Mahshid Modares

Director of  Sanctions on Us

Your film is entered in our Best Indie Awards. What is your film about?
Sanctions on Us is about U.S. economic embargoes on Iran and their consequences for the Iranian peoples. The type of sanctions that we discuss in this film are considered second-hand sanctions. Food, medicine, and medical supplies are not directly under U.S. economic penalties. However, other economic restrictions, such as sanctions on the banking system, affect the price and availability of basic needs.


Sanctions on Us was completed after another documentary named Sanctions on the Sky which is specifically about U.S. sanctions on Iran’s Civil Aviation Sector and how those sanctions are one of several reasons contributing to thirty-six plane incidents from 1980 to 2022.  


The focus of both films is Iranians’ stories. We decided to let participants tell our audience what they think about these sanctions and what they want the rest of the world to know about their lives under economic penalties.


Sanctions on Us and Sanctions on the Sky tell our audience that lack of freedom and democracy are not the only hurdles Iranian citizens must face. There are other struggles that the U.S. government has initiated. We need to pay attention to those as well.    

What are your ambitions with your project?
We are trying to show how the economic sanctions have harmed Iranians much more than the Iranian government. The films provide the audience with several examples to demonstrate how these embargoes contribute to death, injury, sickness, mental and emotional distress, and even poverty in Iran. The way Iran’s situation is treated by the U.S., the UN, and the world powers is not in favor of the Iranian people. Iran has been subjected to economic restrictions for four decades. The question is, have these sanctions resulted in constructive changes in Iran? Do people benefit from them? Moreover, Iran’s situation is getting worse and worse every day. Why the Washington does not stop some of these inhumane sanctions and look for alternative solutions? We want our audience to think about these questions.


How was the shooting? What pleasantly surprised you?
These two films were produced under challenging circumstances. I started the interviews and the shooting when the Travel Ban was issued during the presidency of Donald Trump. The political climate created fear among Iranian and Muslim communities in the U.S. Two prominent social actors I interviewed first asked me to remove their conversations from the films. Many others were hesitant to cooperate. I had to be creative. I made a short version and sent it to interviewees to demonstrate how these films could be made without showing their faces and revealing their identities. Convincing people to participate in the films became the most challenging phase of the shooting.

The most pleasant surprise was talking to the younger generation of Iranians, teenagers who were thirteen to twenty years old. It was refreshing to see how informed and passionate they were and how much they cared about peace and prosperity of Iran.        


For what target group is your film?
We hope that many people around the world watch our films. Both films’ target audience, however, is the U.S. and the UN lawmakers and authorities, human rights activists, journalists, and the social documentation community around the globe. For this reason, the films have interactive versions available online. Of course, most lawmakers do not walk into a movie theater to watch documentaries as such. So, we had to deliver these two films to them, and making online interactive versions seemed reasonable. 

When we released the films in January 2022, we sent the links to the office of President Biden, the office of Vice President Harris, and the office of Captain Sully Sullengberger, an aviation safety advocate whom President Biden nominated to represent the U.S. on the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Farideh Dada, who helped me with the research and appeared in the films herself, and I keep sending the links to journalists, human rights organizations, and academic communities. We continue identifying those sources and contacting them. 

Hoping to bring more attention to this humanitarian crisis, we also keep sending both films to acclaimed film festivals. We have received heartwarming comments from individuals who watched the films and a lot of support and recognition from film festivals. And, we are truly grateful for this interview. Thank you for helping the Iranian people to be heard!  

How would you specify your work? What characterizes your film?
First-the voice of the Iranian People is the heart of these two films. We ask our audience to pay attention to what our social actors discuss. Second-the interactive versions are more than films. They function as sources for further research on economic sanctions on Iran. We added a list of sources we studied during the production stage. Researchers and students can use this list for their own studies. Also, a timeline is added to the Sanctions on the Sky, which contains all the information we could collect about the date, location, the cause of each incident, and more. And third-it was important to me, as the director, to make sure the music becomes iconic and stands out. In both films, the music represents Iran and Iranians as much as the interviews do. The credit for this success goes to Bita Ghaffari, Michael Nejat, and Aryan Modares, who did a phenomenal job.          


