If you’ve ever seen a Brook Lapping series produced by Norma Percy you know what is in store for you. She excels in masterful, compelling accounts of difficult, often entrenched relationships – the conflict in Northern Ireland, war in Yugoslavia, the Middle East peace process – told by those at the center of the conflict. In these landmark BBC series, which have been dubbed the ‘Rolls Royce of documentary making,’ the world’s leading players recount how they came to make critical decisions behind closed doors.
Percy’s latest project, Iran and the West, and its detailing of one of the most difficult relationships in the world today, doesn’t disappoint. The series began screening on BBC2 on the 30th anniversary of the Revolution, and over three consecutive Saturday nights it gave an engrossing, sometimes heartbreaking account of high drama and failed diplomacy between Iran and the US.
The access, as always, is astounding. On a research trip to Iran in 2006 Percy took copies of previous series and made her case. ‘I told them Iran is really demonized in the West. Most Americans think they have fangs and horns,’ she says. ‘This is the best chance they’ll get to speak directly to viewers around the world without the interference of an interviewer pointing a finger and asking aggressive questions.’
But Percy found it very difficult to secure the right level interviews in Iran, and couldn’t get a visa to film. She proceeded with the US side of the story, filming a host of officials including Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright. And then two months ago, she suddenly secured three crucial Iranian interviews, including former presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami (who is now again running for president). ‘Those were the people who we wanted to represent Iran’s point of view, who were at the center of decision making for the last 20 years,’ says Percy. ‘So finally we had a series.’
As a guide to recent Iranian-American history it is indispensable and one hopes that, like other Percy series, it will be used to both educate academics and train diplomats. National Geographic viewers will be able to watch a 90-minute version this summer. But Percy can’t help but wish that those in power – namely the new American administration – will watch and take note. ‘The only hope of any sort of accommodation [is] for either of each side to understand how the other side sees it,’ she says. ‘Not necessarily to agree with the interpretation but just understand it, so when they attempt reconciliation they say and do the right thing.’
While she’s already had two requests for copies from Obama administration officials, she can’t be certain the series will make its way higher up. ‘Tony Blair twice asked for our series to watch on his plane trip to the Middle East. All I can say is that I know that we gave them to him, and that they were put into his baggage for the Middle East. Whether he actually put the DVDs into his laptop, who knows?’