Stories of identity are stories we can all understand in one way or another—lost identity, conflicted identity, mixed identity—it can all be very confusing. This is one of the great existential issues on which our thoughts and emotions can be occupied for a whole lifetime. Marjan Tehrani is an independent filmmaker for whom identity is a constant and vital theme. Through her production company, Tru Films, she has produced and directed two documentaries dealing with these issues in a very intimate way. Her Israel follows three women—an Israeli, a Palestinian and an Ukrainian immigrant—as they live life in Tel Aviv. The film had its premiere on the Sundance Channel in 2004.
Arusi Persian Wedding is her second feature documentary, co-produced with ITVS, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and fiscal sponsorship from Women Make Movies. The meta-topic explores the very complex and troubled relationship between America, the country of Tehrani’s birth, and Iran, the country of her heritage. For her and her brother, Alex, this is a story close to the bone since they are first-generation American kids, who grew up in Berkeley, California. Arusi tells the story of Alex and Heather Tehrani and their journey to celebrate their marriage in Iran. The film will air on PBS' Independent Lens series as part of its ’08-’09 season and will have its world premiere in Dubai, UAE next month at the inaugural Documentary Voices: Pulling Focus, a symposium that will bring mostly first-time directors together from the US, Iran and the Gulf region to share films, meet industry guests and discuss issues about making nonfiction film in their respective regions.
As the programming director for this brand-new initiative supported by the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority, I was absolutely thrilled when I discovered Arusi in a composing workshop at the True/False Film Festival back in February led by Ion Michael Furjanic of Force Theory. He and his partner, Sanford Livingston, did the beautiful music and sound design for the film. The piece speaks quite strongly to Tehrani's own dedication to promoting dialogue between cultures, sharing the complex aspects of identity, and using cinema to share those deep transformations that are common to every human being. It is a deeply personal film told through the lens of her own family’s experience as they try to reconcile their issues of being caught between two very different worlds. When the Tehranis are finally granted their Iranian passports, her brother, Alex, a photographer, and his American wife, Heather, decide to travel to Iran to have a traditional Persian wedding, an arusi—just as their own Iranian father and American mother did when Iran and the US were allies. The film is dedicated to Alex and Marjan's mother, Sharon Goldstein-Tehrani (1938 - 1984).
Tehrani, herself, is about to be wed to filmmaker, Gabriel Noble, and is currently producing another documentary called P Star’s Redemption, a story of a 13-year-old rap star phenom, fulfilling her father’s deferred dreams of making it in the music business. Between work and wedding preparations and before re-meeting in Dubai, we got a chance to sit down here in New York for a bit and talk about the experience of making Arusi and what it was like for her and Alex to finally get back to Iran:
Still in Motion (SIM): Tell me a bit about your first directorial effort, Her Israel.
Marjan Tehrani (MT): The project was actually for my MFA at City College. It was about three women from Tel Aviv, about female identity. One woman was Palestinian, another was an Israeli and the third was a Russian immigrant. The three women never meet but I follow them during a three-month period during the summer before the intifada . I decided I wanted to make a film about female identity and how many similarities women have in a certain period of their lives.
SIM: Why did you focus your story in Israel?
MT: I was going to do it here in the States. And then I took a trip to Egypt and Turkey and Israel and I was really fascinated by Israel—the hypocrisies you encounter everywhere in that country. I was really intrigued by it all, especially issues surrounding the political conflicts there. Like many places, people’s realities there were so similar even though their backgrounds and situations were so different. It was an hour-long piece. It played on the Sundance Channel, which was really exciting. I got the film into Cynthia Kane’s hands [acquisitions and program planning for the Sundance Channel from ’99 to ‘06]. She fell in love with the film. I also did a very modest festival circuit with it. It was a good one out of the gate.
SIM: How did you find your subjects?
MT: I met a woman from Israel who became one of my closest friends. She took me home with her for two weeks where I stayed with her family in Tel Aviv. Originally, I wanted to profile five women, specifically looking at the immigrant population, the Ethiopians, the Russians. I interviewed a bunch of women and ended up finding my subjects through that process.
