Interview: Roxana Pope - Home dangers in her sights

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THE constant background noise of traffic, bustling people, the taste of corn on the cob, grilled out on the open on a street corner, a tangy fresh pomegranate juice, cutting through the muggy heat of the city. These are Roxana Pope's memories of the city of her childhood, the Iranian capital Tehran.

"All my life I will be dreaming of going back to Iran," sighs the 30-something filmmaker, writer and singer, who has been based in Edinburgh for ten years. "But if I went back to live, it wouldn't be like it was when I was a child anyway."

There are other memories of her home country, though, which she fled as an eight-year-old with her Iranian mother and English father during the Iran-Iraq war.

"I remember bombs," she says. "I remember having to run to the basement in Tehran."

The city at the moment is being torn apart again – this time by protesters angry at the controversial re-election of president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yearly visits since mean Roxana has a wealth of family and friends still in Tehran and the first-hand news of the brutally-repressed protests has inspired her latest work, a short film to be shown in Edinburgh next weekend as part of a mini-arts festival, Hidden Door.

The film takes the form of a series of letters between a man in Edinburgh and his fiancee in Iran, a student who has gone home to visit and ended up embroiled in the demonstrations.

Letters aren't just a filmmaker's romantic device, says Roxana – in her own, recent experience, phone lines are often down and e-mails are closely scrutinised because of the protests. Nonetheless, news of her friends and family spills out, and much of it is chilling.

"My mum's old school friend, who is in her 60s, got clobbered on the head just the other day. She was just being curious to see what was going on.

"Quite a few of my artist friends are in prison now. It's dangerous to be seen carrying an instrument – they are specifically targeting musicians – and now they have this awful system where they throw paint on people so they can pursue them even after they have dispersed.

"I never thought of myself as a political filmmaker – the last two films I've made have been about women in Iran – but it's important to speak out. But it's going to make it much harder to go back."

As it has been all her life. When her family fled – because it was becoming increasingly dangerous to be British passport holders – they expected to return within six months. Instead, they moved around the Middle East for the next few years before settling in London when Roxana was 16. She went to Edinburgh University to study Arabic and Islamic history in 1992. "I fell in love with the city," she says. But she didn't put down roots.

In 1995, during the Bosnian war, Nigel Osborne, a music professor at Edinburgh University, helped smuggle her through tunnels into cut-off Sarajevo in time for a ten-day ceasefire. She co-directed an opera during the brief hiatus. "I was 21 and it was a life-changing experience," she says.

She returned in 1997 for a year-and-a-half to work with traumatised children in Mostar. She was one of ten international artists taking part in a scheme set up by Luciano Pavarotti to bring the arts to children. "We went to villages which had been cut off because of the war. The people there had seen such horrific things and the children had grown up with the sound of bombs. They were just so excited about being able to be a child."

She met children who couldn't look at others in the eye, who had lost limbs to land mines, whose attempts at singing came out monotone, the bombs and noise of war having knocked out their ability to hear melody. She met the friend who would be her best man at her wedding, Toni, there. A drummer, Serb soldiers had threatened to cut off his hands if he ever played again, destroying his confidence. She watched his self-belief return as he took part in workshops she was helping to organise. Now he runs the most successful community music project in Bosnia.

Perhaps the most life-changing part of her stay, though, was meeting her husband, Peter Vilk, a half-Czech, half-Slav, whose parents had met in London after both had fled Prague in 1968 when Russian tanks had rolled into the city. Catholic Peter and Muslim Roxana married in Mostar, a city once spilt between the two religions.

A chance invitation to direct an opera at the Traverse saw her return to this city and her love for Edinburgh was reignited. They have been here ever since and the couple now have a four-year-old son, Miroslav, whose name means "the glory of peace".

One of her proudest achievements since returning is co-writing the film Trouble Sleeping, about refugees in Edinburgh and Glasgow, which won a Scottish Bafta for best new film. She is also the artist-in-residence at the Edinburgh Mela and has become renowned for her productions at the Royal Botanic Garden.

But while this Old Town resident loves the city, she admits that when the chill January winds blow she does dream of life back in Iran.

Not that she has any illusions about Iran.

"The human rights abuses are massive. The demonstrators who have been locked up are often raped. One of my friends there told me the demonstrators are not afraid to die – that's a very dangerous psychological state. All they are asking for in terms of free elections and the basic right of expression is what we take for granted here."

Despite missing the country, she admits the restrictions in Iran drive her crazy when she goes there. "I do get to the point where I think, 'I can't do this'. I can't not shake a man's hand when I am working with him. I can't be this inferior person."

So perhaps after all, Scotland is now where her heart, if not where her roots are? "I did wonder if Scotland would ever feel like home. After ten years, it does!"

• The Hidden Door festival will be at the Roxy Art House on 30 and 31 January. Roxana's films, A Letter from Edinburgh to Iran and Red Burqa, will be showing, and GOL, her band, will be playing on the Sunday at 6pm. Visit www.hiddendoor.org.

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