Tyler MacNiven became a minor celebrity last spring as a star in CBS's reality TV show, The Amazing Race. Termed "the hippies," MacNiven and his partner B.J. Averell went from underdogs to overachievers, winning the race, the million-dollar prize, and a cult following. With the money, MacNiven sought to do what he's always wanted to do: make movies. After toying with several ideas, he decided that he and his Iranian-American friend, Bobak Bakhtiari, would run the length of Iran promoting friendship and understanding. The name of the upcoming movie, of course: I ran Iran.
"Being on national news was awesome, but it was for the wrong reasons. I felt naïve to be used as this political puppet."—Tyler MacNiven
MacNiven, 26, has experience traveling across a country. In 2005, he made his first long documentary, Kintaro Walks Japan, that told the story of MacNiven's journey walking the length of Japan. American Airlines shows his movie on flights and the film has been watched over 95,000 times on Google Video. Though MacNiven's lanky frame, shaggy hair, and goofy walk may make it hard to take him seriously at times, the Japanese anchor is on to something when, at the end of the trailer for the movie, he says: "He must have huge balls to walk that far."
I met MacNiven my freshman year at UC Santa Cruz, where he was also a student. MacNiven got married in an impromptu faux wedding ceremony in the quad outside our dorm. (He was marrying my friend; I was a bridesmaid). I caught up with him recently as he was moving into his new San Francisco apartment. We talked about his movie, US-Iranian relations, and how he was unwittingly used as a puppet as the Iranian government tried to promote its right to nuclear energy.
Gelf Magazine: What motivated you to make I ran Iran?
Tyler MacNiven: The title was so good, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Also, I've got an Iranian-American friend and his family has always told me Iran is really great and people are really friendly. And lately, it's been portrayed so negatively in the media.
GM: Did you have political motivations in mind when you decided to make the movie?
TM: No, I went in with the intention of making a politically free documentary. It was strictly about how cool and friendly the people are.
GM: How did you prepare for possible security issues in Iran?
TM: I wasn't worried. My philosophy is that everywhere on earth is pretty much a friendly and safe place. I have a lot of faith in humanity. I didn't feel in danger because everywhere I've been has been my backyard. I did have a driver, Captain, and I went with Bobak to be able to speak the language. I had to have a tour guide because all Americans are required to have one.
GM: What was it like being a 6'3" blond American in Iran?
TM: Being 6'3" in Iran is like being a skittle in a bowl of M&M's. We were all candy, but I still felt out of place. Actually, I felt like I had an important responsibility to act as an ambassador in a place that doesn't get many real-life Americans. Walking down the streets, 70 percent of people would stare curiously, 20 percent would laugh, and 10 percent would gleefully say, "Hello mister, how are you?" There were many stares, but I was doing a lot of staring back.
GM: Who sponsored you?
TM: The Physical Education Organization (PEO) [a branch of the Iranian government] said that they agreed with the intentions of the run that Bobak and I wanted to do, which was a run of friendship and understanding among nations while we go through a tough political time. As an American, I was required to stick with a tourist itinerary. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs would not allow me to run, so by enlisting the support and sponsorship of the PEO, theoretically I would be able to override the MFA decision. We hoped for support from the PEO, but had no expectations of financial sponsorship.
TM: Absolutely. I had never done a run before, and I actually don't even consider myself an athlete. I was just going to work it out as I went along. There were a lot of potential things to stop us from running.
GM: Did you think political reasons would stop you?
TM: Once we started, I was pretty certain we would be allowed to run the entire race. We were sponsored and we were staying in hotels. They were paying for our meals. We had been given a green light. I had no idea.
GM: Tell me about the push for you to advertise Iran's right to nuclear power.
TM: Essentially what happened is on the first day of the run, the media asked our opinions of nuclear energy in Iran. We stated, because they were paying for everything and being so nice, "Sure, as long as it is for peaceful reasons." We didn't really realize there was anything wrong with that. We didn't think much of it. The third day we were joined by a group of local joggers wearing banners saying "Nuclear Energy is Iran's Right," and they wanted me and Bobak to wear one. It wasn't comfortable at all and we wore it for about 10 minutes. That night on the news, the headline of the newscast was, "Two Americans are running the length of Iran to promote nuclear energy."
