Coming in June – Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles

Maryam Mottahedeh, poet (photo by Arash Saedinia)

Poet Maryam Mottahedeh, photographed by Arash Saedinia

Opening June 6 at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, “Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles” is the first big photo project documenting L.A.’s Iranian-Americans since Irangeles (which is an amazing book, but nearly 20 years old and no longer in print, time for an update!). The exhibit, produced/curated by Amy Malek, will show the work of four Iranian-American photographers who shot a very diverse list of hamvatans – doctors and engineers, natch, but also poets, artists, cops, and moms – which should make for a super-cool show.

From the release:

“In cultivating this collaborative project,” said guest curator Amy Malek, “I wanted to examine documentation as a representational process by offering four Iranian American photographers’ perspectives on who we are, stressing the importance of including multiple voices in documenting our own Los Angeles communities.”
Sounds pretty awesome, right? The Fowler is also putting together some really interesting opening day stuff that sounds like it will provide some helpful context for these images. Details:
Sunday, June 6, noon–6 p.m.
Opening Day Programs
“Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles”
A panel of scholars will discuss issues relating to the Iranian diaspora and visual anthropology. Next, exhibition curator Amy Malek will be joined by the four documentary photographers whose work is featured in the exhibition — Farhad Parsa, Arash Saedinia, Parisa Taghizadeh and Ramin Talaie — who will discuss their experiences documenting the everyday lives of second-generation Iranian Americans in Los Angeles. A gallery tour with Malek and a reception follow. Please check for a detailed schedule.
The photos will be on display at the Fowler through August 22 – don’t miss them!

More details:  ‘Document: Iranian-Americans in Los Angeles’ opens June 6 at Fowler Museum at UCLA

Women Without Men – LA Screenings

Shirin Neshat’s highly anticipated film (an adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s writing) opens in Los Angeles today. Details here.

UCLA Iranian Cinema 2010

UCLA’s 20th Annual Celebration of Iranian Cinema is coming up, with an awesome bunch of films showing Feb 5 – Feb 20. Full lineup here, buy tickets here.

“Shaherezad in Santa Monica” at the Annenberg Beach House

Reading of the verse drama, “Shaherezad in Santa Monica” by Majid Naficy.

Following the romantic and immigrationary travails of the poet Shahram, his lover Shaherezad, and the new man who comes between them, this lyrical drama set in various Santa Monica sites brings Persian and American sensibilities together.

This is the debut reading of Majid Naficy’s new work. It’s on Monday, January 18, it’s free (click above to make a reservation, which you’ll need to get in), and it’s at the very cool Annenberg Beach House. A definite don’t-miss if you’re in LA.

“Blazing Grace” in London

© concept: Shoja Azari, Painting: Shahram Karimi, Coffee House  Painting 2009, still from video installation East Central/London and LTMH/New York

© concept: Shoja Azari, Painting: Shahram Karimi, Coffee House Painting 2009, still from video installation East Central/London and LTMH/New York

For Londonites: The work of Iranian artists Shoja Azari and Shahram Karimi will be shown at the East Central Gallery from January 15-February 27. From press materials:

The show, entitled “Blazing Grace”, reflects on the futility of war and the trauma of a violated land, focusing on the Gulf war in 1990 and the Middle Eastern region more broadly. The exhibition is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the painter Shahram Karimiand the video artist Shoja Azari.

Five artworks from the so-called “Oil Series” will surround viewers, re-creating a cinematic experience through the canvases’ glow of mesmerising colours. Referring to the first Gulf War, and presented in the darkened subterranean floor of East Central, the “Oil Series” depicts scenes of deserts aflame, with fires scorching the skies, smoke billowing in the wind, a soldier disappearing into misty horizons and tanks reining over ashen land. When the Iraqi troupes retired from Kuwait they set afire 737 oil wells, which burned for months and months.

The works sample images from Werner Herzog’s film “Lessons of Darkness”, with scenes slowed, edited and reframed by Azari, projected as brief looping videos onto Karimi’s hyperrealist paintings which are literally brought to life, while Karimi also interweaves on the canvases barely decipherable lines of his own poetry written in Farsi, evoking intuitive thoughts lying underneath the surfaces.

