Interview with film producer/director Aryana Farshad
By Brian Appleton
April 15, 2004
Iran, The Unseen World"
A film by Aryana Farshad
Beverly Hills, Ca.
Narrated by Shohreh Aghdashloo
The first time I met Aryana Farshad and her parents and her six
siblings in Tehran was in 1966 when I went for my initial visit
at the age of 16 to Iran. I had gone there to spend the summer
with her next-door neighbors and family friends, whose eldest son,
Touss Sepehr, was my school friend from boarding school in Rome.
This interview was conducted this spring of 2004 over the course
of the past
six weeks with me tracking Aryana down by phone, mostly at 5 am, from my office
in San Jose, California to the studios in Beverly Hills to London to Paris
and back to Beverly Hills on the occasion of the first screening of her new
film in Europe under the sponsorship of the Iran Heritage Foundation.
Q: Aryana, I remember you quite clearly even though it
has been something like 36 years... crikey? How time flies! The
time I saw you (we were all young) I was 18 years old in Rome.
I went to dinner with you and your sister
Keyvan, Parvin Ansary (see my interview of Ms. Ansary called:
last colony") and her niece Saideh at the Maiella Restaurant.
thought of that till now. There were 7 women and me and I fought Iranian
style over who would pay the bill. I was the youngest but I insisted
on paying because
I was the only guy.
A: Whahhhhhh! I remember you. What a memory you have! Of course,
it was my sister Keyvan, Feri, Parvin, Saideh, myself, and two
other girl friends of
ours who went to dinner that night in Rome and you were the only young
man with us. Good old memories. Brian jan, you have to follow me
around by phone
for this interview since I will be leaving for London Feb 5th for a screening
and will be back in L.A. for another screening event March 8th for International
Women's Day! Lots of work to be done, empty handed, like the making of
the film and my life as a whole.
Q: Last time I saw you we had more of life ahead of us
than behind us and now we have more behind us than in front of
us. We were
both like clean
slates not knowing what we wanted to be yet. This keeps happening to
years ago I ran into Shohreh Aghdashlou in Cupertino, California after
23 years, back stage after her performance of "My Share of Father's House"
her husband Hushang Tozie.
The last time I had seen her was for a photo
in the garden of Touss Sepehr's yard next door to your family house
in Tehran. Don't you think it is odd that we should meet again
after all these years and also why does it appear to be the year for
Iranian Women: Nobel Peace Prize, Miss World Canada, Miss Germany,
of Iranian descent in German parliament, Best Supporting Actress Oscar
now your film! What is up?
A: Life is a cycle. It is a rule of the universe... . You have
to finish what you have started; if you start some energy with
a person you have
to finish it with them, you have to finish your karma with everyone.
Karma is not only
a bad thing but good business too. We are bundles of energy which attract
each other... it is no mystery to me to run into old friends again
these years and distance.
Regarding Iranian women rising to international stature, that
is not surprising to me either. First, it is not something that
night. As human
beings, we don't bloom over night. It took all of these incredible
women, years to come to the point of becoming successful in their
it certainly comes from having strong faith and belief in what they
do, what they
want to say and what their goal in life is. It requires dedication,
discipline, hard work, sacrifices and lots of pain. As Iranian women,
grew up in an open atmosphere in Iran or abroad.
When I lived in
Iran, we were
even more advanced than Western women, in many cases. If we get into
this, it will
be a long list and long story to tell. So it is not a surprise for
Iranian women to shine inside or outside Iran. Some of us were long
like Shohreh, myself and many others who are shining and will shine
at an international
In my case, I initially mastered my craft at a young age and was
already good at what I was doing and I was working at an international
postponed the process. We found ourselves in a different culture,
a different speed, and different thinking patterns. We had to
adjust to the new life style and culture, which was very different
So it took years to adjust, to learn and grow again.
For me, it was
into seclusion and solitude, evaluating my life, my abilities and
my goals and growing from the inside out. Along the road, there
being a foreigner, being an Iranian, being a woman, having an accent,
the negative feeling of Americans toward Iranians, financial problems,
ourselves and mostly lack of support from society and being alone.
Many years ago, I was working at one film studio in Hollywood.
To be accepted, I had to work 3 times more than the others to prove
Once I was
told by a colleague "why don't you go back to where you belong?"
