While making a documentary film can be challenging enough, try making it as an American team in Iran and then have to figure out how to turn 125 hours of verite footage into a cohesive documentary. Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard did just that with their film The Glass House which has played worldwide at film festivals, was screened on the Sundance Channel, and is now being distributed on DVD. We recently asked Hibbard to write about their experiences making the film.
From Iran to America: On Making The Glass House
by Melissa Hibbard
Right now we are in the midst of self-distributing The Glass House, three years after we first stepped foot in Tehran, Iran to film the stories of four young women and their relationship to Omid e Mehr, the Center that provides resources and services for at-risk girls in the city. This is the story of how we got here and the process of self-distributing a film in the midst of huge changes in the independent filmmaking industry.
Hamid Rahmanian, the director, and I, the producer, were invited to visit Omid e Mehr during a short personal trip we had taken in 2006. What was supposed to last a few weeks eventually turned into two years of traveling back and forth from Tehran to New York City in order to create what is now The Glass House.
Initially, we were not interested in covering a women’s crisis center in Iran — it had been done a few times already. Another hesitation that lingered in our minds was the difficulty in penetrating the thick façade of pretenses that dominate Iranian culture; intimacy with one’s subject is almost unattainable there. However, after spending some time at Omid e Mehr, surrounded by an incredible group of resilient teenage girls, we knew we would be fools not to accept the challenge. Marjaneh Halati, the founder of the center, provided us unfettered access to the center and the girls so that we could capture, as closely as possible, what it is like to be a teenage girl in Tehran whose daily struggle is a bit more wrenching than yours or mine.
It took 8 hours a day and 13 months to develop trusting, intimate relationships with the girls. We got to know each one individually, working to gain their trust over time. Usually it was just Hamid and his camera following the girls around. He rarely asked questions and melted into the background, capturing reality as it unfolded. Time, unrestricted access, and a small team (just the two of us), provided us an unfiltered look and provided the girls a sense of ease and comfort.
Only after 125 hours of footage did we actually sit down to think about the story we wanted to tell. We had our characters (Samira, Mitra, Sussan, and Nazila) and an unrefined sense of what pieces to share. We decided not to limit ourselves during shooting so that we would not “impose” a story on the girls. Rather, through human interaction and daily contact, their stories would emerge; we just happen to be there to film it. It took us another year, after our last trip to Iran to flush out what that story would be, again just Hamid and I. We knew we had a gem but wrestled with a big, unrefined rock for months before we saw results. Over the long winter and spring months, we constructed a cohesive narrative that takes viewers into the gritty reality of urban Tehran.
Initially, we wanted to log all of the 125 hours of footage. However, once we began the process we realized that it would take too much time and that we would not use most of it for the film. Instead, we picked four characters (of the initial seven we had been following) and built entire, one-hour narratives around each character. Each of the girls we picked dealt with a different issue, but all dealt with the overarching theme of maternal abandonment. In addition, we wanted stories with voice; whether through Nazila’s music or Sussan’s deep silence. After creating each mini-narrative, we edited even further in ten-minute segments that captured the essence of each girl and nothing extra. At the end of the process, we essentially had about 40 minutes of footage to which we weaved in more of the bigger picture story. We ended up with a 92-minute film.
From 125 hours, we edited to 4 hours, then 40 minutes, then 92-minutes. In order to better visualize the story, we took up a 4ft x 5ft section of our wall and used color-coded cards that corresponded to each girl in our story. On each card, we wrote a description of the scene in the current cut of the film. We would sequence it visually, change cards around until we felt content with the story, then go through another edit.
The film went on to premiere at Sundance and IDFA along with many other festivals. The Sundance Channel picked up the film and we have organized Norouz-e-Omid, a series of community screenings happening all over the world. With our DVDs just released, we are bringing our distribution plans to life.
Sitting in the office are a few thousand DVDs of which we have been shipping to individuals, retail stores, universities, bloggers, other film festivals, nonprofits, and conferences. Nothing may go out one day and then the next day we will have dozens of orders. Social media, targeted email blasts, and word-of-mouth are contributing to our goal of getting all of these DVDs out the door. Self-distribution is a long process and we know that its rewards are not immediate; however, I value driving the entire process from when we stepped foot in Omid e Mehr to sending out a DVD to someone who has been waiting for it since Sundance.
© April 2010, Docs In Progress®
This article may not be reprinted without permission.