Exhibited in its own enclave in this seminal show is the video projection “Coffee House Painting”, another creative collaboration between Azari
and Karimi, which was then recreated as a video projection by Azari. Rich in political and historical references, and equally critical of global
politics, the work is inspired by the traditional Persian coffee house paintings that were popular in early 20th Century Iran and which spoke of
heroes and villains from Persia’s epic history of myth and legend.

Gallery details here.



This Friday, SoCiArts opened an exhibit of all-female artists, “feminine,” which will run through April 17 (by appointment) here in Los Angeles. SoCiArts has been quite successful in producing and promoting arts and film events, particularly those that feature Iranian artists. Of the eight women included in “feminine,” three are Iranians – Negin Karbassian, Shagha Ariannia, and Mona Shomali.

The show’s paintings and photographs hung on brick walls and from pipes, the concrete floor bouncing the noise of conversations and the sound of footsteps around the room. Outside, well-heeled smokers made wisps of toxic air that hovered at nose-level, a kind of olfactory entry badge that attached itself to your hair and clothes and followed you into the room. The woman at the door worried about running out of price lists, and the bartender poured and poured.

It was a beautiful and very sensory scene, almost to the point of being overwhelming. I met two artists, and only talked at any length with one – Mona Shomali, who had come in from New York and walked me through her portfolio (she only had two works hanging on the wall; look for an interview with her here soon). Though I looked for a thread beyond gender to tie some of the art together, I didn’t really find it – it ranged from prints of Bush-era political commentary to portraits of pop-culture figures, abstracted Persian calligraphy to abstract line drawings, clothed photographic self-portraiture to nude photographic self-portraiture. (Incidentally, the nudes were by the only artist whose work was not immediately visible from the entrance of the gallery; they were tucked on a wall next to the DJ, also female and very beautiful, who was working a Macbook from the back of the room.)

Perhaps the show’s thread is sheer variety, but maybe a thread beyond the feminine is not really necessary; a couple of days after the show, I found a Blackbook article from late last year, which cites a study by the National Endowment for the Arts that reports female artists make, on average, $0.75 for every dollar male artists make. According to the same NEA report, more female artists work part-time than male artists do, so perhaps an entire show devoted to female work is intended to narrow these disparities.

For more on the show and its eight artists, see the SoCiArts website.

7 Questions for Shaghayegh Azimi, Founder of Willow Films and Iran Inside Out

Shaghayegh Azimi is the 27-year-old founder of Willow Films, a film sales and distribution company focused on Middle Eastern films, and originator of Iran Inside Out, a project “dedicated to promoting the development and distribution of online film and video in Iran” (see a short trailer about Iran Inside Out above). Azimi is also the driving force behind American screenings of the acclaimed, avant garde documentary, Tehran Anar Nadarad (Tehran Has No More Pomegranates), which finishes up its national tour in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. on March 4 and 5 (see the bottom of this post for more details).

1. Tell us about your background in film. When and how did you start your company, Willow Films, and what are you working on?

Shaghayegh Azimi: I have always loved movies, and as a kid, I wanted to be part of the film world somehow, but I never thought of pursuing a career in it until much later on. I got into film by chance. I come from a business-oriented family and it has been a natural part of my upbringing. But my heart wasn’t in it, and after graduating from business school at NYU, I wasn’t sure if I would be happy taking the corporate path. Not only did I not want to wear a suit to work, but I also felt geographically unsettled. I had been far from my family in Iran for too long, and the idea of committing to a corporate job in the U.S. scared me. I feared that I would get too lazy to move back to Iran, where my heart really was.

During the summer after business school, while I was deciding what to do, I met a guy who wanted to make a movie about finding his father in Iran. It was called Calling from Tehran, and he needed a producer who could work in both America and Iran. It seemed like such an exciting offer, and it was! It also allowed me time with my family in Iran and time to decide on what I wanted in life. So I ended up in film.

I started Willow Films about a year ago, but I had been thinking about it for a while. After Calling from Tehran, I began to think of a career involving not just film, but Iran and the Middle East in general. I traveled to Syria for a few months and learned Arabic, and then did a Masters in Middle East Studies. Willow Films allowed me to combine my experience in film, business, and the Middle East.

