Siamak Ghahremani On Religious Persecution And The Power Of Iranian Film

Siamak Ghahremani finally blocks out some time in his schedule for an extended phone call with me. I’m not in the least bit irked that it’s taken us more or less two weeks to settle on an uninterruptible hour, as he’s spent the majority of that first half of September managing the Copenhagen-based Persian band TM Bax’s first ever US tour. All accounts point to a successful run, taking the group from touchdown in Los Angeles to a finale show in Chicago on the 8th; their Instagram effectively tells the tale.

While Siamak is preoccupied with more than being a manager for Persian music artists, he’s gone to great lengths to also bring the likes of Tehranian rapper Yas and fusion band Abjeez to their live US debuts. The 43-year old executive has made a name for himself as the co-founder of the Noor Iranian Film Festival (NIFF) in 2007, an entity which brings a coordinated tour of Iranian films to expanding audiences in this country. With Iranian cinema continuing to spread in the US (as well as earning the nation its first Foreign Language Oscar this year), NIFF is distinguished as the first such filmfest in this country which is focused on this particular body of work.

Which is all to say: although it took a while, the man himself was gracious and fully candid in our conversation. That’s to be expected from someone with his origin story, which includes his family’s dramatic escape from Iran under religious persecution from the authorities. This journey was sadly fatal to his young mother, whose inspirational spirit lies at the heart of his travels and professional pursuits. I’ll let him tell it in his own words, below, although I do want to mention that he was kind enough to share a small portion of a documentary in development which goes into further detail.

The Iranian wants to thank Siamak Ghahremani for taking some time to speak with us, and we’re looking forward to NIFF next year!

[Note: The following interview has been slightly edited for clarity.]

The Iranian: If you could describe growing up Baha’i to someone unfamiliar with the religion, what might you tell them?

Siamak Ghahremani: I was brought up as a Baha’i, and obviously it is one of the newest religions [note: the origins of the Baha’i faith’s date to 1863]. We have principles that we go by—the equality of men and women, the elimination of racism, the elimination of extreme poverty and wealth, things like that—and I think when you look at the faith overall, it’s not just a faith. It’s very peaceful, it brings people together, and that’s what its main purpose and teachings are. I grew up under the guidance of those teachings, and I’ve always treated people in accordance with the way I was raised.

The Iranian: What was it like growing up as a Baha’i in Iran?

Siamak Ghahremani: Growing up as a Baha’i in Iran–because the religion didn’t have any recognition in the country, Baha’is were being persecuted left and right. A couple of times [authorities] came to our house from Evin Prison, but we weren’t home. It was one of those situations where I couldn’t go to the school in my district because I was Baha’i. We had to travel over an hour each way to go to a school where the principal was friendly with the Baha’i and allowed—or overlooked—Baha’i students attending there.

One of the reasons why we had to leave Iran is because my mom couldn’t get proper medical attention because she was Baha’i; they wouldn’t give her the service that she deserved because of the religion. After a miscarriage that she had due to complications, we had to leave the country. But: we couldn’t get on a plane to leave the country because we were Baha’i, so we had to pretty much get smuggled out of Iran. Back then, that meant going through Turkey or Pakistan.

I went through a lot of struggles because I was Baha’i. When you grow up like that, it’s something that’s real and is a part of your life. I have a five-year-old and a two-year old now, so when I see parents holding their kid’s hands and they’re refugees and leaving places, it hits me really hard. My experience wasn’t as extreme, but what a kid goes through at that age–it’s one of the things that took me years and years of therapy and work on myself to realize how much it affected me as a person. And because of that, I lost my mom, and my mom wasn’t in my life. That affected me a lot when it came to relationships with women, life, and so on. You could trace all that back and it would all come down to the fact that I was Baha’i.

[That being said,] I never used that as an excuse to get angry at anything or anyone. In my late teens I realized that the way I think and the way I function in my life is very unique and different, and because of that I am where I am right now. It took me a lot of years to acknowledge that all the shit I went through, that stuff messes you up as a kid, but it also makes you a person that thinks very differently than the rest of the people around you in your community, and approach things differently from the norm. I tapped into that and, honestly, a lot of the things I’ve done over the past fifteen years are directly related to what I went through.

The Iranian: If I might comment: in terms of you being a Baha’i living in Iran, I think the grandest irony is that your faith teaches consideration, acceptance, and patience for other people’s religions, and yet you’re being persecuted for it!

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Siamak Ghahremani: Exactly! And looking at as an adult, you kinda wonder “What were some of the Baha’is in Iran thinking?” When they would capture and jail you, all they would do is tell you to say that you’re not Baha’i anymore. “Say that you believe in Islam, say that your religion is not correct.” That kind of thing. “As long as you go against what you believe, we’ll let you go and you’ll live.” And these guys didn’t, and they killed them. They were martyred for their beliefs.

