the video game. The interviewees included Iranians of all ages, with different religious or political affiliations, alongside a number of former prisoners held in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. This helped the team depict life in Evin – Reza is eventually captured by the Revolutionary Guard and winds up in the prison, interrogated by Asadollah Lajevardi, who was a warden at the time. French photojournalist Michel Setboun’s photographs documenting both sides of the revolution also feature. As Reza, players can compare images in the video game with the ones taken by Setboun.

While the video game has an element of cultural and political education to it in an effort to break down perceived barriers between those in the West and in Iran – as Reza you explore the streets of Tehran, you even learn about Iranian poets and different types of Iranian bread, alongside reading snippets of political commentary – it has also taken Iran by storm. “You’ve got a population in Iran where I think 65 per cent is under the age of thirty and so many of them were born after the revolution and they have only one portrayal of where they live,” says Khonsari. “This monumental event that has impacted every facet of their life is being told in a different way and more importantly, it is being told as a game.”

It also features Iranian actors as the characters, a rarity in an industry where white actors dominate. Khonsari says his cast have all talked about how their roles are limited in this respect. “They are either playing terrorists or prophets; it’s one or the other.” He adds, “They have these incredible skills and they’re limited to the way that society wants to see their roles.” Khonsari, commenting on Leonardo DiCaprio recently being casted as Rumi, says: “In the end, it ends up doing nothing but being a bad business decision because you see through that. Everybody knows Leonardo DiCaprio and him playing a poetic Iranian, no matter how you do it, it just doesn’t sell the believability of it.”

But while “1979 Revolution: Black Friday” has taken the world by storm, it has not been so well received by the Iranian government.  Within a week and a half, the game had been banned. The government has entered bazaars and closed stores selling it and over 50 torrent sites have been shut down. Iran’s director for Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games has also reportedly claimed the game can “poison the minds and souls of the youth of Iran”. Khonsari laughs. “I must be doing something right,” he says.