Ala Ebtekar

Here’s a great (Persian only) video profile of Iranian-American artist Ala Ebtekar, from VOA. Ebtekar has produced some really interesting work across various media, and in this video he lays out his background and what inspires his art. I’m partial to his drawings on book pages, like this one.

(Thanks, Charlie James Gallery!)

BBC News – Five Minutes With: Omid Djalili


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is a writer, filmmaker, and musician who recently released “Whale,” a feature film that follows Cameron, a young, unpublished Iranian-American novelist (played by Motlagh) who has just returned home to Orange County.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Pars Arts: Your new feature, “Whale,” is about an unpublished Iranian-American novelist who comes home to the OC to find his friends haven’t really grown up, and neither has he.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.

7 Questions for Yogurtsoda

Yogurtsoda is the new online home of Iranian-American, Bay Area-based, Pars Arts contributor Mariam Hosseini’s excellent food and travel writing.

1. You’ve blogged regularly for quite a while on Distant Voices. Why did you decide to spin out food/travel posts to Yogurtsoda?
I’d been planning on blogging on my own domain for years, but had never really gotten around to it. is actually my sister’s domain and she had hosted (re)definition for me there since the beginning.

Yogurtsoda is still in transition – not everything is properly formatted and archived yet. But hey, I love doogh, and is a reflection of two things close to my heart: food and Iranian culture. For better or worse, I’m really shekamoo.

2. How did you become interested in cooking?
When I was five years old, my favorite television show was Yan Can Cook. I used to watch him and imitate what he did by “playing chef.” I had my own pretend live studio audience and everything in my head, embarassingly enough. He’s the original celebrity chef in my eyes.

I also grew up in a household where home cooking and healthy food was valued, so being exposed to that from a young age led to my curiosity in the kitchen. I still remember the first meal I cooked for my family as a kid: A huge pot of instant ramen noodles, refried beans, and some boiled peach atrocity of a “beverage.” Thankfully, I’ve come a long way since then.

3. You work quite a bit at your day job in the non-profit world; how do you make the time to cook?
I’ve definitely had to scale down in the past couple of years. I’m too busy to crank out my homemade pasta maker or to tackle multi-course meals, so I stick to simpler recipes that maintain the integrity of the ingredients but still work with a busy schedule. It also helps if I prep as much as I can ahead of time. My kitchen is pretty small too, so I’m limited not only by time but also space.

4. What’s the best Bay Area Persian food? What’s the best Persian restaurant you’ve been to anywhere?
My parents’ kitchen. I don’t know what it is, but I much prefer Iranian homecooking to the restaurant variety. That being said, Shalizaar in Belmont is probably the best Persian food in the Bay Area, but I haven’t tried them all to be able to give a fair assessment. Any of the Moby Dick restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area are the best I’ve had in the U.S – their kabab koobideh is really good.

5. Which food-related blogs do you read?
I read Serious Eats; it’s such a great resource and an entertaining read. I also love The Girl Who Ate Everything, Writing with My Mouth Full and Michael Ruhlman’s blog.

6. What do you always have on hand in the kitchen?
Equipment: A chef’s knife, a wok and a couple of thick-bottomed pans.

Ingredients: Garlic, olive oil, soy sauce, chili garlic sauce, Parmesan cheese, vinegar (balsamic and rice wine), eggs, dried mushrooms, chicken stock, rice and at least one kind of pasta.

7. Which recipe on Yogurtsoda is a good one for readers with beginner cooking skills to try?
Most of the recipes I post are pretty easy, but some of my favorites for beginner cooks are Lentil Salad with Browned Sausages, Hearts of Palm Salad with Shrimp and Avocado, and Pumpkin Spiced Muffins.

Tehran Has No More Pomegranates: L.A. Screenings and Q&A with Director Massoud Bakhshi

Experimental documentary Tehran Has No More Pomegranates is coming to L.A. this week, with two screenings each on Wednesday and Thursday at the Landmark in West LA, at 7pm and 9pm (details at Sociarts). Watch the film’s opener above, and find out more about the film and its director, Massoud Bakhshi, in our Q&A below: 

Pars Arts: The narrative context of Tehran Has No More Pomegranates – the “musical, historical, comedy, docu-drama, love story, experimental film” you’ve created – is a report you’re writing that explains why it’s not complete. This self-reflexivity – referring to the process of creating the film, within the film – continues throughout. Can you talk a bit about why you decided to couch the story in this context and format?

Massoud Bakhshi: Personally, I am fascinated by form in cinema, and “film in film” or “making of” has always been a wonderful plattform for any narrative film to me. And I think here in Iran, stories behind the camera are more interesting than those in front of it.

PA: The idea of a story or film not being complete or finished seems especially appropriate for a story about a big city, because they’re so dynamic. It took you five years to edit the film: how many iterations of the film did you go through, and how did you know when you were done?

MB: I am always working with a script, no matter if it’s fiction or documentary. I had the complete story of this film in my hand in 2000! And then I changed everything in shooting and especially in editing. I think a good film never ends -it continues because it remains with its audience. But this film is “unfinished” in its form because I think nobody would be able to finish a film about Tehran! 

PA: I read that you were really limited by the equipment available to you to create the film (namely, a camera that didn’t record sound), and that’s partly why even the footage that’s not archival has a retro feel. In fact, for a person that doesn’t live in Iran, it can be somewhat difficult to tell if some of the color footage is archival or not. Is that something you were going for all along? Do you think you would have approached this film differently or had a vastly different result with different equipment? How much did the limitations of your equipment help or inspire (or interfere) in shaping the story you told?   

