“Education is not a Crime”: words that sparked a human rights campaign and inspired mural artists all over the world to shine a light on the persecution of the Bahá’í faith in Iran.
By Elizabeth Carbe’
Santa Clarita, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/14/17 – “Changing the World, One Wall at a Time” is a new documentary feature film produced by Iranian Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari and his team – the film continues in the footsteps of the movement that started in 2015 with Bahari’s film “To Light a Candle”. An array of street artists have executed a new abstract vision of oppression and emancipation, with murals spread out from South Africa to Brazil and France to North America. These works also reflect the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Bahari’s film focuses on the active suppression of education. What started as a Human Rights Campaign in New York has now grown to 41 murals painted by artists all over the world.
“Changing the World, One Wall at a Time,” presented by executive producers Maziar Bahari and Saleem Vaillancourt focuses on the persecution of the Bahá’í in Iran, particularly the denial of higher education to the Bahá’í by the Iranian government. The film features interviews with some of the many street artists that are part of the campaign, as well as interviews with activists that are part of the civil rights movement, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and people working on behalf of Human Rights for the Iranian people from all backgrounds. Maziar and company elicit compelling interviews with Bahá’í in Iran who have been denied an education and their rights, and also discuss the personal cost of these policies. The film goes into homes that have been converted into classrooms where the students study in secret and in fear of imprisonment or worse. In the case of one young woman, the film explores her journey to the US after attending a secret Bahá’í school, and how her successful advocacy work continues to inspire Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í alike.
Some of the many incredible street artists featured in the movies are Elle, who painted a mural in New York, as well as Astro from France, Rone from Australia and Matarrita from New York amongst others. I spoke to the muralist Elle, currently here in Los Angeles, as she was just finishing a new mural at the Sunset Marquis Hotel in West Hollywood. This is the second mural she has created for the “Education Is Not a Crime” campaign. We discussed her process in creating this work. She explained the piece is rather fantastical – it depicts a woman of African descent whose imagination that is exploding, with hands that are reaching towards books that are flying away from her. Though not yet complete at the time of this interview, there is enough to be truly struck by Elle’s vision and her artistry.
Elle’s art is a mixture of collage, figurative and abstract floral. She explains that it’s a good way to incorporate all different races, colors and cultures into her art. She went on to explain, “my sketch for the first mural was more Bahá’í-centric, but they wanted the murals to represent the struggles of all oppressed people everywhere. It’s not just painting another mural – this is has a deeper meaning and so conceiving it was a much different process”. So within three days she created and painted a work that is filled with beauty and has an undeniable message. Elle brings her second artistic vision and incredible technique to the “Education is Not a Crime” campaign. The installation is the first of Sunset Marquis’ efforts to collaborate with street artists around the world and bring their art to the hotel. It must be said that the murals featured in the film are no less intense, demanding the viewer’s engagement.
So who are the Bahá’í and what have they done to upset their countrymen in Iran? The Bahá’í are a faith that considers men and woman equal and have no clergy. They put all their members on equal ground, and all are responsible for teaching the tenets of their faith inside the church and out. They would dare to say that we are all equals in the eyes of God – they elevate no one to a higher position within the church. These beliefs and practices have lead to the Bahá’í being killed, imprisoned, “disappeared” and denied fundamental human rights within Iran. Although In recent years some of the more brutal persecution have lessened, they are still denied many rights and one of those is education. After primary school, Bahá’í are denied the right to study or teach at universities. If the caught it is a criminal offense.
In response, the Bahá’í have set up the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education (or BIHE) within Iran to help those who want to study. These classes are secretly set up in people’s homes. They have no formal books or resources – students rely on the knowledge of the professor and whatever materials are available to them. If they are discovered they face possible imprisonment. Despite these limited resources, many universities including Yale and Stanford accept the BIHE certificate. Nasim Biglari, one of the speakers at today’s presentation, told us that five of his teachers are on trial and are facing a possible five-year sentence for the sole offense of daring to educate members of the Bahá’í faith.
To help bring attention to this issue before the world stage, the Bahá’í came up with an idea. Just prior to the United Nations general assembly in New York in 2015, they decided this was a good place to create a media event. “The Iranian president and foreign minister are always part of that. When they are interviewed on TV the questions tend to be around many things other than human rights,” says Saleem Vaillancourt. “So we created a media event by painting the murals. It was something that couldn’t be ignored. They received a lot of attention from people passing by as well as the media. It helped direct the interview with the dignitaries to questions about human rights and education.”
From that spark, the campaign grew and now has 41 murals around the world. The Harlem district in New York City is home to nineteen of these murals. The area’s historic association with the civil rights movement as well as its legacy as a breeding ground for art and music made Harlem the perfect choice for its walls to become home to this street art. In the film, when a local African-American man in Harlem was asked what he thought about persecution of the Bahá’í and the denial of education, he laughed and said, “that sounds like Tennessee”.
As this movement has spread across the world, it has struck a chord with many that have suffered the same type of abuse and persecution. An Indian woman in South Africa said that all “colored people” (anyone that wasn’t black or white) were denied education because they didn’t know what to do with them. All these minorities have a similar story. They are different in some way from the majority and because of their different beliefs, practices, customs or appearance, they can become the scapegoats for those who fear (more often than not mistakenly) that “the different ones” may challenge or threaten their own way of life.
Einstein once said, “imagination is far better than knowledge.” So who better than artists to take the message of this injustice to the streets and shine a much needed light on it? Street artists around the world are bringing their imagination and talent to walls in all neighborhoods. A picture is worth a thousand words and in these settings can reach hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people. These murals tell the stories of people reaching for the stars as well as of the ignorance and fear that tries to hold them back. They show the great potential that lies within all of us that needs to be unlocked through knowledge and education. With the focused intensity and beauty of their art, they take the persecution of the Bahá’í in Iran and minorities everywhere out of the shadows and into the light for all to see.
The danger is always will people only see the art and ignore the message. Art can only raise awareness. It is up to everyone to take advantage of their educational opportunities, to read and discuss, and to take action. Crimes against humanity eventually touch everyone if we do nothing.
To find out about where you can see “Changing the World, One Wall at a Time” go to www.notacrime.me