In “Vis à Vis: Beyond The Veil” Deborah Whitley, an American high school English teacher meets Sima Daad, her counterpart in Tehran, through a series of digital video links to explore the differences and tensions between their countries. This program presented the first public media dialogue between Americans and Iranians since the 1979 hostage crisis and was the first Vis à Vis documentary produced by Yerosha Productions for PBS.
The innovative “Vis à Vis” format was developed in Paris by Kim Spencer and Patrice Barrat, who produced a series for France 3 and other European networks. After working on several episodes as a line producer, Steven Lawrence proposed creating an American version for PBS. He brought in senior producer Dale Riehl, and along with Spencer they secured financing from CPB, the Ford Foundation and the Soros Documentary Fund.
With the US-Iranian conflict at a standstill and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie still in place, Lawrence and Spencer wanted to get beyond the stereotypes on either side – “beyond the veil” – through a personal encounter between two women who are mothers and teachers. To their surprise the Iranian authorities agreed to the project, but watched it closely, creating a tense environment for both the producers and subjects.
Sima Daad was a true believer in both the Islamic Revolution and in the power of literature to open minds and enrich lives. In the first link she and Deborah Whitley, who taught in a suburban Washington, D.C. school, found common ground in quoting their favorite poet, Emily Dickinson, but later the dialogue became fraught when Mrs. Daad insisted that Salman Rushdie deserved to die for blaspheming the Prophet, and Deborah strongly defended freedom of speech. Despite their differences the women formed a friendship that continued after the production ended. And when reformer Mohammed Khatami was elected president of Iran and Mrs. Daad voted for him, it provided the filmmakers with a surprise ending.
Director/Producers: Steven Lawrence and Kim Spencer
Editor, Susanne Rostock
Senior Producer, Dale Riehl
DPs: Sam Henriques and Olivier Raffet