MB: I think limits make young people more creative, especially here in Iran. I had lots of problems getting 35 mm stock, because everybody asked “Why are you making this film in 35mm and not in video?” But from the very beginning I wanted to make this film in 35mm, because I wanted to give life to dead, archival film footage and I was quasi-sure that I was making a film that captures the face of a very changing city and society and wanted to transmit this picture for future generations. The fact that we couldn’t record voice forced me not to use 25 hours of interviews I had recorded in video, blow them up in 35mm, and to make myself content in using the 35mm rushes I had in a different way.

PA: There are sizable doses of both history lesson and nostalgia in this film, particularly in the narration of Nosrat Karimi and in all the different music you used, which I imagine resonate a great deal with Iranians around the world. Have the reactions of the Iranian diaspora to this film been markedly different from those of audiences in Iran?

MB: Well, I saw different reactions in different places, but among Iranians, young people and old people both loved the film and its music. I think the different music used in this film evokes many different time periods in Tehran and that’s why people from different generations like it.

PA: You’ve said that your aim with Tehran Has No More Pomegranates is to hold up a mirror and reflect back a true image of Tehran and the country at large. The movie seems to be the most critical of the city in certain scenes that are cut off, or when your voiceover clearly contradicts the reality of the visuals on the screen – and in fact your voice seems that of the classic unreliable narrator (or at least the narrator that’s not playing it straight). In fact, the only character that does seem reliable is Jafar, who emerges throughout as a sort of protagonist. Most of the other characters are just visual portraits. How did you settle on him as the truth-teller in the film?

MB: I think he found us himself and he put himself into our film. From the beginning, I was telling myself not to shoot poverty and the poor so that I won’t be accused of making a “geda-geraphy” film (a the term invented for filmmakers focusing on those subjects so they can go to festivals with their films). But Jafar was an exception. He is not acting – he’s just telling the truth about himself and about the city, and that’s why he’s a key in the film. I shot him for just five minutes and I think I used all five minutes in the film!

I ‘d love to screen the film one day in his presence, and I know that he’s still wandering the streets of Tehran, looking for someplace to sleep and something to eat.

The PARSA Community Foundation

A few weeks ago, I found the PARSA Community Foundation’s website as I was scoping out the Iranian non-profit world online. Intrigued by the big names that started the foundation, and by its even bigger goals, I emailed them for more information and was pleasantly surprised when a Pars Arts contributor, Mariam Hosseini, responded. Mariam recently wrote the Pars Arts story Adventures in Online Iranian Food Shopping, and she answered my questions for this piece.

What is PARSA’s mission?
PARSA Community Foundation’s mission is to become the leading institution practicing strategic philanthropy and promoting social entrepreneurship towards a strong global Persian presence. PARSA invests in these common causes:
Preservation and advancement of Iranian arts and culture;
Development of leaders through education and awards systems; and
Encouragement of civic participation and non-profit capacity building.

Who’s behind PARSA? Why did they start the organization?
Inspired by the work of passionate social entrepreneurs and the impact of strategic philanthropy, The H.A.N.D. Foundation organized a summit in Fall 2005 and invited generous members of the Persian community to share their philanthropic experiences and brainstorm on how successful efforts of the community could be taken to the next level. The participants, facing similar opportunities and constraints, and believing that the social impact of collaborative work can be just as important as producing the public good itself, agreed to pool their resources to create a platform to facilitate large-scale philanthropy for Persians worldwide. This infrastructure would enable the free flow of information, training and funds necessary to address the needs of the community. To create an enduring institution, the founders committed to hands-on involvement, professional management and the establishment of an endowment fund.

PARSA’s board consists of the following members:
Anousheh Ansari: Treasurer, PARSA Community Foundation; Co-founder and Chairman, Prodea Systems, Inc.

Noosheen Hashemi: Chairman, PARSA Community Foundation; Co-founder and President, The H.A.N.D. Foundation

Salar Kamangar: Secretary, PARSA Community Foundation; Vice President, Product Management, Google, Inc.

Omid Kordestani: Co-Founder, PARSA Community Foundation; Senior Vice President, Global Sales and Business Development, Google, Inc.

Hamid Moghadam: Co-Founder, PARSA Community Foundation; Chairman and CEO, AMB Property Corporation

Camran Nezhat: Co-Founder, PARSA Community Foundation; M.D., F.A.C.O.G., F.A.C.S., Stanford University Medical Center

You can read more about the board here:

What are some beneficiary projects of PARSA’s efforts? What kinds of organizations or projects should know about PARSA’s work?
In 2006, PARSA made its inaugural grant of up to $210,000 to Ashoka: Innovators for the Public as part of the Ashoka PARSA Initiative to support an Ashoka fellow of Iranian origin from anywhere in the world where Ashoka operates.

Currently, we are processing grant applications from our first grant cycle, which just ended on February 15, and are excited to be announcing grantees around the Norouz timeframe. In addition to our semi-annual grant cycles where we encourage non-profits that fit our guiding principles to apply, PARSA also supports strategic grantmaking in projects such as the Cyrus Cylinder North American Tour, initiating a census campaign, and supporting voter registration. PARSA also reaches out to Persian diaspora philanthropy through its philanthropy workshops and planned NGO summits, aimed at promoting networking and collaboration among nonprofits.

How can young Iranians, like Pars Arts readers, get involved either as volunteers or as young philanthropists?
There are many ways for young Iranians to get involved, such as: Hosting a philanthropy work shop at your home, school, or any other appropriate place; facilitating a philanthropy workshop; writing articles for our newsletter; and volunteering pro bono professional services such as legal, financial, accounting services to support NGOs that don’t have the resources to purchase them.