Background to the film FORBIDDEN VOICES

The three young women led perfectly ordinary lives before starting to write their blogs. However, their courageous statements and their commitment made them a threat to the powers-that-be in their respective countries.

Central to FORBIDDEN VOICES are three young female bloggers from different cultures and countries where human rights abuses are perpetrated by the regimes, and free speech and press freedom are perceived as threats to the regime’s grip on power. Who are these courageous rebels on the Internet?

Yoani Sánchez was the first Cuban woman to voice criticism of the regime under her own name using her blog, and in so doing has also provoked Fidel Castro. Attracting millions of readers and demonstrating fearless dedication, this brave activist has become one of the best-known bloggers in the world. Yoani campaigns vigorously for freedom of speech and press freedom in Cuba, despite efforts by the government to silence her with violence. And she places her own life at risk in the process.

The Iranian Farnaz Seifi is an Internet pioneer in her own country and uses her blog and political campaigning to battle against the extreme discrimination of Iranian women and against inhumane fundamentalism in Iran. The regime censured her blog and arrested the activist. The only thing that Farnaz could do was to escape into exile, from where she has continued her fight tirelessly.

The Chinese human rights activist Zeng Jinyan exposes human rights abuses in China and campaigns for the release of her husband, the civil rights activist Hu Jia, who is in prison. As a result, Jinyan has spent over four years under house arrest with her young daughter in her flat. Despite being confined, she still campaigns for her demands.

While the three protagonists may come from different countries, they share the same concerns and goals. They make political and social demands from their own personal viewpoint, although they also use their blogs to express their vulnerability and their fears. They make their virtual voices heard and campaign day in, day out for human rights, press freedom and fundamental democratic rights, even at pain of draconian punishment and putting their very lives at risk. But despite all the reprisals and the occasional setbacks, the bloggers are not giving up. FORBIDDEN VOICES tells the true stories behind the wall of silence.

Difficult filming for FORBIDDEN VOICES

Arrest of the cameraman in Iran

Cameraman Peter Indergand travelled to Iran with a discrete camera to film footage in Tehran. The filming work was planned in minute detail in conjunction with the ‘Reporters Without Borders’ website in an effort to minimise the risk of arrest. However, the suspicious regime struck on day one. Five motorcycle police officers surrounded him as he filmed the Iranian flag in the streets of Tehran. They ordered him to get on the back of one of the motorcycles and took him back to a station for interrogation. ‘Reporters Without Borders’ was on permanent alert to set all the levers in motion if the cinematographer’s release was not secured. Peter was questioned by the chief-of-police in person, who viewed all the recordings one by one. After some anxious moments, he was persuaded that the recordings were for purely tourist purposes.

However, as Peter recorded footage the next day of the key locations in the 2009 demonstrations, the security police re-emerged out of nowhere. Once again, he was arrested and taken in for questioning. All his details were recorded, and a strict ‘photography ban’ was slapped on him up to the date of his departure. He defied the ban and continued his filming work in Tehran to shoot all the footage required for FORBIDDEN VOICES, at great risk to himself.

Under constant surveillance in Cuba

Yoani Sánchez has been under constant surveillance in Cuba ever since her blog struck such a chord around the world. Civilian agents sit in cars parked in the shadow of trees in the yard in front of her prefabricated housing estate, day and night. Working under cover of night, we managed to get the filming equipment unnoticed into Yoani’s flat on the 14th floor. It proved very difficult to film her outside her flat as the footage could have been seized, and the film crew arrested and deported on the spot. It was only by taking the utmost care that we managed to film Yoani a few times undetected on the streets of Havana and in the countryside. It is unclear to what extent the agents tailing her had been aware of the filming. However, when the film crew got back into their car after filming by the sea, two police jeeps screeched to a halt and swooped in the very same spot where Yoani had been filmed just a few minutes before.

It was too dangerous for Yoani, and the crew accompanying her to visit controversial sites with the large camera at flashpoints, for example the protest march by the ‘Ladies in White’, or at the police station where she reported the harassment against her, so her husband Reinaldo Escobar used a concealed camera to record footage for FORBIDDEN VOICES. 

Chinese guards in front of the house

The film crew travelled several times to Beijing to find a way to film Zeng Jinyan who was already under house arrest at that point. Many people took a huge risk to make this happen. However, there was no way of getting past the guards who were posted in front of her house. Nevertheless, there was a chance to obtain footage of her that she had filmed herself, even under house arrest.  These film documents offer a unique insight into her strained circumstances and let you see close-up how threatening and difficult it is to live under house arrest ordered by the state.

FORBIDDEN VOICES takes the audience on a suspense-packed journey, sharing with them the highs and lows of the activists’ daily struggle at close quarters. Quite unlike Cyberspace where words can move at the speed of light, the daily lives and commitment of the women are challenging and hamstrung by a whole raft of obstacles because the individual has very little room for manoeuvre in repressive societies. FORBIDDEN VOICES tracks the difficulties and the successes which the bloggers experience with their protests and goes in search of clues of the impact and potential of their efforts. It seeks to find out how the young activists can speak out publicly to set processes in motion that will bring about social change.

This documentary which goes right to the very heart of an interconnected generation of female protesters wants to encourage the viewer to contribute towards a far-reaching debate on the freedom to express your own opinion and on respect for human rights. 


The Crew

Written & Directed by     Barbara Miller

Produced by                  Philip Delaquis

Camera by                     Peter Indergand

Edited by                      Andreas Winterstein

Music by                       Marcel Vaid

Sound Design/Mix         Roman Bergamin / Roland Widmer

Production                    Das Kollektiv für audiovisuelle Werke GmbH