SIM: In deciding upon who your subjects would be, what were the major determining factors?
MT: I always trust my immediate connection with certain people through listening to their stories. I really didn’t want to make it about politics. That’s what we’re slammed with every time we see anything about Israel. I was curious to know who these women were. The Palestinian woman’s family is one of the founding families in Jaffa in Tel Aviv. They’ve been instrumental in keeping Jaffa preserved. She’s got a strong feeling of dedication; she’s a schoolteacher. She was just a really interesting character to me. She stood on her own. I wanted to profile women who did not fit into any kind of stereotype, whatsoever. Most of the women in Jaffa don’t work and have a very specific kind of lifestyle. She was the only woman sitting on the city council and organized many things in the community.
The Russian woman is an actress, and doing well as one on Israeli television. She’s a very quirky character. The Israeli woman was half Ashkenazi [a Jew of German/Eastern European descent] and half Sephardic [a Jew of Spanish/Middle Eastern descent] and is kind of a tortured soul. She had a very hard time with the Palestinian conflict, a hard time with the Sephardic side of her, but she very much embodied Sephardic culture.
SIM: What did you learn as a filmmaker through the whole process of making that film that’s stood you in good stead through your recent efforts, particularly when you were getting ready to do Arusi?
MT: It was important to me to make a film that really captured the character of these women. They could watch the film and say, yes, that’s who I am. And I did get that reaction from all three of them. I really worked hard at that.
SIM: As you know, there are so many ways of portraying truth.
MT: I focused on filmmaking in the cinema verité tradition. Even before I decided to go to film school, I found something so romantic about the Maysles and the kind of work they did, as well as the cinematic tradition in France, understanding the concept of what happens when a camera is present and honoring that, trying to be as true to that as possible. When you’re allowed into people’s lives like that, it’s so important to preserve the integrity of those lives. That’s what makes me want to tell people’s stories. I get to connect with people and understand them pretty quickly through those levels of complexity. That’s fun for me to sort out and puzzle over in the edit room.
SIM: What were you doing before film school?
MT: I studied community studies for my undergrad at UC Santa Cruz [California], concentrating on social change, activism. Then I taught for a little while. Believe it or not, I wanted to become a mid-wife so I worked with one for a while.
SIM: And you changed your mind, obviously?
MT: (laughing) Yeah. I did end up making a little film about it for an undergrad project.
SIM: That was the first time you picked up a camera?
MT: Yes. And that film will never be shown!
SIM: That’s your "film in the closet," never to see the light of day—almost every filmmaker has at least one.
MT: Well, it was a great concept. So in discovering that all I really wanted to do was tell people’s stories, I decided to go to film school and ended up at City College. I looked at the New School and others that I was considering, but this school had a great documentary program. Also, I was a bit older than your average grad student. I wanted to go to a school where it was accessible for everyone and had a real focus on documentary. It was a great place to make a film in a very practical way and I could take out college loans to make it.
SIM: How did you come at making Arusi stylistically? It’s a very personal film considering it’s about your own brother and your own family. Did you think much about how you were going to tackle the telling of this story? Or were you more interested in just going on a journey and seeing what unfolded?
MT: I went to Iran wanting to make a film that would portray Iran as a character, as Israel was in my first film, the place that embodies its own personality. I wanted to concentrate, again, on the paradoxes inherent in that place and its burdened history.
SIM: Burdened history?
MT: Every Iranian carries animosity about what’s happened between Iran and the US. Even if they live here and love this country, there is a really bad taste in their mouths, and a lot of regret for what could have been. Iranians are a very poetic people, proud, dramatic. We look to these moments in the past and hold on tight to them. That’s all I’ve heard about my whole life, these moments, these missed opportunities between the two countries. I was trying to figure out how to tell those stories. When my brother and his wife announced that they were going to Iran to have a wedding, I knew it was exactly how I wanted to go, with this amazing access to a very personal story with a strong narrative arc to it. This was also a life-long dream of my dad’s, that we would go back as adults and really see his country. He’s one of the few Iranians that we know in our community that has this passion, this love affair with Iran. He can’t stay away. He spends half of his year there.
