At the age of thirteen, my trip to a film festival in the Middle East turned terrifying when a grown man invited himself to my hotel room. I escaped unscathed, but I’ve been haunted ever since by the gruesome fate he most surely met.
I am sitting at the desk in my hotel room, writing a postcard to my family in Australia. A dark-haired, good-looking man is standing behind me, gently massaging my shoulders. He bends forward, and I can feel his hot breath on my ear as he asks if he can come back to see me in my room tonight. I nod.
“What kind of love you want to make?” he asks as well.
I don’t have an answer. I am in Iran. The year is 1973, and I’m thirteen years old.
“What the hell am I am doing here?” seems, not for the first time in recent days, to be a very good question.
It was just a few weeks ago in Sydney, Australia that I was in class paying little attention to a math lesson. A severe bout of anxiety caused me to miss a good chunk of first term that year — since kindergarten, simply getting to school had intermittently been a traumatic ordeal for me. I looked up to see my social science teacher at the classroom door, asking to see me for a moment. I suspected I was in trouble since that was the usual reason a teacher would drag a student out of class.
Instead, Mr. Kern said, “Hey Ross, how would you like to go to Iran?”
Mr. Kern was a tall, lanky Canadian who wore orange body shirts and purple flares. He sported long hair and sweeping sideburns. He was handsome in that slightly gaunt rock star kind of way, like a young David Bowie, and he seemed to represent everything my drab suburban school was not. Considered a bit avant-garde, his psychological theory classes were transforming the dated social studies curriculum. I think he was perceived by some colleagues as an enthusiastic and innovative teacher, but by others as a radical who was poisoning the minds of innocent youth with foreign and dangerous ideas.
Mr. Kern was also a filmmaker and had cajoled a small group of students to join a school film club. Our initial production was to be about a child’s first day at high school, as he transitions from being king of the kids at primary school to a bullied nobody in a brick and asphalt labyrinth where older students ruled. Ideas for the script were developed from compositions Mr. Kern had students in one of his classes write, chronicling their first-day experiences.
I recognized in them some of my own school-related anxieties.
We were reluctant young filmmakers. These days any kid can shoot a high-quality movie on a smartphone and edit it on the computer in their bedroom. It’s even considered cool. But at my school back then, most kids came from working-class families, and quite a few were first- or second-generation migrants from Greece, Italy, Yugoslavia, Lebanon and the like. Academic achievement was viewed by many students as a character flaw. Correctly answering a question in class could find you being labeled a “wanker,” a “faggot” or both — sometimes by the girls sitting behind you. The school was big on sport, but making a film was unprecedented, arty and pretentious. And wasn’t there something just a little wrong about us heading off in the back of the yellow Volkswagen Kombi van of that weirdo teacher whose pants flared at the bottom but were pornographically tight in the crotch?
The film “First Day” got made, eventually, largely due to our teacher’s efforts and persistence… It took several months to complete, partly because much of the work had to be done at lunchtimes and after school, and also because we were not always an enthusiastic crew. I was about the only student who stuck it out to the end and I think even my interest had waned significantly by then. I worked on some of the script, arranged actors and locations, and shot a few scenes under Mr. Kern’s close supervision.
Mr. Kern had pretty much done the rest. He also personally financed the whole project. And so, as he now explained to me in the hallway, he’d done a deal with the then Australian Broadcasting Commission to run the film during one of its television programs. The ABC also told him they had an invitation to submit films to a festival in Iran, and they encouraged him to enter “First Day.” The invitation included an all-expense paid trip for someone to accompany the film. Mr. Kern told me he was preparing to return to Canada, to further his own film studies, and also, I now suspect, to escape the cultural wasteland of suburban Sydney. He wanted me to go to Iran.
“We’ll have to ask your mum and dad, of course,” he said.
* * *
“What parent would agree to allow their thirteen-year-old son to travel alone to the Middle East?” Many people have since asked me that question. In 2016 it’s probably unlikely that any “responsible parent” would let it happen, certainly not without a chaperone. But the 1970s were in many respects a less cautious time, when kids didn’t wear helmets while riding skateboards or bicycles, adults routinely drove while extremely drunk, and practically everyone smoked cigarettes. My parents were responsible and I’m sure they must have agonized about the decision, in the short time they had to make it. In the end, I’m certain they saw going to the festival as an opportunity for me to gain some worldly experience that was impossible to decline. My father did tell me some time later he had to ignore the entreaties of a friend, a local and somewhat eccentric lawyer, who had said to him, “For God’s sake, don’t let him go to the Middle East, the place is full of faggots.”
