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Sky Sitney of DC/DOX Chats with Kate Woodsome: Behind the Scenes of ‘BRING THEM HOME’

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DC/DOX presented BRING THEM HOME, a Washington Post Opinions Film, in its inaugural edition as part of the DC/FRAME program presented in partnership with HumanitiesDC. Co-directed by esteemed journalists Kate Woodsome and Ray Whitehouse, this documentary tells the story of American citizen Emad Shargi, who is taken hostage while visiting Iran, his country of birth, as a pawn in ongoing nuclear negotiations. His wife Bahareh and daughters are forced into unlikely roles to bring him home.

On August 10, a monumental announcement emerged from the White House: the U.S. had struck a deal with Iran to free five American detainees, including Emad Shargi, as part of a humanitarian exchange. Amidst this backdrop, DC/DOX Co-Founder and Festival Director, Sky Sitney, speaks with Kate Woodsome about the profound impact of this news and the potent role of film within diplomacy.

 

Sky Sitney: What was the impetus for making a film on this subject? 

Kate Woodsome: I’ve collaborated with my colleague, Jason Rezaian, for about five years on hostage-related stories. He’s a Washington Post Opinions writer and former foreign correspondent in Tehran who was taken hostage by Iranian officials in 2014. When he returned to The Post, we started talking about how to make people care about something that is so far away, to make a foreign policy issue a personal concern. I think one of the most powerful ways to make people question their assumptions or change their opinions is to evoke an emotion in them that causes empathy or, at the very least, curiosity. So, that’s the approach Jason and I have tried to take in telling the story of state hostage-taking — a threat that has grown so dire as more Americans are now being held hostage by foreign governments than by terrorist or criminal groups.

In 2021, Jason told me about Emad Shargi, an Iranian American who’d been wrongfully detained in 2018 and was being held in the same prison that he had been in. Emad and his wife, Bahareh, had raised their girls in Washington, D.C., and lived about 10 minutes away from me. Bahareh and her now-adult daughters — Ariana and Hannah — had been afraid that if they spoke out against the Iranian government, it would hurt Emad’s chance of coming home. But as more time passed, they realized silence wasn’t an option. When they decided to write an op-ed in The Washington Post, I teamed up with D.C.-based filmmaker Ray Whitehouse to interview these brilliant, strong women so people could read their words and hear their voices. Ray and I realized they were not only beautiful souls, they were incredibly compelling on film. We thought, my god, this is a chance for the world to better understand not only the terror that hostages live in but the terrorism their families are subjected to. We kept filming with them for about six months.

SS: As a longstanding journalist who has worked in print, radio, and television, what were some of the opportunities that visual storytelling offered you that were not available in the written format, and what were some of the unique challenges and constraints of visual storytelling? 

KW: The strength of the visual storytelling, in this case, was you could see and feel the Shargis’ grief, you could see their fear, you could see their confusion. You could see a woman in D.C., talking over the phone to her husband who’s in prison in Iran, and she’s joyful and joking and carefree, and then the minute the call hangs up, she collapses on the floor in grief because she doesn’t know if this is the last time she’ll talk to him, or if she’ll ever see him in person again. You can’t do that as well in writing.

The challenge of visual storytelling was that we were filming during the pandemic when everybody was using Zoom – not as an option but as a necessity. The family’s advocacy was done all on Zoom. They weren’t going to Capitol Hill, they weren’t going to the State Department, and we didn’t have access to the prison in Iran. So there was no action to watch, and that was a real challenge for us to figure out what the scenes were. 

That was our greatest challenge as storytellers, but we had a greater challenge as humans. What informs my journalism is the principle of “do no harm.” I think it is the role and responsibility of journalists to give voice to people who have lived trauma, if they want it, and to show others the impact of traumatizing events. But the act of reporting can unintentionally hurt people, too. A traumatic event can rip away all sense of control, and how you tell your story is the only thing you have power over. When someone else tells your story, if it’s not done sensitively with buy-in, it can compound the injury. 

Ray, Jason, and I talked a lot together about how to work with the Shargis at their own pace and to respect the terror unfolding in real time. Before starting filming, we Zoomed with Bahareh and listened to her fears and what she thought were the costs and benefits of sharing their story. And after we started filming with Bahareh, Ariana, and Hannah, we talked about the “vulnerability hangover” that can come with telling your story, which was magnified because of the stakes of the case.

The Shargis were terrified that anything they said or did could hurt Emad. They both worried that the Iranian government would retaliate against him if they spoke up, and that he would be a hostage forever if they stayed silent. 

