I wanted to be a Christian missionary to Iran. Truth be told, I still do, but it’s not exactly the same brazen and childish desire I had in 2009 — when I searched for a Farsi teacher and a way to go to a nation at odds with America since before I was born.
I now see these longings as a childish dream compared to the beauty of that dream realized in 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, a game that humanizes, honors, and lovingly-bridges the gap between Iranian and American cultures like nothing I could ever do myself.
Made over the course of four years, 1979 Revolution uses an all-Iranian-American cast of voice-actors to give testimony to the revolution that severed the relationship between our countries. The game’s director, a New York resident and native Iranian, Navid Khonsari, fled his homeland at the age of ten after the titular revolution. His first-hand experience (paired with the collaboration of countless other Iranian-American artists) has turned into this first episodic installment that invites Western audiences onto the revolutionary streets of Tehran armed only with a camera.
I step onto Shahreza Avenue, a street named for the puppet-dictator, the Shah, where seemingly every Iranian has taken to the streets in protest against him. For miles in every direction, there’s people protesting. I photograph the endless sea of people joined in public prayer against the regime.
We walk down the street as my cousin tells me that SAVAK (the secret police) was behind the terrorist burning-down of a Cinema Plex with hundreds of civilians inside. Just then I notice a “Walking Dead” man covered from head-to-toe in photographs of murdered friends and family. He invites me to take his picture.
Every photo unlocks a short history of the real event, paired from a real-life photo, which we can see is very close to the in-game depiction.
I take in the sights: graffiti of Mujaheddin martyrs, the barbari flatbread of the noon-vaiee bread bakery, a homeless mother with her son, opium addicts selling walnuts, a bookseller selling outlawed works by Karl Marx and Iranians who have since been imprisoned and executed for speaking against the Shah. I photograph the divided religious groups who represent divergent perspectives on how people of faith should handle a revolution: some want to take up arms, others want to pray and protest nonviolently.
Inside revolution headquarters, the divergence of ideology only seems amplified. The movement seems to have a greater diversity of voices than I can track. Some of the Communist revolutionaries tell me they’re ready to set things on fire, meanwhile a peaceful cleric invites me to to talk about faith and pray with him. I take him up on that. I could see myself spending a lot of time with this kind man, but before there’s any chance to do so, the place gets raided by SAVAK. So I run.
I think a lot about that kind and loving cleric as the game takes me to Evin Prison, where we’re forced to endure the religiously motivated torture of the warden, Asadollah Lajevardi. I cooperate as much as possible despite wanting to resist this man who uses faith to justify his use of a cattle prod on me.
These scenes with Lajevardi are almost too painful to endure, especially considering the all-too-real testimonial layer. I caught myself covering my eyes and looking through my fingers, realizing that the CIA-trained torture techniques he uses were first used on him as a prisoner, a few years earlier. I can’t imagine anybody experiencing the horrors of Evin prison, but because of playing this game, I have to.
I realize how foolish, arrogant, and just plain ignorant I’ve been—to assume that I am poised to alleviate the tension and suffering of the Iranian people. I didn’t and still don’t know enough about the religious and cultural complexities of the Iranian people (and what’s been endured from all sides), but 1979 Revolution has given me invaluable and humbling insight. The game captures a harrowing true experience full of love, pain, and suffering that preaches better than I ever could, simply by existing and showing true stories. I still want to be “a missionary to Iran,” but now that mission is listening and elevating the stories Navid Khonsari and his team of generous storytellers.