Well, as you know me, I don't accept these kinds of comments very
asked this colleague what was his origin? We found out that he
immigrant family during WWII and hopefully he understood my situation.
I was told to change my name and tell people that I was European
or Canadian, due to the nature of my accent (French speaking background)
and my look.
refused and instead, I rushed to Sherkat Ketab in Westwood and
purchased many books about Iran, some even very expensive, like
Bridge of Turquoise
others. I took them to work or invited people to my home and educated
them about our history, culture, and life style. A grass roots
worked very well.
The pressure AND THE FALLS help you to bounce back stronger.
We all went through a rebirthing stage to become who we really
Q: So who are you now after all these years?
A: As I mentioned, I am a late bloomer, but at least, I
think, I am blooming. I want to do many things in addition to making
I want to
live, to experience, to travel, and meet different people from
different cultures and different life experiences and share it
books, documentary or feature films. The door to creativity is
one door. When the quest is truly from within, we can create what
I have spent 25 years of solitude in
the USA, after the
revolution. I had to go into solitude in order to come back out,
in order to recreate
I woke up one day and realized that I had no country, no father,
no mother, and no help. At first I panicked and cried for days.
that I grew up in a leisurely life style and very spoiled. Consequently
life was hard, very hard, but then I came to a conclusion: "I
have my health and myself... " I didn't allow myself the luxury
of depression, nor leisure... I went to work and worked hard, 14
hours a day and seven
days a week, and still do.
I take life as living in the moment and do my best, every day
to push forward. The rest, I can't predict it. Could you?
Q: Let us back up to the time before you came to the USA and
talk first about your childhood. I remember you had a large family
and your siblings, especially your two brothers. Who was the biggest
influence on you during childhood?
A: Dad was the biggest influence on me. I was very close to my
father. He was educated, honest, hard working and a giving man.
the younger generations for 60 long years. He loved his country
and would sacrifice for it. I use to wait up till midnight for
so I could sit
with him while he took his late supper, so that I could have a
chance to talk to him.
Q: What was he doing that he would be coming home so late?
A: He was a professor at Tehran University and later on became
the vice president of Tehran University and Dean of the Science
also helped found
Tehran University. He was a true teacher and very open minded.
The kids used to call him "Baba Agha" and he was father
to everybody and
everyone he could. There are stories about how my dad helped people.
In 2000, I traveled to Shomal on a business trip, when a local
man was introduced
to me at lunch. Upon understanding who I was, he immediately
threw himself at
my feet and told me everything he had was from my father's help.
It turned out that he had once been a paparazzi, who it happened,
one day harassed
my father's guests. In response, my father had told him that
he should get a real job and went on to help him. The man ended
for him at the University of Keshavarsi, in Sari.
Another time a burglar was caught in our old house; the house
where you had visited. The thief was trapped hiding under our dining
ordered everyone out of the room and he stayed in there and talked
to the thief alone till 4am, even promising to help him get a job.
dying day, he blamed himself that he had not been able to help
father believed that education was the key to leading a decent
life and to being independent, for men and women. He never discriminated
and women; never favored his sons over his daughters. He gave
me a philosophy to
live by. What I am doing right now. Live each day as if it is
your last. Be good to people, be giving... life is all about giving...
a flow of energy... a cycle of life.
Q: I understand that philosophy; that one must give in order
to get. I try to live by that same philosophy. Your father sounds
was a wonderful
person. I'm glad that I had the privilege to meet him. Let us continue:
When did you leave Iran?
A: I spent my childhood in Tehran. I had
very little knowledge of the rest of Iran.
I left for France when I was 18. Some of my character was formed
in Paris. I can say that is my favorite city.
Q: I noticed that you studied film making at "LIDHEC" (L'Institut
Des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques.) When did you first develop
an interest in filmmaking and what was it like studying there?
A: I had a passion for film from a very early age, like many
others. Mom took us to the movies from the time I was three years
Hollywood films were
big in Iran in those days. So, I developed a taste for films and
later I studied film makers' life stories and... I remember,
Hajir Dariush, - a film maker, a connoisseur of international films
president of Tehran International Film Festival. He started a film
club at a young age, maybe 17. So, we mingled with them from an
I studied French literature and language at the Sorbonne.