Before I knew it I was in the Qantas Airlines’ Captain’s Club lounge at Sydney Airport, startled to be surrounded by cameras and tape recorders and microphones. The ABC was there with its television and radio reporters. Some other media probably picked up on a story that had appeared in my local newspaper. My father, I subsequently discovered (and not entirely to my pleasure), was quite fond of the vicarious limelight and had been quietly busying himself as my unofficial publicist. I would be on the television news that night, but I wouldn’t get to see it.
I was about to board a flight to Tehran.
I wondered what all this sudden attention might do for my reputation at school. I feared I was beginning to fly a little too close to the sun for their liking. Getting, as my stern aunt might have said, a little too big for my boots. If they thought that, they might have been right. I was certainly already feeling out of my depth — and about to drift much deeper.
* * *
There was no one holding up a sign with my name on it when I arrived at the Tehran airport at about four a.m. local time. No one, apparently, was looking out for a wide-eyed, bewildered child. I wandered for a while, sat down in a cafe and was then approached by a man who produced no identification but at least knew my name and assured me he was with the festival. I didn’t seem to have much choice other than to trust him, even as he whisked me away, saying we had to hurry to catch a domestic flight. This was news to me. I still have my plane ticket and it clearly shows a connecting flight to Shiraz, but I hadn’t noticed that at the time and thought I would be staying in Tehran. And so, apparently, did my family — a day or so after I arrived, Australia played Iran in a World Cup soccer qualifying game at Tehran’s Aryamehr Stadium. My father watched on television and insisted that he spotted me among the crowd.
Meanwhile, my escort delivered me safely to Shiraz and I slept fitfully until late morning in my five-star hotel room. I remember the view took in minarets, oasis-like gardens and stark, rocky mountains in the hazy background. I remember the mega-phonic sound of calls to prayer seemed to carry some message of foreboding. I felt absolutely alone in a very strange place, a mix of exhilaration and terror. But I wasn’t to be alone for long. I went down to the lobby, where a woman approached me and asked if I was “the boy from Australia.”
Juliet* was a ravishing dark-haired beauty who looked to be in her early twenties. She wore fashionable western clothes that didn’t include any form of face covering, other than make up. I later learned she had attended college in Paris. She was, I now understand, a member of an urban elite, which, under the Shah’s often harsh regime, enjoyed a more liberalized, western lifestyle. Juliet was to be my “hostess,” to take care of my needs during the festival. I quickly developed a schoolboy crush on her. Little did I know at that moment when we met she would end up in my bed.
Others were quickly taking an interest in me as well. While billed as a “youth” film festival, it referred as much to films for young people as made by young people. I was the youngest person in attendance by at least five years. A report of the trip I later wrote for my school magazine says:
At 6.30pm that evening I attended a Cocktail Party and Dinner Reception. The ‘First ABU Shiraz Film Festival of Youth’ had begun. Being the youngest of the delegates seemed to amaze many and gained me a great amount of publicity. That night I was involved in five separate interviews; three for newspaper articles and one radio and one television interview. A journalist described me in this manner: ‘His reserved character, a great deal of objectivity and uncanny wisdom for his age have impressed those around him and won him initial publicity.’
Everybody wanted a piece of me, including, it transpired, a guy with a penchant for young boys.
* * *
Film screenings, lavish feasts, more media interviews, mingling at a function in the presence of His Majesty the Shah and his wife, Princess Farah, at the opulent Golden Tent City in the shadows of the ancient ruins of Persepolis — the festival unfolded and everything seemed slightly unreal.
I also began to feel like a bit of a fraud.
When reporters asked me questions I felt pressure to give them an intelligent answer. When one of them asked me what my favorite film was I said, “A Clockwork Orange.” My much older brothers had raved about it. But because viewing was restricted to persons eighteen years and older, I had never actually seen it.
There are photos of me at Persepolis proudly holding Mr. Kern’s 16mm Bolex camera, which I barely knew how to use. Before I left for Iran, Mr. Kern had given me a page and a half of handwritten notes on how to operate the camera that contained a footnote: “It’s really a chance of a lifetime to take movie film [in Iran] so if you check and then double check everything will be OK.” But what little footage I shot in Iran was pretty hopeless, at best amateurish home movie stuff. This did not sit easily with my media portrayal as a young Stanley Kubrick. The whole time I was plagued with anxiety and homesickness, as a consequence of which I slept poorly.
Early one morning, restless and unable to sleep, I left my hotel room, went down to the lobby, sat in an armchair and flicked through a magazine. A man came over and sat opposite me. He was tall, with short black hair, wearing tailored dark trousers and a snappy jacket. He was, I would guess, in his mid-to-late thirties. He asked me what I was reading. I handed him the magazine.