When I was growing up, I had some friends who were Iranian and not Baha’i. They would say, “oh we had Baha’i neighbors who were in jail. Why didn’t they just say that I’m Muslim so they can live?” And I thought….damn, why didn’t my mom say that? Why didn’t she write down “Muslim” on the form? She could be alive with us right now.

The Iranian: Those are the questions that are impossible to answer.

Siamak Ghahremani: I know. When you truly believe in something, you should be willing to give up your life for it. But again, I have kids, I would never ever let anything happen to them. Right now, if someone was holding a gun to my kid’s heads and told me to say I’m not Baha’i, I’d say it. I’d be willing to give my life so that my children wouldn’t have to go through what I had to go through.

It took me a long time to be content with this and truly understand it. When I went through therapy, a lot of anger came out aimed towards my mom. Because of what she did, and because of what she believed in, I ended up not having her in my life, so there’s an anger that’s a part of that, before the peace and understanding came.

My mom was 31 years old when she passed away. She was going through all this stuff in her late 20s. I’m 43 right now, and I think to myself “What the heck did I know about life in my late 20s, compared to what I know now?!”

The Iranian: What were your early memories of film? How did you go about building this relationship into NIFF?

Siamak Ghahremani: My love for film and movies comes from my mom. When I was a kid, my mom loved John Wayne and Anthony Quinn, all these old movie guys. So she used to pick me up in Iran–where you’d go to school Mondays through Thursdays. So, on Thursdays, she’d pick us up from school and take us to see movies. Movies were a big part of our life. When the revolution happened, VCRs and movies were banned, so we used to rent a box which had a VHS player and a couple dozen movies inside.

Now, in that box, there were cartoons, American films, European films, pornos even, everything! [laughs] People would rent them for a week at a time. So we used to set up theater seating at my house and have movie nights there, during the bombardment and during the revolution.

When I came to the US I was twelve years old, trying to fit in, trying to learn English. It was the beginning of my teenage years, so obviously you have girls, friendships, all those issues, and I came here having lost my mom. With everything that was happening to me, films were the only escape I had. I would get a ticket to the bargain matinee, sneak in to the other movies, and stay there the whole day going from movie to movie. I was trying to block out a lot of what I was going through. That’s why movies have always been a big part of my life.

So the idea of the film festival came up because of these experiences that I had.

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The Iranian: But you also have videotape recordings of yourself and your family from when you were younger. How did that come about?

Siamak Ghahremani: Before we left Iran, my mom sent all her pictures and all her movies and everything to the US with a passenger. That’s why we have the stuff that we have. I have stuff from my parent’s wedding up until we left Iran.

The Iranian: Changing gears: it looks like you have been managing musicians and performers, and just finished this tour with TM Bax.

Siamak Ghahremani: Thank God!

The Iranian: [laughs] So, what was the crowd like, what was the reception? What was the best city that TM Bax performed in?

I’d say the best city we performed in was Washington, DC, where we had close to a thousand people in attendance. [here’s a link to an instagram post from the performance, where you can see the crowd]

The Iranian: How did you start getting involved in managing artists?

Siamak Ghahremani: The Iranian music revolution, when it happened in about 2005 or 2006, was a point when all of a sudden all different types of music started coming out of Iran after many years of oppression. TM Bax, Yas, all of these artists have really become who they are over the past ten or twelve years. Although, there always were the big Iranian artists, like Dariush Eghbali and Googoosh; these people were active before the revolution.

When I was young, I grew up listening to Dr. Dre and NWA and Snoop, but I never had Iranian rap. I had my Iranian side of music which I always kept and was a big part of me, but I also had this American side. I was glued to the TV when the LA riots happened, when Rodney King and OJ happened. Music and movies were a huge part of my life. About ten years ago when Iranian rap came out, when Iranian heavy metal came out, me and a lot of people of my generation were STOKED. Now, we had Iranian music in different genres too.

That’s when I wanted to help promote those artists and help them reach a bigger audience. The hardest thing for many of these artist is change, just like it is for most of us. Change is the first thing that we always want in our lives, but we’re not willing to pay the price for it. So if we need to bridge the gap with the older Iranians living here with the Iranians born here, there has to be a way for different generations to communicate and find common ground. Film and music are great ways of doing that. I wanted to create these kinds of connection that I didn’t have when I was younger.

TM Bax was the last project that I did. It took a year and a half to get their visas to bring them here. We ran into some issues when the travel ban happened; I ended up losing money because we already booked some venues here [that we had to cancel]. In the end, it was great, the turnout was great and we had a great time.

I’ve tried to brand myself as the guy who’s always going to bring something different. Every artist that I’ve brought, it’s usually the first time the artist has been here.