SIM: Why doesn’t he make his home there full-time?
MT: He embodies the American dream. He came here when he was 17 and has had four hundred different careers, the definition of an entrepreneur. Iran doesn’t allow him to do everything that he can do. It’s a duel life. There, he puts on his sneakers and goes to the markets, cooks, has huge dinner parties.
SIM: How did his feelings about Iran affect you and your brother growing up? What kinds of ideas did you get about being an Iranian/American in terms of how you defined yourselves? As is your passion, there’s a lot of talk about identity in Arusi. It’s a universal human search, identity. We all think about that in a very personal way, and also in a nationalistic way. It could also be something that’s imposed upon you. Considering the political relationship between the two countries and growing up in the States as an American kid, when did you start to create your own scenario of how you wanted to present yourself to the world in terms of your heritage?
MT: It’s an eternal search for me. I had a very complicated childhood. My parents separated soon after I was born. When I was three, my dad moved back to Iran. Then, my mom got sick with breast cancer. He came back when she got sick but, mostly, I was raised in an African-American family, going back and forth between my godmother’s and my own family. So I was raised within three very different cultures. My dad was still away a lot and we went to Iran to visit him as a family.
SIM: How old were you the first time you went there?
MT: I was three. We went pretty soon after he left the first time; this was in 1977. It was the first and last time I went there as a child. My brother had been a couple of times as a kid. The revolution started looming. We were all supposed to go back as a family to try and reconcile things but then my mom got sick. After she died when I was nine, my dad moved in with us. He was a different type of father because he was traveling a lot and not physically present a lot of the time. But he became Mr. Mom when he was home. When he was there, he was very much there. He imposed these very strong cultural ideas onto me and my brother, including a spic and span house—you could eat off our floors. He was brought up like that, too. We entertained a lot. He’s a wonderful entertainer; he’s a chef. He taught me how to make every type of Persian food. Culturally, that’s where I really learned.
SIM: Do you speak Farsi?
MT: Very little. My father emphasized proficiency in English—that was more important than anything. The other important language was French, if anything, which is the classic Iranian way. I loved the cultural aspects of being Iranian within the family life—the food, the parties, the people, the warmth, the rituals. We weren’t a religious family at all. Outside the house, I don’t think I really wanted to scream out loud that I was Iranian. People knew. I have such a distinct name; I look Iranian. Everyone thought my father was a royal this or that; that’s all I heard throughout high school. Not until college did I start to embrace being Iranian.
SIM: Growing up, did the relationship between the US and Iran impact you and your brother personally? What kinds of things did you bring to making this film that stemmed from those experiences?
MT: Well, the hostage crisis for example: I will never forget when that was going on.
SIM: I don’t think any of us will.
MT: We were really young. But Alex got his butt beat at school; I remember that very clearly. I got a lot of mean comments about being Middle Eastern. When my brother got beat up, though, my dad reacted in a distinctive way. He would say to us that a janitor and the president were the same kind of people and a racist person is no different than you or I—we’re all the same. His mom was very strong in that kind of thinking and those kinds of beliefs, and it really sunk in for him. So his reaction to all that was: You know what? Tough break, kid. Don’t take it to heart.
SIM: He taught you that you were going to run into narrow-minded or ignorant folk your whole life and didn’t make it into a big lecture about racism that would teach you to hate in return--smart man.
MT: He was also a self-made man. He went from being poor to very wealthy at some point, then losing that and building up again, back and forth in terms of his fortunes. He feels like each person is on his or her own track and that’s what he’s always taught us. I don’t think that’s necessarily true for everyone in this world. We don’t all have equal opportunity or choice. But that’s how he looks at life.
SIM: Despite his traveling a great deal, it sounds like he really did have a lot of influence on both of you and the way you view the world.
SIM: What does he think about both of you becoming artists?
MT: He’s a little mortified, actually (laughing). I don’t think it was until my first film screening that he was impressed in some way. He needed to be reminded of every accomplishment. It wasn’t his first preference. But now, he’s really embraced it; he gets it. It’s not really the path that Iranians have in mind for their children. It’s very clearly doctor, lawyer, businessperson, something with stability that will create a strong foundation.