During this period I studied the existentialists; Andre Gide,
Sartre, Camus; once my French became good enough. I improved my
reading on the
Metro. I had a very busy life going to school all day and going
out all night...
In those days, film school was not considered acceptable for
an Iranian woman in general. One day I ran into Parviz Kimiavi,
He was the one who guided me on how to go about getting into the
school. I told
my dad about the film school. To my surprise, he asked me what
he could do to help! He also said that if he had his life to live
would want to become a film director.
I had to take a four-month
course just to pass
the entrance exam along with 2,000 competitors. The "L'IDHEC"
prepares you for the exam with introductions to art, cinema and
mostly French, music history, art history, literature... I passed
and was accepted into the institute where I studied for two years.
There were two big filmmaker
professors I studied with there: Jean Mitry, a documentary maker
and George Sadoul, a film critic. It was a very hands-on school
as Costa Gavras come from that background.
Q: I want you to tell me about working with Albert Lamorisse.
In preparation for this interview, I did some research on him and
I am extremely impressed
with him. He made only 8 short films (average 38 minutes each)
in his life, which was cut short at age 48 by a helicopter crash
films, two were awarded Oscars.
The second was awarded posthumously
for the film
he made in Iran. He invented an apparatus enabling filming from
a helicopter called
Helivision and used it while making "Le Vent des Amoureux" over
Iran which cost him his life. Also I would add that there is
no one of my generation who has not seen: "The Red Balloon" when
for which he won his first Oscar. He also invented and designed
many board games.
A: Albert was one of the best documentarians at the international
level. Despite his great achievements, he was a very down to earth
and very spiritual.
I remember, he was terrified of Tehran traffic and he used to
hold on to anything or anyone for dear life, in the car at times.
was in a
mystics who lived in Iran at that time. His film:" Lovers Wind"
Bad Saba, is about mythology, messages from the mythological winds.
entire film was shot from helicopter.
I did my internship with him. He was making that film through
the Ministry of Art and Culture. I spoke French and was a film
and so they
sent me to be his assistant. I think unconsciously, his work had
a big influence
I must tell you the story about that helicopter crash. Albert
as I said was a mystic. He had always had a premonition that he
water, in the Caspian Sea, but instead it was over the Karaj Dam.
The government insisted that he include footage of industrial
sites in order to show the West how much progress was being made,
though Albert did
not really want this part in his film. When we were scouting the
location at Karaj
Dam, he immediately expressed concern about all the high-tension
wires over the water and wondered how they would manage to fly
I believe he had confidence in his pilot and his Helivision
he knew more about the dangers than any body else in Iran. People
responsible at the office brushed aside his concerns, by assuring
him that he would
have the Shah's own personal pilot to fly the helicopter. The
day of the crash
I had called in sick. I learned about the shocking news a day
That was in 1970. His family was devastated. His wife went on
to finish the film from the notes he had left and submitted it
Q: What an amazing but tragic story. Karaj Dam always
scared the hell out of me. I remember the first time I went up
caught my hat and it was gone in a heartbeat. But what a privilege
it must have been for you to have known and worked with such a
now my ambition to see and revive an interest in that film; it
sounds like it
must be absolutely gorgeous: an aerial tour of Iran... by browsing
the Internet, I have located only one copy which is residing
in UCLA's library. Next I want to hear about your experience
of the judges at the Tehran International Film Festival.
A: I had only been back in Iran a few years and I was working
for the Ministry of Art & Culture, later at NIRT and I taught at
the Film and TV Institute of Higher Education. The late Hajir Dariush,
a pioneer in Iranian Cinema, -
not well known to the public but known among film makers- became
the Director of the Tehran International Film Festival. I had worked
with Hajir and the
late great documentarian, Bahram Raipour before.
I can say these
two great filmmakers were my mentors. Hajir asked me to collaborate
on the film festival.
I remember the first film festival. We were doing all the tasks
ourselves, from serving on the selection committee, to the scheduling,
invitations, etc... Tehran
International Film Festival grew very rapidly and unexpectedly.
Suddenly everyone wanted to be in Tehran and every body was in
Tehran. From Maestro Fellini,
to Gina, Goldie Hawn, Lauren Bacal, you name it...