The Iranian: Do you look at this work as an important counter to the xenophobic perspectives that have been shared in this country during the current administration?

Siamak Ghahremani: I think the film festival is more geared towards that goal. With music, you sometimes can’t understand the lyrics, but you can have a Russian documentary with English or Farsi subtitles and the job is done!

The Iranian: Let’s talk a little bit about NIFF. How did that get started?

Siamak Ghahremani: So, me and a friend were watching the news in the summer of 2005, and there was a big thing about the Iranian nuclear program. We were flipping channels and kept stopping on Fox news, and we realized that this subject was being handled so differently there. At some point, someone on Fox made a comment that equated the Iranian people with the government, with the fanaticism that was there. I thought to myself, this guy has no idea who I am, has no idea what people in Iran are going through. I’m like, this idiot doesn’t know squat about Iranian culture!

What better way to show people what someone like me went through to come to the US and pursue the American dream? I started doing research and realized that there were no film festivals like this outside of Iran. The end result of this work was NIFF.

When I first launched the film festival, we started taking it on tour to different universities and cities throughout the US to spark that conversation, to really put religion and politics to the side. I’m sure you saw A Separation; to many Americans who saw that movie, they were seeing a different side of Iran than what they might find on CNN. It’s seeing the human side of a culture.

That’s my perspective, you can have any religious belief, you can have any political view, but at the end of the day: you’re human. If you cut your finger and I cut my finger, we’re both going to bleed red. There’s got to be a common bond between us as human beings, whether you’re Black or White or Hispanic, at the end of the day we’re human beings, and we need to be heard, we need love and to feel understood. I think a lot of mass media and politics separates the human reality from the people themselves; I wanted to use the festival to connect human beings together.

The Iranian: You’ve had prestigious judges at the NIFF. Do people reach out to you to be judges now? Are you “chasing them around,” or are they asking to be involved directly?

Siamak Ghahremani: Back at the start, a friend of mine was on the show Commander in Chief with Geena Davis. Through his connections, we were able to secure three non-Iranian judges, along with Maz Jobrani and Shaun Toub. The opening ceremony that we had was actually the first Iranian red carpet event ever in the US, covered by CNN, the local channels, and so on.

We had great press, but it didn’t really blow up until after it was over and all the coverage came out. Then, the second year we got more judges and attained further prestige. These days, if there’s someone we want to tap as a judge, we’ve mostly had our pick.

The Iranian: It’s like, you essentially affected the change you were looking for. You had problems with CNN, and now you’re on CNN!

Siamak Ghahremani: I think it was our fourth year when Variety and The Hollywood Reporter had us on the first page. It made me feel like the festival is now an able platform.

The Iranian: So, when’s the next one?

Siamak Ghahremani: I moved to San Jose about eight or nine years ago, when I was getting ready to settle down with my wife. About 90% of everything to do with NIFF I’ve done on my own, including putting up funding for the earlier ones since I had no sponsors. When I got married and had kids all of this became really difficult.

Since I moved to San Jose, it’s hard to get to LA to set all this up. So, we’ve been doing it every two years now, and the next one should be in Fall of 2018.

Mr. and Mrs. Ghahremani

The Iranian: If you were asked to share three of the best Iranian films in recent memory to a neophyte, which would you share? They don’t have to be a final best-of list, just what comes to mind.

Siamak Ghahremani: You have to see Circumstance. A Separation, of course, although everyone knows about that one. And Baba Joon.

Baba Joon was an Iranian film made in Israel, and it was Israel’s submission to The Oscars last year. It starred Abu Nazir, who plays in Homeland, and he was a judge at NIFF before.

The Iranian: What advice might you give to young Iranian professionals in living in America during this present administration?

Siamak Ghahremani: When I make decisions in my life that are professional, I always try to understand the other side. I want to know where they’re coming from and why they have this position that they’re taking, what’s their reasoning for it. I see this as a huge problem, especially for people in our community. People get labeled because of the way the general public assumes that they are, so make sure you have a decent understanding of the person standing before you.

We have to learn from our mistakes, and Iranians have made a lot of mistakes. The Iranian-American community could be even further along in this country, but we’re not, because we haven’t had unity. We’ve often not stood by each other, or specifically stood against each other. We’re not united. The more united we are with others in our community as well as those without it, the better off we’ll be.

I try to look for similarities instead of differences. If you can concentrate on what you have in common with people rather than what your differences are, life would be a lot easier.

I hope my kids grow up in a country where they are judged by their character, and not prejudged purely based on where their parents come from or what they look like. My kids are the biggest FOBs that were born in the US! [laughs] We send them to Farsi emergence schools, they speak Farsi at home, listen to Persian music, and they even watch modern cartoons translated into Farsi—BUT, once they start school they’ll learn more English and all that. I wanted them to at least have this foundation in our culture.

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