TM: My heart sank, and I got pretty emotional. I decided I was not going to answer that question any more.
GM: Did they take it too far?
TM: : They took it too far for me, for sure, and I should have known. First of all, I didn't know we would become national news right off. So being on national news was awesome, but it was for the wrong reasons. I felt a lot of regret and I felt naïve and I felt humbled to be used as this political puppet. The good thing was that it strongly defined the intentions of the run. I realized it wasn't political at all and it was about this specific thing: making friends with Iranians and understanding the people and how they treat Americans running across their country. Also, I wanted Iranians to see a couple of Americans reaching out in friendship to them.
GM: Have you been able to figure out more about why
you were deported* they asked you to leave?
TM: I don't know the exact reason. The excuse that they made was that I had political complications in Japan with my movie. Anyone who has seen my movie knows that there were no political complications. I was in a police car once for walking across a bridge, but that was as complicated as it got. I would be the one who knew if I had political complications. So they made up that excuse. I think it's because I decided not to promote nuclear energy. I think that because on day six of the run, national cameras were on us and we said we wouldn't answer that question. That day is when we got the call.
I really could have focused more on the Iranian people, but they wouldn't let me. So, I'm forced to make my movie about the political problems that aroseGM: What did you do when you found out you had to leave?
TM: I was in denial. Because Iran works in such a weird way that no one really knows what's going on, I thought maybe we were going to still be able to run. We were never clear how serious the
deportation threats* requests to leave from the MFA were. The PEO insisted that we continue to run and not worry, but when the head of the Iranian intelligence department gave the order to stop the run, Captain knew it was over, and we had no hope of starting it again. I wanted to ride out the extra weeks of my visa to check out some tourist spots but they said I had to take the next flight out. I tried to tell them if I'd had that extra time I really could have focused more on the Iranian people, but they wouldn't let me. So, I'm sort of forced to make my movie about the political problems that arose.
GM: How'd you feel when
you got deported* they asked you to leave?
TM: I was exhausted because I had put so much energy, time, money, and people power [into this] and I felt so guilty. I felt that when I failed we all failed together. My overarching emotion was sad.
But, as soon as we walked on the plane there was this relief and this feeling of gratitude for having the experience. It wasn't like a normal trip to a country. It was cool being there because everyone was excited to see an American because of the political climate. It was neat to be involved in the inner workings of the country; to be having meetings with organizations and having people hired for this project. We were all making a project together. It wasn't like being a tourist. On the plane, Bobak and I looked at each other and just sort of smiled because we had been so wrapped up in it and we realized this amazing experience had fallen in our lap. Then we flew to Amsterdam and some other things fell in our lap, you know?
GM: What do you think of American and Iranian relations right now?
TM: Politically, it's all messed up. I was surprised how many people there like George Bush because they are anti-Iraq and anti-Saddam. Almost everyone I talked to said, of course there is a distinction between people and politics. There are a few signs around that say "Down with the USA and Israel." But everyone I talked to said that is just the fundamentalist religious people.
TM: Iranians love Americans. It's amazing. They love Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp. They love Linkin Park. I was expecting this, but it was just even more surprising that they were so willing to pay for my run. There was so much support amongst so many people. I don't think PEO sponsored me for political motivations, but just a few people at the top had problems with it. People at local levels helping out, buying food actually cared about the trip and they cared about the intentions. It's sad that it happened. They want to promote nuclear energy in Iran and show that America is wrong. We were a perfect tool for them because they could say, look, even Americans themselves think we should be able to do this.
GM: Tell me about the movie.
TM: The movie is going to be short, about 40 minutes. [Editor's note: MacNiven is planning to release the film in June.] It's going to be half sort of whimsical adventure trying to run Iran. It will be a third dramatic re-enactment of things that happened that we didn't get to record. The rest is certain fun facts about Iran. There are all sorts of quirky idiosyncrasies about Iran that I want to share.