SIM: Sounds like being raised in a Jewish family. I think that’s universal, particularly being the children of a first-immigrant generation. Tell me about your process in starting Arusi. Did you just pick up your camera and go on this journey? Was there a preproduction plan or did it happen organically at the start?
MT: I did go to Iran for a preproduction trip to gather together a crew and explore what kind of process it would be to shoot there—getting permits, the logistical planning.
SIM: So this was, by no means, some kind of underground, clandestine shoot.
MT: No, I did it by the books. I know some filmmakers in Iran and I got a lot of help from Dariush Mehrjui to help me get a permit. It’s almost impossible to acquire that. He also lent me his production manager, a woman named Tahoora Abolghasemi. She’s an incredible, very interesting person. I was wondering the whole time if I should have been making a film about her! We figured out a lot of the logistical details. When Alex and Heather arrived, it happened to be on the day of the largest student protest ever to happen in Tehran, and so we went there and got this gritty footage. I got a lot of stuff like that. In the edit room I had a lot of choice in what story I wanted to tell. But we’ve seen the protests in the streets and the demonstrations. I battled a lot in trying to figure out how to shape the story, even though, on a certain level, it was pretty straightforward.
SIM: The context surrounding it certainly isn’t.
MT: Yes, it was a real balancing act, constantly. The archival sections were our biggest challenge, obviously.
SIM: It’s not unusual to see archival intercut with a very personal story, juxtaposing that for context—we’ve seen that done to good affect in many films. This was something in your film, however, that really had a huge impact on me. It was expertly executed and added this extremely rich element to the whole piece. The events that happened, both here and in Iran, have an unusual amount of resonance, elevated beyond a political or governmental issue. It really has to do with perception. It so beautifully illustrates the cultural duality that you and your brother experienced in forming your identities. Talk a little bit about the work involved in crafting this story.
MT: As I said, the archival was our biggest challenge. We had great verité footage [shot by Tehrani and DP, Kambiz Koushan and assisted in Iran by a crew that included Bahman Kiarostami]. But there was a lot of work to find the right tone so that it would work with the archival. Going into that first archival scene is the scene of the two sets of parents meeting for the first time.
SIM: That’s one of the strongest--and most uncomfortable--scenes I’ve seen in a nonfiction film in quite a while.
MT: Yeah, it’s as real as they come.
SIM: How many cameras were in that room?
MT: That was shot with just one camera. We had no idea that was going to unravel the way it did. It was very uncomfortable to have that camera rolling. It was pretty intense. The rest of the evening wasn’t so pleasant, either. It was a pretty rough night. That scene, for me, epitomized the concept of the whole film, and I realized that as it was happening right in front of me. It was very exciting. No one else was very excited, but I was! It’s a conversation I’ve participated in so many times and been on different sides of. So, for me, that was the perfect place to insert the first archival sequence, taking it back to the 1950s. I’ve been asked by several people if I scripted that scene. That is the major conflict scene in the whole film, filled with really subtle, complex relationships between those people—with one another, within themselves. Even today, the relationship between Heather and her father [a conservative, born-again Christian and a former US military serviceman] is filled with tension. And that tension exists partly because she married Alex and converted to Islam and went on this trip with him. [In order to travel to Iran, Heather had to convert.] Her father takes religion very seriously, and this felt like a blow to him.
SIM: He also equates Iran and Iraq as if they’re the same place!
MT: It’s actually quite common. Ever since Iraq became a strong signal on people’s radars, that mistake is made.
SIM: There's also the fact that those two countries had a brutal war between them. This is not ancient history, by any stretch.
MT: That was taken out of the film and that crushes me a bit. I did have two more archival segments built into the film but that Iran/Iraq conflict started to take over the whole film. I think, at the end of the day, people connect to personal stories much more, and we started to lose that. Those segments were crafted so beautifully and I hated to have to excise them from the final cut. But it did start to overwhelm the story, that of Heather’s and Alex’s journey. It was hard to figure out where to cut off that important history, though. But it made sense to wrap up when the two countries [the US and Iran] completely severed ties, because, from that moment until today, nothing’s really changed.
