A Journalist in Defense of Human Rights

“At night when you’d be sleeping, you’d hear the spectral sound of the shopping carts outside in the streets. I’d think to myself, ‘Who is out there at 3 in the morning by themselves with a shopping cart?’ Just the loneliness of it was hard to ignore.”

As Alliance Recycling closes for good, Ohio Smith (left) shows Amir Soltani the crucial income he made from recycling that day. Denise Zmekhol photo

 

by Terry Messman

The public became aware of the fearless conscience of journalist and filmmaker Amir Soltani in the pages of Zahra’s Paradise, a graphic novel that exposed the cruel acts of repression carried out by the brutal regime in Iran. The groundbreaking graphic novel by Soltani and artist Khalil Bendib is a powerful act of dissent that exposes the executions, mass imprisonment and human rights abuses in Iran.

In his afterword, Soltani wrote, “We have tried to capture and reflect the Iranian people’s dignity, humanity, love and grief in the mirror of Zahra’s Paradise. And yes, also the violence, cruelty and ignorance that causes so many to suffer around their absent children, children who lie beaten, betrayed, buried — but not forgotten…”

Amir and Khalil tell the story of a mother’s anguished search for her son after he disappeared from the face of the earth during the Iranian regime’s violent crackdowns on the huge demonstrations against the nation’s 2009 presidential election, widely denounced as fraudulent.

Zahra’s search for her son exposes to the light of day the savage beatings, prison torture and the public hanging of dissidents from towering cranes.

Zahra’s Paradise was named for an actual cemetery on the outskirts of Tehran. The book is not only a brave condemnation of Iran’s appalling human rights abuses, but also a powerful lament for the mothers and fathers whose children were buried in that cemetery.

In words that call to mind the lamentations of a Biblical prophet, Soltani wrote of countless parents who had lost their children in Zahra’s Paradise. “It was hard for us, like millions of other people outside Iran, to watch Iranian mothers and fathers grieve over the loss of their sons and daughters in Zahra’s Paradise — the actual cemetery — and not feel singed by their grief or touched by their dignity.”

Lynchings in Iran

While searching for her disappeared son, Zahra happens upon the public hanging of two gay teenagers from a huge crane. The onlookers say, “We too in Iran have our own KKK. Instead of white robes and hoods, they don turbans and uniforms.” The scene makes explicit the connection between the lynchings of gay people and dissidents in present-day Iran and the lynchings of Black people in America.

The issue of gay rights in Iran later became the starting point for an online graphic novel web series created by Amir Soltani and Khalil Bendib last year in partnership with OutRight Action International, an international LGBT human rights organization. The web series “Yousef and Farhad” challenged the repression directed against Iran’s LGBT community and eloquently advocated for tolerance and acceptance — and love.

“Many parents of gay kids have been so homophobic until they discover that their kid is gay,” Soltani said. “And then they’re stuck between what they learned and what their beliefs are on the one hand, and what their love is on the other. And for us, I think it’s just coming back to this idea that love is what matters. Love and acceptance and tolerance.”

Kevin Schumacher, OutRight’s program coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, himself a gay man born in Iran, said: “The stories they tell of persecution by family members — banishment, violence, even imprisonment and torture in their own homes — shock the conscience. Same-sex relations is a criminal offense in Iran. The penalties include jail, physical lashings, even the death penalty.”

Amir Soltani was born in Iran, later went to school as a youth in London and the United States, and then, as a teenager, moved with his family to Boston during the Iran-Iraq War and the growing repression that turned Iran into a land of intolerance. A journalist and activist on the global issues of war and peace, his insight into human rights issues has also been shaped by his brother Abdi Soltani, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, who recently delivered a major address on the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans in U.S. internment camps during World War II.

From Zahra’s Paradise to the Streets of Dogtown

If Zahra’s Paradise revealed Soltani’s insight into international human rights abuses affecting millions of people, the sensitivity of his conscience may have been revealed even more clearly when he was able to hear the ghostly sounds from the nearly invisible world of shopping-cart recyclers seeking bottles and cans in the middle of the night outside his brother’s home in West Oakland.