“Looks interesting,” he said. “I would like to read this. May I borrow it?”
“OK,” I said.
“I will return it to you. What is your room number?”
“You can keep it,” I said.
He asked me what I was doing there and I explained. He told me he was a pilot with Pan Am and he was on a layover, between flights. I noticed there were epaulets on his jacket, which seemed like the sort of thing a pilot would wear. I noticed his accent wasn’t American and, while I briefly wondered about that, it didn’t arouse any suspicion .
I decided to go back to my room and write a postcard to my family. I was about halfway through when there was a knock on my door. I opened it and there stood the man from Pan Am. I wouldn’t say he forced his way into the room, more that he slipped inside, hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob, and then closed and locked the door.
(What was it Mr. Kern had written on the camera instruction notes he had given me? “Check and double check and everything will be OK.”)
I was not unfamiliar with what they call “stranger danger.” My friends and I had experiences of being approached by a creepy guy at a bus stop or in a store, or being stared at lasciviously while taking a pee in a public toilet. The instinct — and parental advice — was always to run like hell. That was not an option now. To struggle, I feared, would only make things worse.
Trying to appear unfazed, I went back to the desk, sat down and picked up the pen. I had an urge to write HELP on the postcard. He came over and stood behind me. I could see his reflection in the mirror. He began to gently squeeze my shoulders.
“You stay alone here, in this room?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You sure? No one with you?”
“OK, I come to see you tonight. About ten o’clock?”
You stay alone? Perhaps he didn’t believe me.
“Yes,” I said. “Alone.”
Then he said something that, improbable as it may sound in the circumstances, almost made me laugh — from embarrassment.
“What kind of love you want to make?”
“Gee, I don’t know.” I said, eventually. “What kind is there?”
He gave my shoulders another little squeeze, and smiled.
“Tonight, I show you.”
And then he left.
I locked the door and waited, my heart racing, dry-mouthed and nauseous for I don’t know how long — long enough for me to think that if he wasn’t still loitering in the hallway, he was far enough away for me to leave the room without running into him.
I took the elevator a couple of floors down and went to the room of a Pakistani couple who had befriended me. The man was a well-known film director. But it was his wife who opened the door and for some reason I was reluctant to tell her. Her husband, she said, had gone down to breakfast. I would probably find him in the restaurant.
I located her husband and told him what happened. He reassured me that I would be protected.
“I will inform the festival director,” he said. “But also, if you see him again, you must tell us.”
I began to feel a little more at ease. People I could trust were in control again and would look after me. In managing to defer my rendezvous, I thought I’d dodged a bullet.
In any event, I needed to settle down. That day my film was to be screened. I would participate in a post-screening Q&A session with the audience as well. I needed to look like I knew what I was talking about.
* * *
The film was enthusiastically applauded. There is a photo of me taken during the Q&A session. My chin is nestled between my thumb and middle finger and my index finger rests against my cheek. I look thoughtful, authoritative, like someone with, well, “an uncanny wisdom beyond his years.”
But I was wrung out. I went back to the hotel with another of the hostesses, and, there in the lobby, I saw the man who had come to my room. He was working behind the reception desk, which explained the epaulets on his jacket.
I told the hostess I needed to call the festival director immediately. She wanted to know why. I said I couldn’t tell her.
“Come. You can call from the reception desk,” she said.
“No!” I said firmly, and she looked even more taken aback.
“OK, OK then, come with me.”
I made the call from a pay phone elsewhere in the lobby.
“Just stay right there,” the director said. When I come in, you point to him for me. OK, don’t worry. We will be there soon. Stay there.”
What I thought might happen next is that the director would approach the man and ask to have a quiet word. He would say he knew what was going on and the man not from Pan Am must keep away from me. And that would be that. What actually happened is the director entered the lobby, flanked by two police officers. I nodded in the direction of the man. The director and police officers spoke to him briefly. Then the police escorted him out of the hotel. It was the last time I saw him.
Some time later I was taken to the police station to make a statement. I did so, reluctantly. I didn’t want anything to happen to him; I just wanted him to leave me alone. I knew that in some parts of the world, criminal justice could be more arbitrary than in Australia, punishments often more severe. I had heard a person could get the death penalty for dabbling in drugs in Iran and I didn’t imagine the authorities there would view child sex any more leniently, even if only attempted.