2. How did you become involved with Tehran Anar Nadarad?

SA: I was in Iran in 2006 and worked on selecting films for the first International Documentary Film Festival in Iran called CINEMA VERITE, run by the Documentary and Experimental Film Center. Massoud Bakhshi, the director of Tehran Anar Nadarad, was one of the key people behind the festival and this way I was introduced to his film. At this point, my idea for a distribution company was only hypothetical, but when I saw the film, I had found my first project… It’s a great film and I’m lucky to have started with it.

3. You started Iran Inside Out to help Iranian film development and promotion, specifically using the online medium. How have Iranian filmmakers responded to this project?

SA: The goal of Iran Inside Out is to open up opportunities for the hundreds of talented and passionate young filmmakers in Iran whose films are rarely ever seen outside of small festivals inside Iran. The project also aspires to show a different side of Iran to the rest of the world (i.e., a view from the INSIDE).

Online video is not very popular in Iran yet, because of a lack of high-speed Internet access and also because the Internet is not as much a part of people’s daily lives as it is here in the U.S. I also think that Iranians prefer to watch media in social settings with their family and friends rather than alone on their personal computers. But DSL is becoming more common in Iranian households and I see a change about to take place. Iran Inside Out hopes to provide information and resources for media makers to make the most of the online space.

The response from filmmakers to Iran Inside Out has been positive, but the project has some obstacles: first, I am not in Iran, and second, Iranian filmmakers are still catching on to the idea that online distribution could lead to recognition and distribution opportunities. Some participants do like the idea of showing a different Iran and they care enough to make videos for free, but others are not interested because there’s no financial incentive. Another major obstacle is that aside from a very small grant from Rising Voices, I have chosen not to pursue other funding for Iran Inside Out because I don’t want any strings attached. My wish is that Iran Inside Out will grow organically, on a grass-roots level.

4. Considering widespread censorship in Iran, including online, how do Iranian filmmakers mitigate for this to get exposure for their work?

SA: So far there haven’t been any issues with Iran Inside Out, mainly because the project is too small. Besides this, there is an informal selection process and I am very careful to comply with the so-called “red lines.” Filmmakers are also careful themselves, as they live in Iran and are in no way going to jeopardize their careers for a few minutes of online exposure.

Our intention is to contribute to a more positive and personal story of Iran. I am staying away from any political or analytical stories because I think those should be left to real experts. That said, whether a story is “negative” or “positive” is a subjective matter. For example, a few Iranians were disappointed by Tehran Anar Nadarad because they thought it didn’t show enough of the “nice places” and “good-looking people” of Iran. I think these kinds of expectations rise as a reaction to the negative media about Iran in the US and Western countries, but that they limit artistic and human expression because it makes us more concerned with proving ourselves than just simply telling a story.

5. As a distributor, what’s your advice to filmmakers, particularly Iranians, who are trying to get their films picked up for distribution?

SA: Tehran Anar Nadarad has been my first experience in distribution, so I’m still very new to the industry. But from what I have seen thus far, it is as hard as they say it is to get your film distributed, especially when the market is small, as it is for Middle Eastern films. I have had a very hard time working on this film because the market for an Iranian film is limited, and the cost of advertising and creating buzz far outweighs the profits. Online distribution is changing the industry, but so far it is still only benefiting a few; iTunes, for example, only accepts films from a handful of well-established distributors.

The most successful independent filmmakers are those that do the majority of the marketing themselves and who are able to create a small community of fans around their work. When this is in place, it’s easier to sell a film, even if it means releasing the film only on DVD to a limited audience.

My advice to Iranian filmmakers is to make the best film they can make – from the heart, without thinking of the audience too much – and to send it to as many film festivals, online platforms, competitions around the world as they can. Often times, filmmakers are discouraged by the festival circuit because they hear how tough the competition is or simply because they lack the language skills to research festivals and fill out applications. So another word of advice is to find someone who knows English to help you. After that, the art will speak for itself.

Another note I’d like to make is that filmmakers often worry that they need connections to get into a film festival or to get recognition. My input on this is that it’s true for most filmmakers around the world, but the competition for Iranian filmmakers in particular is not as fierce, because not as many Iranian films are submitted (as compared to American films, for instance). If an Iranian filmmaker has a good film and gets it out to festivals, it’s bound to get attention. So in a way, coming from an underrepresented country has its advantages. I think it must be much harder for a first-time filmmaker in the U.S. to make a name for himself/herself than it would be for a first-time Iranian filmmaker.