His awareness of recycling in the Dogtown area of West Oakland led him to devote nearly a decade of his life to telling the story of destitute and homeless recyclers to the world.

In May 2016, PBS stations across the nation broadcast the documentary Dogtown Redemption, a film by co-directors Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush that opened up the unseen world of poverty in Oakland in a way it had never been revealed before.

I first got to know Soltani in the course of Street Spirit’s reporting on his work in filming the shopping-cart recyclers who eked out a meager livelihood by hauling mountains of trash and recyclables on the streets of the Dogtown area of West Oakland.

Amir’s dedication to capturing on film the hopes and dreams of some of the poorest members of society went beyond journalism. It became a powerful act of solidarity, a prayer for justice, and a cinematic artwork that revealed the beauty and courage and unexpected moments of love and kindness Amir discovered on the streets of West Oakland.

In portraying the daily lives of recyclers, Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush also captured the crushed hopes and violent beatings they endured on the streets, the illnesses and hospitalizations, and their resting places in a tent by the West Oakland freeway, or shivering under cardboard in Emeryville, or buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.

Fire-Breathing Jeremiads

Then, when the Oakland City Council acted to close the recycling center in August of 2016, Soltani’s journalism took on an even greater dimension, as he authored fire-breathing articles denouncing the Oakland officials who had deliberately acted to destroy the jobs and livelihood of hundreds of poor and homeless recyclers.

His passionate and outspoken jeremiads were published in Street Spirit, and sounded like the fiery outcry of a prophet in our midst.

At first glance, Soltani was an investigative journalist exploring the politics of gentrification and homelessness in Oakland, and opening the eyes of the public to the human rights of recyclers targeted for removal by deceitful city officials acting on behalf of an intolerant public.

Even on that most basic level, Dogtown Redemption already surpasses many documentary films in the depth of its heartfelt solidarity with what Fyodor Dostoyevsky called “the insulted and injured” — the destitute and outcast ranks of recyclers haunting the streets of Oakland in their long, dark nights of labor.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “In a real dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Amir Soltani offered a haunting update of Fitzgerald’s epigram in his Street Spirit interview.

He said he first became aware of the lonely world of homeless recyclers when he heard the faint sounds of their searching in the trash outside his brother’s home. “It was actually very painful to see that kind of poverty that closely,” Soltani said.

“At night when you’d be sleeping, you’d hear the spectral sound of the shopping carts outside in the streets. I’d think to myself, ‘Who is out there at 3 in the morning by themselves with a shopping cart?’ Just the loneliness of it was hard to ignore.”

Jason Witt pulls heavy carts loaded with hundreds of pounds of recycled materials many miles to Oakland centers every day.

Amir Soltani joined the recyclers in protesting the City of Oakland’s planned closure of Alliance Metals. Denise Zmekhol photo

 

The Dark Night of the Soul

The Oakland streets combine the loneliness and near-despair described by Fitzgerald as the dark night of the soul when it is perpetually 3:00 a.m., along with the added dimension of economic desperation. In the whole debate around the criminalization of homelessness, as city governments attempt to banish the poor, who else has reminded us so movingly of the LONELINESS of our fellow human beings who must struggle to survive in the dark shadows of the midnight streets?

Soltani traces his sensitive awareness of the suffering of people on the streets back to his grandmother’s home in Iran.

He said, “When I was growing up in Iran in my grandmother’s house, my grandmother was very much a part of the fabric of the community where we were living. A lot of times, we would give food to people who were hungry outside or passing by. It was almost that you just didn’t tolerate hunger around you — it would almost be a reflection of who we are as a family.”

Dorothy Day wrote that the heart of her work with the Catholic Worker was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Those words are also the hallmark of Amir’s work with poor recyclers. Compassion and love for the recyclers, and a perceptive awareness of their trials and burdens, were coupled with fiery indignation for their oppressors.

At the same time that his film expressed empathy and understanding for impoverished recyclers, his investigative articles exposed the injustices and deceit of Oakland officials, and rattled the walls of the rich and powerful. His Street Spirit articles denounced the prejudice and discrimination of city officials with the kind of fierce outrage that abolitionist journalists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison expressed back in the days when journalists fought all-out battles for important principles of justice.