SIM: If anything, it’s escalated thanks to having two fundamentalist governments in place.
MT: But we've gone through many types of governments since then on this end and relations have never improved. When you really study the history, there have been opportunities to come together. We have a whole segment on that moment in time when [Mohammed] Khatami came back into power at the time Clinton was in the Oval Office.
There could have been great change. That’s the most recent scar for Iranians. And this whole thing about Mossedegh keeps coming up. Khatami addressed that at the United Nations, that the United States never fully apologized or admitted to staging that coup d’etat. That was still the topic of conversation in 1999—from 1953!
SIM: What kinds of conversations did you have with Iranians? What are their ideas about their homeland and its immediate future? I’m sure it’s all over the map, but do you recall certain conversations that opened up your ideas of how someone over there might view things?
MT: Well, 70% of the population in Iran is under 35. That was fascinating to encounter. I would say the general feeling is that people want change. I say this very cautiously, because at the end of the day, it’s very dangerous to speak from a certain standpoint, but people live their lives in Iran as people do everywhere. It’s not as if they experience overt oppression in their everyday lives. They’ve figured out how to maneuver their way through the day. They straddle two worlds and spend most of their energies on living life, while being very aware that things need to change. I was there for the elections and did a lot of interviews with people in the streets. I actually ended up interviewing three of the presidential candidates.
MT: It could be a whole other film. It’s pretty incredible material. Everybody we interviewed told us that they were going to go vote but they felt like it really didn’t matter, that it wouldn’t count. I spent a good two and a half weeks there and the candidate that won, Ahmandinejad—I never even heard that guy’s name. I’m not kidding you. I was aware of the names of the leading seven, or so, candidates that were serious contenders. His name was not among them. During that time, I also went to the mourning ceremony on the day of [the Ayatollah] Khomeini’s death, which is almost like the second biggest thing to a pilgrimage to Mecca. People come from all around the Middle East to mourn him. He was not the candidate that was on anybody’s lips there, either.
SIM: So what’s the theory on his entry into office?
MT: No one seems to really know. He just came into power. I interviewed [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjani. He was quite sure he was going to win the election; it was very clear to him and a lot of other people. I also talked to a lot of kids at the different campaign headquarters. It’s very hard to characterize anybody’s sentiments about things like this. But everybody says they want freedom.
SIM: Is the citizenry hopeful? Considering this staggering youth demographic, is there cautious optimism about what the next couple of decades is going to bring?
MT: I think people are hopeful that things will change eventually because they’ve seen that kind of change happen before.
SIM: What do they want that change to bring? “Freedom” is a pretty loaded word. What kind of freedoms are we talking about that are missing now?
MT: That’s the question we would ask. Most of these kids have only known the Ayatollah Khomeini’s regime and the rule under the Supreme Council. So when they talk about freedom, it’s a very idealistic concept. It reminds me of how people would talk about Marxism or religion, the conceptualization of an idea, but no real clarity on what that really means in any practical way. It’s very hard to put your finger on what they’re characterizing as religion or freedom, or religious freedom, for that matter. I think what they’re talking about is Internet access, access to things any Western kid might have in Germany or the US, where they’re not monitored. The women want a choice as to whether or not to wear the hijab. Couples want to walk down the street together, to go out together, basic things in our lives that we take for granted, those kinds of freedoms, that are just a given.
SIM: It sounds like what people want are more individual freedoms. Choice, in other words—what to wear, the company one keeps, unhindered communication—more than nationalistic freedoms. Or do you think they’re one and the same?
MT: To me, it seems like it’s more on a nationalistic level. Depending on your background, your socioeconomic status, you can have a lot of those freedoms now. Everybody has to wear the scarf and abide by certain things when one is in the public sphere, but one can get away with certain things.
SIM: So there is class-consciousness, racial consciousness, just as there is here—the same kinds of divisive things that cause societal problems.
