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.

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.