BBC News – Five Minutes With: Omid Djalili

omid-djalili-bbc

BBC News – Five Minutes With: Omid Djalili.

Celebrities and news-makers are grilled by Matthew Stadlen in exactly five minutes in a series for the BBC News website.

This week, comedian and actor Omid Djalili talks to Matt about getting nerves on stage, playing with cultural stereotypes, how an exploding goldfish helped his early career – and tells Matt he would have bullied him at school.

(He also talks about his Baha’i faith.)

Interview with Amir Motlagh, Filmmaker

Amir Motlagh is a writer, filmmaker, and musician who recently released “Whale,” a feature film that follows Cameron, a young, unpublished Iranian-American novelist (played by Motlagh) who has just returned home to Orange County. We interviewed him about “Whale” via email. 

 

whale_feature film trailer_director Amir Motlagh from Amir Motlagh on Vimeo.

 

Pars Arts: Your new feature, “Whale,” is about an unpublished Iranian-American novelist who comes home to the OC to find his friends haven’t really grown up, and neither has he. Where did the idea for this story come from?

Amir Motlagh: The story is really my sentiment towards a generation of people who are lost in a sort of middle-class vacuum. I had been noticing a mass of mid- to late-twenties people moving back to their parents’ homes, without a concrete sense of direction, with financial problems, somewhat disillusioned, without the family responsibilities that, say, my parents had when they were my age. Maybe they’re educated, maybe not, but they’re frozen because of circumstance. There is a certain belated sense of growing up that might be a generational zeitgeist. At first I thought that this might be somewhat related to Diaspora, but I think that might not be the simple explanation. 

So I wanted to present a story based in that type of backdrop, but without placing importance on those talking points. The film is really about the characters, with the region serving as a backdrop and possibly another functional character.  

PA: The dialogue in this film feels really spontaneous and natural. Since your actors were also your friends, was there a lot of ad-libbing in the film?

AM: Whale is both scripted and improvised. Also, there was a mix of both professional and non-professional actors (predominately amateurs), some of whom I have known for a long time. I cast the film in a way that would create a comfortable and safe setting, enabling a sort of realism to emerge based on personal history, and that way I could maneuver the fictional elements in a less constricted way. But the film is first and foremost a fiction, so the truth lies in fiction. Which elements are “real” and which are not is not a pressing concern as far as the film is concerned. And the ad-libbing that was done all came out of a script and was staged in a way that served the story being told.

PA: You play the main character, Cameron, and your real-life parents play Cameron’s parents in the film. I loved hearing them speak Persian. What was it like working with them?

AM: They have had to deal with their son carrying a camera around for many, many years. But as actors, my mother was very difficult. She is the biggest sweetheart and one of the biggest influences on my own cinema, as she introduced me to many independent and international cinemas early in my life, but nevertheless, our working relationship might be over. As far as my father, he took direction very well. It was a funny experience, but I think they thought of it in a very innocent way, and maybe, they didn’t really feel a movie was being made. I feel that the process of the film allowed me to get into places and use people that would otherwise freeze in front of a larger production.

Amir MotlaghAmir Motlagh

PA: How do you think the Iranian-American background of your film’s main character colors the film, if at all?

AM: This is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer, but the main character’s heritage affects the film in what it doesn’t do or show. This film is about a type of ethnic assimilation into a suburban setting. You are only aware of Cameron’s ethnicity from one scene in the film, and maybe from some off-handed remarks made throughout the film. I’m not sure if I have seen this treatment of cultural elements in a fictional narrative film that uses an explicitly Iranian-American lead, but maybe the culture itself will start to dissect the process of identity in a more subtle way. 

Cameron is certainly “whitewashed,” and this in itself colors the notion of the film on a subterranean level.  And the film’s cast is a mix of races, something that you would certainly see in the suburbs of Orange County. Suburban culture leads to a type of homogenization, which in some ways is an American ideal. In that regard, Whale is a completely American film, in the context of a melting pot type of scenario. 

PA: I have to be honest – I was a little wary when I read the description for “Whale” because I thought it was going to be like Garden State. It has a similar basic premise – failed artist coming home – but “Whale” is not like Garden State at all, and I think what really surprised me about “Whale” were Cameron’s interactions with his friends – I think viewers would really get the sense that these guys, who are all kind of lost and floating through life, really care about each other. I don’t think men are ever depicted this way in films – at least, not earnestly. Is this something you were thinking about consciously?

AM: Oh God, Garden State, I didn’t even think that the synopsis would elicit a memory from that work. But now that I think about it, I can see where the inference comes from. This might just be a vocational hazard.  This film is as far away from that type of cinema as can be. 