There were so many understandable starts and stops. At times, the Shargis wanted to release the film before it was done so the world could rally around Emad, but then a distraught, shaky phone call from him in Evin Prison would make them scared to even finish filming. 

We knew from Jason’s experience as a hostage that Iran will take anything out of context to incriminate a wrongfully accused person. So, to build trust and ensure we minimized any potential harm, we gave the Shargis a little more access than we normally would as journalists to approve certain scenes. For example, there was one scene with a quick shot of a table that held family pictures and a book by an author whose name could’ve been misconstrued by the Iranian government. We cut the shot of the book and also had The Washington Post lawyers who helped with Jason’s case watch every frame of the film before it was released.

SS: This brings us to the big news announcement on August 10 that five Americans wrongfully detained in Iran are part of a deal negotiated by the Biden administration to eventually secure their freedom. Four of the Americans, including Emad Shargi, were moved from Evin Prison to house arrest, along with a fifth American already under house arrest.  What is your take on this remarkable update, and how is the family doing?

KW:  This is technically very good news and at the same time it’s incredibly precarious. It’s a partial gesture of goodwill by Iran to the United States in a very complicated deal. They are no longer locked in prison but they are not allowed to leave Iran and are reportedly being kept in a hotel with ankle monitors on. So, Emad, for example, still doesn’t have his passport and his movements are restricted and watched. The potential for all the hostages to be taken back to prison is as high as the potential for them to be released to the U.S.

There are different factions and tensions within the Iranian government that can thwart deals like this. There’s the Iranian political leadership, and then there’s the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the military wing, each with its own strategies and goals. If Iran releases the Americans, the government would gain access to its own funds that have been frozen for a long time by South Korea, a U.S. ally that has said it will let Iran get its funds back if it releases these Americans. If the deal goes through, it would be an example of global allies working for good, but there are many factors that could make it all disappear.

SS: Now that Emad is presumably in a hotel in Iran, has the family been able to physically reunite with him? 

KW: No, they would not go to Iran, and the United States recommends that no American go to Iran because state hostage-taking is a tool of diplomacy for this country. If Bahareh, Ariana, and Hannah went to  Iran, they could become potential hostages.

SS: Finally, do you believe that this film and its presence in the Washington Post as a “Post Opinions Film” has had any impact on this diplomacy?

KW: I think the film, in combination with our dedicated coverage — columns, deeply reported features, regular questioning of the U.S. government — created a blueprint for other journalists to keep a spotlight on this case. Journalists have finite time and resources to cover many complex subjects at a quick pace. State hostage-taking and the diplomacy it requires to free a wrongful detainee is really, really complicated, which makes it hard for the media to wrangle with. So we essentially created a vocabulary on how to report on the Shargis and other hostages, including WNBA star Brittney Griner, who was wrongfully detained in Russia. This, of course, started with Jason Rezaian because of his own experience, but the resources and expansive multi-media coverage we did really laid the foundation for other media and journalists to understand the dynamics, and to know what questions they should be asking. And it gave a very personal, heartbreaking face to what was happening. 

When the government knows journalists or filmmakers are paying attention, it is under more pressure to solve the problem, to bring American hostages home. The government doesn’t necessarily want families to talk publicly about the cases, sometimes because it can compromise negotiations, but often because the more people that know about the wrongs, the more people want them righted. Journalists hold the government accountable, as the Shargis do by speaking out. I don’t think our film was the reason for the deal that hopefully will bring Emad home, but without it and the coverage it inspired and informed, I think the Americans’ freedom would be much less likely.

SS: Thank you for your incredible work, Kate.

You can watch BRING THEM HOME here.

Kate Woodsome is a writer, producer, and director at Washington Post Opinions. Her work explores the motives for — and impacts of — inequity, abuse of power, and social division. She was part of the team that won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Kate is now focusing on America’s mental health crisis and the need for collective care. A Murrow Award-winning journalist, she chooses her medium, be it a written column or short documentary, based on what the story and its subjects demand. She built Washington Post Opinions’ Video Department from the ground up and in the past year, her films “Bring Them Home” (director/producer) and “Fight or Flight” (consulting producer) screened at the Big Sky Film Festival and DOC NYC. Kate previously managed a live global affairs program at Al Jazeera English and spent her early career as a print and radio reporter in Cambodia, Cuba, and Hong Kong.

Honors and Awards: National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism, 2023; Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, 2022; Ben Bradlee Award for Courage in Journalism, 2022; Edward R. Murrow Award, 2021; White House News Photographers Association’s Eyes of History, 2021, 2022; National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence, 2018.

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