Q: I remember. I ran right into Michelangelo Antonioni
during one of those film festivals in the lobby of the Tehran
III, pretender to the thrown of Italy, who was living in exile
A: Being a judge was a good experience
for me. I learned about the politics, which went along with merit
as far as who received
receive an award because he had been in the industry for 40 years
and had never been
recognized yet, even if there was a new guy who was just as good.
As a judge you make friends and enemies with your choices, and
a lot of
are generated as well. But you have got to go with your heart and
do the right thing.
Q: When and why did you leave France for the USA?
A: I came to the USA in the late '70's. US culture had
become the focus of the world. I wanted to experience the life
the new culture.
First I continued my higher education at USC and eventually, I
did work in my field, later, in the Hollywood studio system for
Columbia Pictures and Universal
Q: How did you find the US compared to your experience in Europe?
A: I find Europeans more intellectual, more cultured,
better read and with a more relaxed life style. In the USA, the
run by the major corporations. It is all about corporations, not
people and for
sure not education, intellect or spirit, just material things,
sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, and buy. Bigger house, bigger car,
identity is based on material possession. Sometimes, I think these
people are really lost in transaction, rather than "Lost in Translation."
live to buy, kind of slaves to our material world.
Q: I know: consumer culture has replaced culture. American culture
is: buying things! I tend to agree with you after having grown
up for 16
years in Europe
myself. Sometimes I feel that our government, our institutions
and our producers, in trying to "serve the needs of everyone" end
serving the needs
of no one. It is all become so impersonal here and lonely. So what
A: The Revolution made me stay. I had to start my life all over
and it took a long time. Survival became a real struggle.
Q: I know what you mean. I would have stayed on in Iran myself
if not for the Revolution. That life of 23 years ago seems almost
really happened. One of my Persian friends told me she returned
home for the first time since the revolution this year and could
everyone was to her.
She went to a palace, now turned museum and
was dismayed to find the tour guide pointing out that one of
next to the Shah's office, had been her father's. She identified
herself to the guide and the tour group as his daughter and everyone
was very curious to ask her a lot of questions. Many young people
A: The museum in Tehran was an out of body experience for us
too. One Friday morning, we were walking with one of my sisters
the Niavaran Palace. We decided to go in. The experience was unbelievable.
same thing; the guide was talking about recent history as if it
happened on the distant horizon, centuries ago.
Q: Let's get back to cinema. Tell me about some of the other
Iranian film directors and actors that you have known. I believe
a friend of Ghobadi? I found his "Marooned in Iraq" very moving
and powerful in its understatement.
I thought the way he had the
recurring sound of the American fighter
the background without any accompanying political diatribe, to
I also thought
it was fantastic how the Kurds were in such close communication
amongst themselves, despite the rugged mountainous landscape
their many villages, that they could immediately spot an outsider.
A: Ghobadi is very creative and talented. For the first time,
a Kurdish filmmaker is opening up a view to his culture, bringing
up the pain
and obstacles of
this region. His angles are very original. He is not duplicating
anyone else's efforts.
For the rest, I don't have a favorite though. I like many Iranian
filmmakers' work. My character is such that I only worship one
God, I don't create
lesser deities, just as with nature, I like all flowers not just
one over the others.
I have known Kiarostami for years. I find him extremely creative
and sensitive. He gives his audience room to think. I love his
visuals, very artistic
and poetic. He also tends to dwell on the morbid side of life and
harsh subjects of death and demolition, and yet, in such a delicate
I love his "Under the Olive Tree", it is a masterpiece. And
then, there is Rakhshan Bani Etemad with her soft and Forough-
portraying the society she lives in, and Majidi, Panahi, and
and his family. I admire Samira's work and her character. She
has this super
Talking about Iranian women rising to the international
level, Samira is one of the best known filmmakers. I was invited
International Film Festival, for "Mystic Iran." Samira was there,
judges committee for young filmmakers. She was the center for
the international press and she has been for many years. Her younger
sister, Hana is
Let's go back to the history of Iranian films. Many people who
are not in the business think that the rise of Iranian filmmakers
level is a new phenomenon, but in reality, it goes back to the
'60's. There were directors like Mehrjui and Kimiaii, who are conventional
filmmakers with a line of social stories and the late Sohrab Shaheed
Saless, who was very
well known in Europe in his day.