Why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
My journey started as a visual arts student in Iran. Later when I moved to the U.S., I studied the history of arts and visual culture while working as an artist and educator. I also experimented with photography, which I still love and do. But, I always felt I needed a different platform for communicating with my audience about social issues. In 2017, I watched New Muslim Cool, a documentary by Jennifer Taylor. That documentary had a significant impact on me and helped me find my path. I did some research and learned about Social Documentation MFA program at University of California, Santa Cruz. It was exactly what I needed. I applied and was admitted to this great program. For my MFA final project, I made a 20-minute documentary that became the foundation of making Sanctions on the Sky and Sanctions on Us. I made my project under the supervision of Jennifer Taylor, my primary advisor, and several other professors in that program: Anna Friz, Lawrence Andrews, Ruby Rich, and Irene Lusztig. I also started working on the interactive version of Sanctions on the Sky under the guidance of Sharon Daniel, Susana Ruiz, and John Jota Lea’os. I also owe the success of these two films to my husband, Macky, for his endless support. The interactive versions of both films are accessible online free of charge because of Macky’s technical and financial support. No one becomes a filmmaker on an isolated island.  


Who is your greatest role model?
Charlie Chaplin, for bringing attention to the poor and other important issues in the form of comedy; Jafar Panahi, for his resilience and creativity; and Robin Williams, for offering us valuable life lessons using effective and straightforward language.


 Which movies are your favorites? Why?
I can name many, but I only mention a few that I believe most of us should watch: Last Day of Freedom, The Social Dilemma, 13th, These Birds Walk, Where is the Friend’s House, The Child Nation, Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump, Soul, and also the series: Three Pines. These rich and engaging films examine topics we need to know and think about. I understand many of us favor entertaining films, but we should watch impactful documentaries and fiction films sometimes. They connect us to real people and real stories. They are windows to Truth and Trust.  


 Where do you look for inspiration for your films?
People! I listen to people’s life stories, and occasionally, I imagine myself making a film about them. And it eventually happens.


How would you rate current filmmaking?
Streaming services and social media are changing the culture of filmmaking and film watching. The film industry is growing fast. Perhaps too fast to let us sometimes pause and ponder the questions: How is today’s film industry contributing to knowledge-making? What lessons are the younger generations learning from films and videos that they watch? And how do those films affect their personal journey and their position in their immediate communities? Making a profit should never be the only or first reason for filmmaking.


What are your next projects?
I am simultaneously working on two film projects that concern Iranian women and displacement. I am still determining which film will be completed and released first. I am applying for grants to work with a few talented makers I admire. All independent filmmakers face financial difficulties. But, I am determined to make these films. The message of both projects is no less intriguing than Sanctions on Us and Sanctions on the Sky.


Allow me to end this interview by thanking Best Indie Film Award in London for giving us this opportunity. And, on behalf of everyone on our team, I thank every single person who reads this interview and the ones who watch our films.

Sanctions on Us

Up to this date, The U.S. government has imposed economic penalties on at least 115 countries and more than 7100 companies, organizations, and individuals. Among those economic embargoes, 42-years of sanctions on Iran is the longest. For more than four decades, these sanctions have been deteriorating the life of Iranian people and their civil rights.
Sanction on Us narrates the story of people who are destructively affected by the U.S. economic embargoes.

In July 2015, the President Obama's administration and Europe announced the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, in which Iran agreed to convert and reduce some parts of its nuclear program to peaceful nuclear use for energy in exchange for relief from some sanctions. On November 2017, the President Trump's administration withdrew from the JCPOA, and renewed and expanded these economic measures on Iran. Such attempts to cause more damage on Iran's export and import economy have worsened Iran/U.S. ongoing political disagreements yet again and put Iranians life in jeopardy more than before.

Although the film explores the unbearable living conditions created for Iranian families under U.S. embargoes, it is an invitation to peace and friendship between the two countries by soliciting the future generations of lawmakers to make positive changes.
Sanctions on Us looks at Iranians' attempts to build transnational connections where governments are trying to seed divisions.

This documentary intends to encourage the viewers to propose a solution and search for an answer to this complicated political situation.

Sanctions on Us

Sanctions on the Sky

The Inaugural Anthem Awards 2022, Mahshid Modares’s One-Sentence Speech (15 seconds)

Maureen Dixon Harrison (Assistant Director, Arts Communications, UCSC) Interview with Mahshid Modares (minute: 19:40 to 24:58) and five other Social Documentation Filmmakers.

Also available on Apple Podcasts