Since the 1970s, Los Angeles has had one of the largest Iranian exile populations in the world. I believe the term ‘Tehrangeles’ was coined sometime in the early ‘80s, when Westwood inhabitants found themselves mumbling “Salaam” as they passed by the morning’s fresh flowers and pickled garlic.
So why has it taken so long for Persians to become involved in Los Angeles’ art scene – the center of which is without a doubt the entertainment-industrial complex known the world over as Hollywood – the nucleus itself of the American Dream?
Well, a lot more than the Bears went down this Superbowl weekend. Los Angeles’ first series showcase of Iranian films – the Noor Film Festival – took place from Friday night through Sunday’s late hours at West Hollywood’s charming Silent Movie Theatre.
Essentially a shorts competition (nominated by committee and selected by a panel of judges), the screenings were sprinkled with “special screenings” chosen by the festival director, Siamak Ghahremani, to present a taste of Iran’s cultural offerings and “foster a greater appreciation of Iran, its people and their [artistic] contribution.”
Iranian film has long been a darling of the international film festival circuit. From Venice and Berlin to Toronto and Cannes, such films as Children of Heaven, The White Balloon and Bashu, the Little Stranger have received wide critical acclaim, making such directors as Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami and Mehrjui household names.
Largely inspired by the artists of Italian Neorealism, these filmmakers have held a mirror up to the diverse landscape of Iran, shining a light on everything from Afghani immigrants and ethnic Kurds to Tehran teen house parties and insecure street thieves… And – ever popular – the victimized child (poor, war-torn and/or orphaned) and the oppressed woman (degraded, disowned, dishonored, humiliated, beaten, raped, etc.).
International audiences stand up and applaud these great visionary works – made braver by the impossibly frustrating obstacles filmmakers must face when attempting to film in post-Revolution Iran. ‘These are not hooligans, not terrorists,’ their myriad awards seem to say; ‘they are soft artists, poetic and lyrical, oppressed by the isolated extremes of their land, here to show us the beauty that still remains within their hearts and others’, wounded like them.’
Not surprisingly, it is the Persian community itself that often has the hardest time supporting the wide-eyed success of their filmmaking peers. In short, it is a problem of representation. In his seminal work on Iranian cinema, Richard Tapper has said that with the rise in its popularity and exposure, Iranian cinema, “through viewing and debate…has become an important medium for the renegotiation of Iranian cultural identity.”
In a world in which Iranian-Americans find themselves depicted as a ‘threat’ – if not all-out terrorists - on television every day, the Iranian film becomes a cherished opportunity to present the real national/cultural identity. For a worldwide diaspora for whom ‘home’ has been unrecognizable for nearly three decades, it also becomes the moment for a precise exacting of nostalgia made manifest.
The stakes high, authenticity is of the utmost importance.
That’s why an Iranian film festival put on and sponsored by Iranian-Americans – as opposed to, say, the Lincoln Center, AFI or Film Forum – is, to many, a breath of fresh air. For the L.A. Persian immigrant and Persian-American community, a lot was riding on Mr. Gharemani’s experiment.
The festival opened with a pre-weekend gala ceremony, featuring dinner, traditional music and – to set the tone of the Iranian-American perspective – stand-up comic Peter the Persian and appearances by Mrs. Iran Globe 2007, Mrs. California Globe 2007 (the alluring Shally Zomorodi) and Mark Amin of Lions Gate Films.
The bringing together of East and West was not always seamless; celebrity judges included Natasha Henstridge and Harry J. Lennix of The Matrix alongside actors Shaun Toub and Maz Jobrani. (The arbitrary would continue into the weekend with a “director spotlight” on Sohrab Akhavan, the popular radio personality of Radio Iran, in which an 11-minute low-budget PBS-style doc. on Leonardo DaVinci was screened. What?)
Friday night brought Babak Shokrian’s 2001 America So Beautiful to the screen, in which a group of young Iranian immigrants find that amidst 1979’s Hostage Crisis, the American Dream (here represented by the glittering promise of a night of disco bliss) is often held – tempting but elusive – behind the velvet rope. Café Transit, last year’s nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, was screened Saturday. Kambozia Partovi’s story of an independent woman who, despite the disapproval of her village and family, re-opens her late husband’s border café and runs it herself plays winningly upon the time-tested theme of dignity against all odds.
Sunday was reserved for the best of screenings, with CNN-featured Babak and Friends, an easily translated animated story of an Iranian-American boy learning about his family’s culture for the first time, starting off the morning. The evening featured the well-known Parviz Sayyad’s 1977 Bonbast (Dead-End) – one of the few films banned both by the Shah (it criticizes his infamous ‘secret police’) and the post-Revolutionary Islamic government (made before ’79, the beautiful Mary Apick is veil-less).
But Mohammad Shirvani most certainly stole the show with back-to-back screenings of his 2005 Mir Qanbar and 2004 Nahf (Navel). The former is the true story of a 74 year-old villager who has dedicated the rest of his life to winning an elected position in Iran’s government – be it the Presidency or a Parliament seat. We follow him and his campaign manager – a severely disabled younger man with reversed limbs – as they travel from village to village on bicycle and mule-driven carriage, respectively, shoulders strapped with bullhorns and hands filled with leaflets. The film is aesthetically beautiful, framing portrait-perfect, and the characters – and the village lives they lead - are utterly simple, immensely funny and delightfully sweet.
Shirvani’s first feature, Naaf paints a complex picture of modern-day Tehran – a city in which, the filmmaker points out, “young people are beginning to live together, away from the family, marriage is being left later and later, and divorce rates are shooting up.” Filmed in sepia tones and war-footage NightVision, the film is aesthetically bold enough to diversify the image of the traditional Iranian festival film.
However, it is also the content – the intimacies shared by a group of 4 lost men (an ex-diving taxi driver, a young divorced father, a village soldier stationed to the big city and a former clerical student who has lost his faith in faith) and one young woman, Chista (Christ, the redeemer), a New Yorker visiting her homeland – that propels Shirvani’s film to the avant garde of Iranian cinema. Sure to satisfy a younger generation of the diaspora, the characters are as authentic as can be.
Ideally, it would have been wonderful to see more films like Shirvani’s – recent contributions that bring a fresh perspective - during the festival. One must remember, however, that the Noor Festival is in its first year and missions (this year’s theme was “tolerance;” yawn) do take time to find their foundation. (Not to mention technical efficiency and consistent English subtitles).
The first year also means no profits…yet. “I wasn’t expecting there to be any profits [this year],” said Mr. Ghahremani. “But if it’s the same next year, it will be the last year.” Let’s hope that’s not the case.
For a people whose identities are best described as “in between” – common sentiments include, Iranians back home look at me like I’m an alien; the Iran I visit is not the Iran I left behind; Mr. Ahmadinejad does not represent us, our culture, our background; even though I haven’t been back in 30 years, I still get teary-eyed about Tehran in snow, Rasht in rain – it is far too important to explore the tensions and pulls that bind, unite and unfasten us. As a culture for whom storytelling is mother’s milk, we in Hollywood need to support what has emerged in the last few decades to be one of the world’s richest cinemas to date.