Saless and I worked together at
the Ministry of Art and Culture. When he came back from Europe,
where he studied films,
he wanted to make a feature film, but the people at the center
wanted documentaries. He got funding for a documentary and came
back with a docu-drama film about
a switchman for the railroad focusing on the repetitive and boring
aspects of life.
Again, Parviz Kimiavi, he was a pioneer too. His first documentary
film "Ya Zamen Ahoo" is a breathtaking work of art. He went on
no professional actors and using the beauty of Iranian landscapes.
"Bagh-e-Sangi" and "Mongols" are the same. The style of Kiarostami
and the new generation
has precedents. It has been carried and developed by them, but
not originated by him.
Q: Speaking of current, tell us about our friend Shohreh Aghdashloo.
A: The first time I saw Shohreh, I think it was around 1974 or
1975, in Shiraz. I was invited to the Shiraz Art Festival.
Ghaffari, film maker,
critic and film historian, was the president of this Art Festival.
us to go see Shohreh's performance. Shohreh, had dyed her hair
blonde for the character. I remember when I saw her act; I
felt that she
would become one of Iran's leading actors.
I saw her 23 years later in Los Angeles. When I finished the
rough cut of my documentary film, I was looking for a narrator.
a male voice, but when we decided to go from 3rd person to
1st person story telling style, I decided on Shohreh! It
had heard about
my movie and wanted to see it. She came to the studio to
watch the film. I remember she was in tears.
I asked her if she
and she said:
but it is not just that." I worked with Shohreh on the
narration, many nights, late into the night. I knew she was auditioning
for the "House
of Sand and Fog" part. One day, on her way to the studio
to read the narration, she got a call that she got the part.
studio, happy and in tears. Janelle Balnicke, my co-writer
and Pam Parker Mosher,
owner of the studio where I was cutting the film and myself,
we shared this moment
of excitement with Shohreh.
Shohreh is very intelligent.
will not do something that would not come from her heart.
and refused many
parts, which were not her line of work. When she agrees
to the part, she is easy to work with, very giving and very
read the lines
the film over and over again until she was happy herself,
even if I already was. She is an incredible actress with the
most beautiful voice.
I received some criticism from Iranians about Shohreh
documentary, due to her accent, but that is what I
wanted an Iranian speaking
because it was supposed to be me speaking. As soon
as Shohreh's Oscar nomination was announced, all of the sudden,
the criticism stopped
and turned to support. It was only the Iranians who
had been critical, mostly
coming from lack of confidence and shyness about our
Other non Iranians loved
her voice and performance.
Q: It's funny; human nature. It's not just Iranians who
are hard on themselves and need to hear a foreigner
say an Iranian
good at something before they believe it themselves;
it is the same
many American singers, writers, poets and actors had
to gain recognition in Europe
first before they got any recognition back home in
the USA. All the writers of the '30's in Paris; even rock
Hendricks started in Germany.
Speaking of Shohreh, what did you think of her nomination,
her role, her film and her not getting the Oscar
award? I myself thought she
but I thought the film was too dark and not typical
of the Iranian
immigrant's experience in the USA, which has actually
been largely a striking success
A: The fact that Shohreh was nominated for her very first American
film is a great thing. She just hadn't been in enough American
but this will help her to go further in her professional life
About the "House of Sand and Fog," I know people who loved it
and cried through it, and some didn't. It is a matter of personal
I think the film did bring some needed attention and dignity
to the plight of the Iranian Americans. Most of us lost everything
and worked very hard when we came here and we were alone and
by prejudice and had to recreate ourselves all over again. For
the first time,
a major American film is talking about our immigrant society.
It is attracting a lot of attention and I hope it helps change
feeling of hostility
toward our community.
Q: Let's talk about your new film now! To begin, if you
don't mind, I should like to tell the readers of my impression
screening that I had with just your DVD.
'Ary, it transfixed me!!! I sat spellbound without moving for
its entire 52 minutes. I believe that had I closed my eyes during
the Sama sessions that
I would have achieved an altered state.