6. A lot of Iranian-Americans are creating films that explore issues of multiculturalism and identity. What issues or trends do you see surfacing in Iranian films made by filmmakers in Iran?

SA: I see a lot of short documentaries given to me by various filmmakers, but I haven’t watched that many fiction and feature-length films from Iran in a while, so I’m not sure how to answer this. My guess is that there isn’t a very definitive trend, but I am probably wrong. One thing I can say is that when it comes to documentaries, the majority are too serious, heavy, and often depressing to watch. I am not against documentaries for social causes and understand that these films do reflect on really important issues. But I also think that somewhere down the line, Iranian filmmakers started to think that sadness sells – and for me it doesn’t sell. So I would really love to see more lighter, colorful, and funny documentaries. Simply because it will help everyone’s mood, including my own.

7. What’s next for Willow Films and Iran Inside Out?

SA: When I look back to last year when I began Willow Films, I am amazed at how little I knew about the industry and that I decided to create my company anyway. Film distribution is very difficult, and I am making a lot of mistakes and learning from them as I go along (I hope). For now, Tehran Anar Nadarad is moving on to DVD distribution and I am planning a unique campaign for marketing the DVD and online downloads of the film. I’m also looking for a partner for Willow Films.

As for Iran Inside Out, I’m really passionate about it and cant wait to have more time to spend on it.

Tehran Anar Nadarad is ending its U.S. tour this week – catch it in SF or DC:

March 4 & 5 - 6:15, 8:00, 9:45 p.m.
The Landmark E Street Cinema
555 11th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
CLICK HERE for tickets.

March 4 & 5 - 6:15, 8:00, 9:35 p.m.
Embarcadero Center Cinema
1 Embarcadero Center
San Francisco, CA 94111
CLICK HERE for tickets.

Arusi Persian Wedding – Screening in LA

I’ll be speaking on a panel at the screening of the new doc “Arusi Persian Wedding” later this month… details below:

Community Cinema
Independent LensPBS Watch a Preview

Free Screening


Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 7:30 PM

Blue Conference Center inside Pacific Design Center
8687 Melrose Ave. • West Hollywood


Set against the turbulent relationship between the United States and Iran, Iranian-American filmmaker Marjan Tehrani captures the struggle and excitement of Alex and Heather as they plan a Persian Islamic wedding in Iran. But when Alex’s Iranian-born parents and Heather’s conservative American father meet for the first time, cultures clash and test the couple to their limits.

For more information about Community Cinema series, visit:

City of West Hollywood
pars arts
KodoomShortFuzed Ironweed
Cinema is a groundbreaking public education and civic engagement
initiative featuring monthly screenings of films from Independent Lens.
Every month between September and May, Community Cinema brings together
leading organizations, community members and public television stations
to learn, discuss and get involved in today¹s critical social issues.

location in over 50 cities, Community Cinema brings local impact to big
cities and small towns alike, using the hottest independent documentary
films to frame the social issues they present for local audiences.

interactive workshops and forums, to live performance, art
installations and discussions featuring award winning filmmakers and
local experts, Community Cinema creates fun new ways for people to
connect with one another on today¹s most important issues.

My Source ITVS Corporation for Public Broadcasting National Endowment for the Arts

30 Years

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

“Anatomy of a Revolution” – Al Jazeera English

Interview with Iason Athanasiadis: Exploring the Other

Exploring the Other - Iason Athanasiadis

Photojournalist, writer, producer, and 2008 Nieman Fellow Iason Athanasiadis has spent years covering the Middle East, and he’ll be showing his work at the Craft and Folk Art Museum (CAFAM) in Los Angeles from January 25 through March 29 in an exhibition entitled “Exploring the Other.” We asked Iason about his experience working as a journalist in Iran.