Filmmakers in our society typically create elaborate portraits of celebrities, movie stars and prominent politicians. It is remarkable how Dogtown Redemption lavishes that same quality of cinematic attention on the very people ignored or outright banished by the rest of society. It captures intimate glimpses of their lives that have nearly never been captured on film — compelling images of their hopes and hospital stays, their loved ones and endless lonely nights. It raises unanswerable questions about the meaning of existence, and reflects on the saving grace of love and the bitter injustice of illness, violence and death.

Redemption of Lives and Souls

The redemption at the heart of Dogtown Redemption is the redemption of lives and souls — the redemption of humanity even when it’s crushed and battered and buried in the earth.

The journeys of Landon Goodwin, Jason Witt and Hayok Kay are carried out on garbage-strewn streets, yet they have the sweep of The Odyssey on the streets of Oakland. Like Ulysses, these wanderers left their homes for years on end and are exiled on endless voyages through a landscape of deprivation and despair.

Their lives are alternately broken apart by despair and redeemed by love. In the seven years covered by this film, they will be maligned by an intolerant public and by unjust city officials. All three will be beaten brutally on the streets — by different assailants, yet by the same criminal indifference of society to their plight.

Before the film ends, each of the three wanderers and some of their closest friends will pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Some will live to see another day. Others will never be seen again, except in memory.

Moments of love and redemption take place in each one of their lives.

We witness the joy felt by Jason Witt, a battle-hardened survivor of the streets who has been forged into recycled steel by a lifetime of hard blows and shattering illnesses. He is greatly moved by the outpouring of love and affection from his teacher and brothers at the Contra Costa Budokan where he earned a black belt in the art of the samurai sword. In an unforgettable close-up, the face that seemed to be made of unbending iron softens and the steely eyes well up with tears of gratitude.

We watch as Landon Goodwin regains his strength while hospitalized after a savage beating by a gang on the streets. He calls forth the courage to uplift himself from a life of poverty and substance abuse, finds the heart to go through a recovery program and prays for the strength to get off the streets. At the end of the film, Landon walks right off the hard streets, and walks down the aisle with his bride Suzette Anderson. It can’t always happen in life, but every once in a while, against million-to-one odds, a fairy tale comes true for a goodhearted man.

Stand by Me

We witness the haunting final days of Miss Kay, a kind and generous homeless woman who was dearly loved by her friends on the street. Miss Kay is undone when her true love and best friend dies a homeless death, and she is then broken down piece by piece by the brutality of the streets. Yet we are privileged to witness this woman’s heart as she sings the soul anthem “Stand By Me” at a memorial for homeless people in Oakland.

It is a song from the heart of Miss Kay, and it somehow becomes a song for all of us, a song for the loves and losses and heartache in our lives.

After I interviewed Soltani, I again watched the scene in Dogtown Redemption when a frail and ill Miss Kay remembers her lost friend at the homeless memorial and sings “Stand by Me.”

“When the night has come and the land is dark

And the moon is the only light we’ll see

No I won’t be afraid, no I won’t be afraid

Just as long as you stand, stand by me.”

“Stand by me.” The words now took on new meaning, for in our interview, Amir said: “After the revolution in Iran, one of my father’s friends was in serious trouble, and had he been caught, he would have been executed. And had we been caught sheltering him, it would have been very serious trouble. At a time when nobody would open their doors to him, my father did. It wasn’t even a thought; that was just what he did. You stood by your friends.”

That’s what I saw in Amir’s work with homeless recyclers: He stood by his friends. In a city where affluent neighbors denounced homeless recyclers in the most prejudiced terms possible, in a city that mounted sting operations against the recycling center and destroyed the jobs of hundreds of poor and homeless recyclers, Amir stood by his friends and joined the protests at City Hall.

And in writing Zahra’s Paradise, Amir had taken a stand by his friends and defended them in print when they were subjected to repression, arrests, imprisonment, beatings and deaths in Iran.

It is striking that so many of the friends he has defended in public have been pariahs, outcasts and scapegoats — homeless people and shopping-cart recyclers in America, dissidents, gay people and the Baha’i and other “heretics” in Iran.

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