MT: Yes, certainly, particularly in the case of the immigrant populations there, the Bangladeshis and other peoples who routinely experience a lot of racism. It’s really about socioeconomic status and how much access one has. The richer you are, the more access you have to Western culture or Western amenities, you could say. Religion is another major division. There’s a huge secular population that have to call themselves Muslim—everybody’s Muslim with the exception of small populations of Jews or people of the Bahá’í faith or something like that. It impacts the way you carry yourself and how you’re supposed to conduct yourself in public.
SIM: Heather was really fascinating to watch. Her reactions to things, for the most part, were very subtle. She was trying so hard to do whatever it was that was expected of her. Did anything happen, with her in particular, that you chose not to film or use in the finished piece? This is your family but I’m sure there were times you had to separate yourself from those relationships in service to the story.
MT: I pretty much kept my camera on Heather and Alex the whole time. We were there for such a short amount of time [two and a half weeks]. But yes, I definitely made choices on how to portray them. Watching people on a road trip as intense as this one was you see the small ways in which a couple might communicate, the back and forth in how they negotiate things, their epiphanies about certain things. A lot of this, I think, isn’t so interesting to a larger audience. What I thought was more interesting were the internal conflicts that I witnessed from both of them. They weren’t really naming things, but they were interested in constantly figuring out the differences between how they perceived things. There was this one instance, in particular, where this Iranian woman and Heather got into a pretty big argument about this very thing we were discussing—racism, class division, etc. Heather is of the mind that everyone can make something of themselves no matter their station in life or their background, similar to my dad’s philosophy. This woman was in total disagreement and thought she was dead wrong about that. It got pretty ugly between them. I didn’t include it because it didn’t make sense to put it in there in the context of this story I was telling.
SIM: Heather seems to have a healthy dose of naiveté, I think. But that may have just been the circumstance in which she found herself. I very much got the sense, though, that she’d been protected most of her life from a lot of things and so it was fairly easy for her to hold onto and maintain a very idealistic view of things, even as an adult. Maybe that’s just me imposing my own way of seeing things, because I can say that’s true of myself, but I recognized something like that in her, a kinship with someone who was also brought up in a fairly sheltered way.
MT: She’s traveled quite a bit and been in many different situations. But Iran was something else. Iran flips you over. I, myself, have traveled to many spots and experienced intimate connections with certain places. But there’s something about Iran—it’s so different. The way people interact with one another is so different. The first time I went there, I felt drunk the whole time. The colors and the smells are overwhelming. The hospitality is overwhelming, in a sort of passive-aggressive way. That’s the culture. Everything about it is incredibly overwhelming. You don’t have a moment to breathe. People tell you exactly what they’re thinking, but with a smile on their face. So it took her by surprise, too. She keeps herself together in an impeccable way and really cares about all that. But these Iranian women take that to a whole other level. They have mastered the art of the public face so incredibly well, it flipped her out a little bit. There was the whole thing about her wedding dress. She had this really cute Soho Calypso outfit for her wedding in Iran. And these women were like, “Oh, no. That won’t do.” They also wanted to do her makeup differently for the wedding ceremony, the way they do it.
SIM: That’s such a delightful thing to watch, though. On her wedding day, Heather does totally give herself over to these women and let’s them do their thing. And they do it with such love. It was like a scene out of a fairytale.
MT: She did—she really surrendered on that day.
SIM: It was a very palpable shift and very touching. Because, ultimately, she was doing it for Alex and your family. That was her wedding gift to all of you. Even though she’s a “modern” woman and wants to come to things on her terms, she puts herself completely in their hands. You did a really nice job of capturing those subtleties, those shifts.
