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3 Hikers is a documentary about three young American citizens who stray into Iran while hiking in northern Iraqi Kurdistan. They are taken prisoner, accused of espionage, and held hostage in the infamous Evin Prison, in Tehran.
The motivation behind 3 Hikers seems to be twofold. For Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal it is an opportunity to lay out the story in its entirety, filling in the gaps that were apparent in initial news reports about the situation. Early on in 3 Hikers, Shane Bauer mentions dissatisfaction with the way in which the story was handled in the media. “The way that our story was covered […] led people to think that we just dropped in to Kurdistan out of nowhere. That’s not what happened…” For director Natalie Avital it was an opportunity to become embedded with the Shourd, Bauer, and Fattal families, following their experiences from close quarters. She had the ability to go with the story, wherever it led.
The documentary falls into several acts:
First, the preamble. The film begins with a very fast-paced run down of the political history between the US and Iran. It feels like a very brief explanation, and there appears to be the assumption that if you are watching the film, you will have prior knowledge or interest in the subject. Reluctant as I am to admit that I learned something from a Ben Affleck movie, you could do worse than to watch Argo (2012) before this documentary if you would like to put US-Iranian diplomatic relations into context. For a more personal look at revolution in Iran, try Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis – either her comic, or the film adaptation from 2007.
The second act is an account of the arrest and imprisonment. We are taken through it step-by-step with narration from the three hikers. Keen to keep things interesting, Avital employs liberal use of reenactments. She could have reigned this in a little more, as some scenes are more distracting than informative.
In the third act we are invited to join the three families in their emotional quest to have the three hikers freed. This section is interspersed with expert opinion talking heads, including US foreign policy expert Richard Sick, and Reza Aslan. True to form, Aslan is eloquent and insightful in his commentary on the situation.
In the final act, individuals have the opportunity to reflect on their experiences. As well as gaining greater knowledge of international diplomacy, and learning how much can be achieved with collective effort, the importance of learning history is stressed. Questions are raised on the purpose of prisons, the use of solitary confinement as a method of torture, and its role in post traumatic stress disorder. Avital could pursue any of these subjects in further documentary investigations.
Natalie Avital has come away with a solid documentary. It is a story with plenty of angles, gripping enough to be feature length without being a drag. 3 Hikers is her first documentary, and it’s a strong debut.