I was thinking heavily about the relationships in this film, which was largely a reason I cast the way I did. And since the work is largely based on a realism paradigm, there is a large sense of objectivism present (not fully, of course);  the viewer has to decide how they ultimately feel about these people, but the men in the film, no matter how disillusioned, share a camaraderie and brotherhood with their fellow “homies.” Certainly, it’s not a mainstream ideal to present male characters in this fashion, but historically it has been done on the independent level.   

PA: We recently posted an interview with Shaghayegh Azimi, a young Iranian who distributes Middle Eastern films. Can you tell us a little about your experience with distribution as a filmmaker?

AM: Well, since my function is filmmaker, my interest is in film production, and I’m trying to get my next project of the ground. Someone else should handle the distribution end. My job is to get people interested in the work, so that someone hopefully comes and acquires the work. 

I only engage in distribution when its my only option, since independent film is a fickle business, and in today’s state, in many ways jeopardized, and many filmmakers will be forced for better or worse to function as distributor as well, but this is not a sense of joy for me. I would rather make movies, build an audience, screen to an audience and engage. As far as Whale is concerned, since it’s a new work, I will approach the film festival as its first route, then take it from there. As far as my other work, some titles are handled by a distributor, and others are not. Eventually, my goal would be to release a DVD of those neglected titles soon – hence, taking over the distribution by necessity. The hope is that by that time, I would have generated enough interest so that the process wouldn’t feel excessively painful.

Persian Cooking Videos

A few weeks ago I spent some time with a reporter writing about Persian food in LA for a really big national publication. And lately I’ve been noticing Persian food popping up more in blogs and media. Is our awesome cuisine finally going mainstream?

Either way, I am pleased to share these really lovely and to-the-point “Persian Food Tutorials” from Cyrus Dowlatshahi’s Fatty Productions. Cyrus has done a great job condensing Persian recipes into how-to videos that are under two minutes long. And he’s working on more of these, which I’m really looking forward to seeing!

Here’s one on how to prepare jujeh kabob (i.e., chicken kabob):

And one on how to prepare mast-o-khiar (cucumber yogurt):

You may remember Cyrus from our post on the film Kabob Guy. Check out more of his work at the Fatty Productions Vimeo page.

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:

WASHINGTON 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.

SAN FRANCISCO 
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

ARUSI PERSIAN WEDDING

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 at 7:30 PM

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

RSVP: LACommunityCinema@gmail.com

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: pbs.org/independentlens/getinvolved/

City of West Hollywood
KCET
CAFAM
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Community
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.

On
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.

From
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

Cyrus Dowlatshahi’s “Kabob Guy”

 

Enjoy this sweet, heartfelt, thorough, and delicious family docudramareality film by aspiring auteur Cyrus Dowlatshahi. It’s all about Majid, a kababi, the guy who shows up to your Perzhian party to make kabob, capturing him in his element at a real mehmooni. Highlights from the video include: baby’s first taste of kashk-e bademjoon (at 2:30), an authentic Persian dad’s description of noon-e zir-e kabab (at 4:27), and any shot of the kababi. Noosh-e-jaan!

Farhang Foundation Film Festival: Call for Entries & LACMA Screening

Farhang-Foundation-Film-Festival

The newly formed Farhang Foundation has a call for entries for their eponymous film festival, which is being produced by the fine folks at SoCiArts. Here are the guidelines:

For the Farhang Foundation Film Festival, filmmakers from all walks of life, Iranian and non-Iranian, are welcome to create and submit a short, five to eight minute movie, of any genre and style, visualizing their unique take on Iranian Heritage. Farhang Foundation defines Iranian Heritage as a way of life and culture that has been passed from one generation to the next in an Iranian influenced environment and is not limited to geographical borders.  It may include elements from the past and present of Iranian arts, literature, music and history. Submissions will be accepted through February 1, 2009 via www.sociarts.com.

The winner will receive $5,000USD cash prize, as well as travel expenses to attend the award presentation during the Farhang Foundation Nowruz Celebration at LACMA.

The winning entry will be screened at LACMA, and all submitted films can be viewed on the SoCiArts website.

Khoda – Reza Dolatabadi

Reza Dolatabadi is director/art director of “Khoda,” a five-minute student film comprised of more than 6000 paintings produced over two years.


Khoda from Reza Dolatabadi

Director/art director: Reza Dolatabadi
Written by Reza Dolatabadi & Mark Szalos Farkas
Animation by Adam Thomson
Music by Hamed Mafakheri

Moon Sun Flower Game

 

Moon Sun Flower Game

Moon Sun Flower Game

Moon Sun Flower Game” is a German film, a “true fairytale” about Forough Farrokhzad and Hossein Mansouri. Mansouri was a child when Farrokhzad met (and adopted) him in the leper colony that was the subject of her documentary, The House is Black

Trailers here: English & Deutsch. (Merci, Roya!)