MT: They were pretty good with me, pretty open, Alex and Heather. I remember the day that Heather was crying and having a real breakdown, Alex came to me and told me to pick up my camera and go into the room where they were. I came in and plopped myself down on the rug with them as she was crying. He said to me, “I think this is why you’re making this film, right? This is really what’s happening here.” They gave me a lot of access and trust. It was really interesting watching their transition from their arrival on. Like I said, they arrived in the midst of student protests. We went down there and everybody was freaking out about Heather, telling us to cover her up, etc. People were getting snatched up and thrown into prison, you know? It was quite intense. Canadian-Iranian photographer, Zahra Kazemi, had just gotten killed. Being in Tehran for an extended period and being constantly accosted and criticized for not wearing the right outfit or doing things in the proper way, being shuttled here and there and everywhere, parties every single night—all this took its toll on her and she just broke down at a certain point.
It’s really when Alex and Heather take off on that road trip without family and friends, without complete strangers telling them how to act and what to eat and what to wear, that they start to loosen up a bit and relax. This is really when I started to be able to get the material I was after. One of my favorite scenes in the film is the guy on the bridge asking them if he can take their picture. The picture’s for him. Can you imagine that happening here—someone asking to take your picture and then asking for your email so he can send you a copy? They looked interesting to him. Iranians are so sentimental. I love that so much. And as much as Alex and Heather wanted to approach that trip in a very open way, they were riddled with their own judgments about things there, constantly trying to intellectualize things instead of just experiencing them for what they were. On that road trip when they started to just hang out with people in a very relaxed way, that’s when things really shifted. They were sitting at this beautiful old tomb at Chehel Sutoon Palace, the one with 40 pillars, and this group of kids comes up to them to chat. Again, someone asked if I scripted that scene. Those kids made a straight beeline for them. I love that shot where they literally turn direction and start moving towards them full of questions and excitement about meeting and talking to them. This, for me, was my highest priority—to show that strong desire, on the part of the Iranians, to connect with us. And our feelings, in turn, even though we have these very mixed feelings about being Iranian and what that means both here and there. There’s this real yearning for me to connect. When I’m there, there’s something that feels whole in me, that piece of me that drifts when I’m away from that place. There’s something very familiar about it for me.
That’s what Alex was trying to figure out, too, when he was there. We don’t speak the language; we don’t have the obvious connection. Like he says in one scene, the Iranians you encounter in this country [the US] express themselves so differently. They fondly reminisce about things like going to the river with their family, picking pomegranates off the trees. And all they do here is live in this exclusively Iranian world. But when you bring up Iran, they just become so negative. They don’t want to return. They have so much animosity towards this place that’s no longer accessible to them in that way they’re used to. That’s part of the story, too, the immigrant story and what they feel they’ve lost forever, that emotional connection to their homeland.
SIM: Beyond a family and friends screening, you haven’t really had an opportunity to publicly screen this film yet, is that correct?
MT: Yes, that’s right.
SIM: So Dubai will be the first time you screen for a public audience?
MT: I think that we’ll have a tremendously emotional response. There were a handful of people I didn’t know at this screening here and they identified so much with the film and really enjoyed it. That was exciting. Iranians are a pretty tough audience, very critical. I’m telling a history that has many perspectives. It was a challenge to find the perfect balancing act to tell this story and not have it be perceived as a pro-Iranian, anti-American take on things, or the reverse of that. The footage needed to speak for itself. I’m particularly interested in seeing how people react to the archival material. I also think that mixed identity is such a universal theme to which most people can relate; it touches an emotional core. It was exciting to see people laugh and cry out loud in the theater. I’m wondering if a public audience will have that same emotional reaction.
SIM: I think Dubai will be fascinating since, in terms of "defining" culture, I don’t even know how you’d begin to do that, especially at this point in the city’s growth. I would imagine that the dialogues there might be heated in some respects, but I always find that what’s discovered when you bring people from different cultures together in one place that have, perhaps, troubled histories with one another, is understanding and commonality, more than anything else. We’re not coming together as politicians or government representatives, but as artists whose life work is creating things that speak to our common humanity.
MT: Or as my dad would say, “Let’s not have this political discussion right now. I have to go check my rice.” Seriously, though, I’d really like to move this conversation forward by reviewing the history and watching that archival material, talking as a people about how to create something that will move us forward from that past. When you really think about it, it’s pretty obscene, that we keep going back to those moments that are now so far-removed, particularly in the context of what’s going on today. It’s time to have a different conversation.