Pars Arts: An exhibit of your photographs of Iran and its people, “Exploring the Other,” is opening at CAFAM shortly. When/why/how did you become interested in Iran?
Iason Athanasiadis: In the 2004 Olympics, I was working for BBC World in Greece after having spent years in the Arab Middle East, including covering the US invasion of Iraq for al-Jazeera. After the spotlights went out over the stadiums and the large BBC Olympics team disappeared back to London, I wanted to take a year off and go back to university. Serendipity knocked when an Iranian friend of mine told me about an MA program being offered by an Iranian university that would also mean moving to Iran. I jumped at the chance. It was one of the best decisions I made in my life.

PA: You’ve spent quite a bit of time living in and reporting from Iran. What do you think is the biggest challenge for foreign journalists in Iran?
IA: Several issues, chief of which is how to reconcile on-the-ground narratives that are more conflicting and widely-dispersed than from almost any other place that I’ve reported on. It’s very difficult to do fact-checking when the narratives are sometimes diametrically opposed, the government bureaucracy unresponsive and the craft of ‘foreign correspondent’ is synonymous with ‘foreign intelligence operative’ in the minds of many.

Paperwork is required to work anywhere in the country, minders are ever-present, and official permits never arrive or come long after the news deadline has elapsed, However, Iran is also by far the most fascinating country to work on off-the-radar stories about society that break the dominance on the news agenda of stories about the nuclear program, human rights abuses and purported Iranian designs on the region. And however often we in the West say that the Iranians are paranoid and see conspiracy everywhere, my stay in the country often proved to me that “just because one is paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him.” This recently-published story demonstrates the truth of this, I think: Revolutionary Inroads.

By far the best journalist writing from Iran these days is Thomas Erdbrink. His wife, Newsha Tavakolian, is one of the most talented of the next generation of photographers.

PA: The exhibit’s press release notes that your work “challenges visitors to question how media information is presented (and filtered).” As an experienced journalist, can you briefly explain this filtering process?
IA: The blame lies both on the side of editors suffering from an anti-Iran bias or not enough knowledge of the country, and on the side of a government that refuses access and hinders coverage of the country.

PA: As a photojournalist and non-Iranian yourself, what makes the images of Iran you’ve taken different from those your fellow journalists are creating? In other words, how do these images sidestep filtering, or make the filtering process more transparent?
IA: As a non-Iranian I see the country with a freshness that, unfortunately, I lack in covering my own country, Greece.

We always see the new through a different perspective than the one with which we view the familiar. Excellent work from Iran has been created by several photojournalists; the majority of them more talented and senior than me. Some of these are Reza Deghati, Majid Saeedi, Kaveh Golestan, Bahman Jalali, Paolo Woods, Mohammad Farnood, Jamshid Bayrami, Gilles Peress, Nasrollah Kasraian.

If we want to talk about sidestepping filtering, it’s easy to do this if the primary place where the filtering happens is in the head. I made sure to learn the language, read as much as I could about Iran and speak to those who could enlighten me about the true nature of the country. As for the second main place where filtering happens, the editor’s desk, as a freelancer I have the great luxury to choose not to work again with editors whose handling of my work I have issues with.

PA: You’ve had numerous photo exhibits around the world, including in Iran. How have Iranians in Iran reacted to images of themselves?
IA: I made a point of turning up to my Tehran shows every day of their duration and engaging with visitors on their perceptions of the images. I learned a lot of interesting things from these encounters.

For example, one visitor was pleasantly surprised to see the picture of the man with weighing-scales that he had passed by every day since he was a child in Hamedan’s main square, hanging on the wall; Iranians in Greece and the US have enjoyed seeing images of a homeland they have not seen since leaving it before or after the Revolution. Many of them express surprise, sadness, joy or melancholy at how their country looks today. Often these images do not jive with their own narratives.

I learned much from the criticism that visitors – thankfully Iranians are not shy about their emotions – expressed about my work, and tried to use it as a spur to improve my perspective.

Most memorable was the comment a Tehrani journalism made about my work. Of all the people depicted, she said, the majority look sad, disconnected. Why did I portray them like that? What was it in my own psychosynthesis that prompted me to click the shutter on these moments?

The comment stuck with me because it was true, and I questioned myself over it. Even in my current show, one of the rare images of people laughing is on the ski lifts in Shemshak, a place that at the time the image was taken effectively lay outside the orbit of public morality.

Maybe it has to do with me. Maybe it has to do with the way in which the citizens of the Islamic Republic present themselves in public.