An incident that evening confirmed that his situation was probably grim. I was sitting at a long table in the hotel restaurant with many of the festival participants. I wasn’t feeling particularly hungry. Suddenly, there was a commotion near the entrance to the restaurant. A heavily veiled woman swept in to the room, making a beeline in my direction. When she got to me, she dropped to her knees, started tugging at my shirtsleeve and wailed. I looked around helplessly, not understanding any of her words. People at the table were talking to her in heated tones. I shook my arm, trying to break free of her grasp, as if it belonged to the jaws of a ferocious dog. Eventually, she too was taken away. At first, people at the table seemed unwilling to tell me who she was, what she had wanted.
Then the Pakistani director explained, “She is the man’s sister. She says he is the only breadwinner in the family. She begs you for mercy, to let him go free.”
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Nothing.” he said. “Of course, you can do nothing.”
“Do you know what will happen to him?”
“Do not worry,” he said.
But I did worry. For my ongoing safety and emotional well being, Juliet was assigned to stay in my room for the remaining nights. Best of all, she slept with me in my bed. She gave me hugs when I woke up or tossed restlessly. She comforted me; I felt secure. At times I felt a sexual stirring. I was hopelessly in love with her.
One afternoon, another hostess came up to me and said she had a little secret to share with me.
“Your film has won a prize,” she said.
“Yes, but please you must not say anything to anyone at the moment. It is not yet official. And I will be in trouble for telling you. But yes, it’s true. Congratulations.”
I wasn’t about to get anyone else into trouble. But that night, in a low-lit bar adorned with traditional Persian woven cushions and wall hangings, I drank whisky with some of the festival participants until I was very drunk. I danced with a belly dancer to frenzied music and for a couple of hours, all the fear and worry left me, and all that remained was exhilaration.
* * *
The awards ceremony was conducted a couple of nights later on live national television in Iran. My prize — a silver trophy and $500 — was presented to me by Princess Farah. She placed a wreath of flowers around my neck, as if I was a Formula-1 racecar driver, and we shook hands gently. She was, of course, gracious and charming and I hoped I’d managed to charm her just a little as well. The host of the show asked me to sing the Australian bush ballad, “Waltzing Matilda.” It’s about a vagabond who steals a sheep and chooses to drown himself instead of being apprehended by the police. My rendition got a few laughs.
With that, the wild ride that was the inaugural ABU Shiraz Film Festival of Youth finally came to an end.
Like all wild parties there were things I wished hadn’t happened, and I could pretend for a while they hadn’t. I was going home, clutching my piece of silver and a $500 check. I should have felt triumphant, but instead I cried, and my stomach churned. I was saying goodbye to Juliet. I knew I would likely never see my first love ever again. I asked her to sign the back of a photo of herself that would be my only reminder. “To my very sweet brother…” she wrote. I was crushed. I knew that “brother and sister” could not be “boyfriend and girlfriend.”
I arrived back in Australia to some more local media attention. I went back to school, where the two girls who sat behind me in my English class called me a wanker after someone showed them my article about the trip in the school magazine. Mr. Kern insisted I not give the school any of the prize money. We split it.
He left for Canada soon afterwards, we kept in touch for a while, but I eventually lost contact. My attempts to track him down in this era of the Internet and social media have had no success. I’ve also searched for Juliet without luck. And while I have never had any way of finding out what happened to “the man from Pan Am,” I still think about him. I hope he was treated fairly and the consequences no more than proportionate to his wrongdoing. But I fear his fate may have been far worse. I wonder if things might have turned out differently if I’d told him I did not have the room to myself, or if I had just said no, I didn’t want him to come back to my room that night. He might have accepted that and left me alone. And I wonder if it’s possible he thought I was older than thirteen. I was tall for my age and clearly seemed to have been doing a reasonable job of appearing more mature than my years. Mostly, I feel responsible. Not for his improper conduct, but for the price he may have paid. In some way, never knowing what that was is the most troubling. I wonder if I would feel less troubled if I had not escaped relatively unscathed.
I saw the film “Argo” when it came out a few years ago. It is based on the rescue of six American diplomatic staff from the Canadian embassy in Tehran. In 1979, CIA agent, Tony Mendez, goes to Iran pretending to be a filmmaker. Big deal, I thought; I did that six years prior, at the age of thirteen.
A year or so later I made a film I singlehandedly wrote, directed, shot on my own Canon Super-8 camera, and edited. I did everything but the acting. I entered it in a UNICEF short film competition, the theme of which was “A Child in the Year 2000.”
It won a prize.
* * *
*Juliet is not her real name; I’ve changed it here because I don’t want her to be identified or embarrassed by being associated with the events of this story.
Ross Duncan is a writer and media lawyer, not necessarily in that order. He has produced a variety of print journalism and two radio documentaries. His novel All Those Bright Crosses is published by Picador.