Watching your film for
me was like
a religious experience. It was more than mesmerizing. You came
as close to portraying visually, an altered state of consciousness on film
as I have ever
seen. It is an impossible task to film an inner state of being
and the outer manifestation looks bizarre to the public and the eyes of most
yet even Christian fundamentalist evangelists have their rituals
and trance states and "speak in tongues;" as is mentioned in the Bible, so
it is not really as foreign as people would think.
of humanity passes through life in ignorance of the spirit dimension... most
modern individuals in post industrial societies around the world
hunger for spiritual truth and a purpose for life or put another
way, an experience
God... and our traditional churches have failed to provide this
and have become social clubs where the chance of gaining real
exceedingly slim. They take our money or failing that, our services
in kind on committees
and prayer groups and such. We can pray but that is only filling
our minds up with our own words. It is by meditating and quieting
that we make
room for the outside to come in instead of always our endless
clutter of thoughts streaming out.
I remember that as a teenager I was
and I had no one to talk to in the society around me in Washington
D.C. about what I was going through. Small wonder that mystics
throughout the ages have
had to be secretive. Two centuries ago we burned our witches
in this country and now we would give them psychiatric evaluations.
supposed to be applying
for college at the time and thinking about a major and all I
do was pursue mysticism but no Western university would offer
a degree in mysticism,
as they do now, so I had to settle for Anthropology which was
a distant second...
In my humble opinion science is not really
for God at all but rather
seeking ways of allowing an individual to harness nature and exploit
energy and technology to increase the illusion of ego. In fact
modern science seeks
to cure death and the aging process as if it is a disease rather
than a doorway to eternity. The wonderful thing about mysticism
it requires no proof;
one has only to experience it. We have lost touch with our inner
selves and this is the crisis of our modern times.
I recall the
words of Jesus: "Know
thyself... " if you want to know God. This is not the rule of hierarchical
priesthoods with seemingly endless lists of restrictions, like
the IRI, which is an extension of the rule of man. Sufis and mystics
have been martyred throughout
the ages because they are in touch with a part of human nature
that no Caesar can rule. No Caesar can rule our hearts.
It is in ritual with its shocks that challenge or bypass the
usual conventions of our senses that an awareness or communication
this greater reality
begins. We ordinarily cling steadfastly to the perceptions of
our ordinary senses in order to give a manageable definition to
is not the whole picture. That reality is but a small part of
the "Unseen World"
of which your film is like a small window or a knock on that
can suspend our self-censorship long enough to experience more
of what actually is the true nature of reality.
I mean, think of it this way; there was a time in Europe when
the church dictated that the earth was flat and the sun revolved
to the contrary, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake and Galileo
was forced to recant. So even science has had its martyrs in
the past; sacrificed
the corrupt powers of theocratic governing authority, who felt
threatened for their
insisting on the truth. Look at the Spanish Inquisition...
I also feel that today, this dark time we live in, is a storm
before the sun comes out and that we are on the dawn of a more
time. I think
is what most people really want around the world in their hearts.
Everything in your film was relevant I thought. Even the street
scenes in Tehran, in the beginning, capture the on going struggle
"progress" and "tradition"
which is still unresolved after 23 years post revolution.
I was impressed by the filming of the Zoroastrian ceremonies
inside the sanctuary of Pyr Sabz and also how many women saints
the media created global impression that women in Iran are not
considered the equals
of men. I find Zarathustra's notion that evil is a creation of
the human mind while goodness comes from God and the human heart
and relevant today. It occurred to me after 9/11 that there were
a million ways that this government could have responded, rather
and that a great opportunity to do good was lost.
You did a magnificent job of capturing on film the natural and
architectural splendor of Iran giving a context to the culture
of the dervishes
as well as the incredible landscape of mountains, deserts and
forests itself and
helped to shape the people and the religions of this at once
ancient and modern land.
I think it is especially important in
IRI has made
the entire world think of Iran as reactionary as well as the
US media painting Iranians into terrorists, that outsiders are
traditions of mysticism which still are alive and well albeit
secretive in Iran today
with cultural roots that are thousands of years old and always
with the same message that God is Love. This message is far
from the morality
morality trials, stonings,"religiously" sanctioned rapes, tortures
and executions that have characterized the rule of the IRI.
Also the beauty and light inside the shrine of Hezrat-e-Massoumeh
(another female saint) and the rapture on the faces of the devoted
of a voice to humanity's religious expression than any words
25 years ago I went into a shrine in Shiraz and
kissed the tomb
of the saint there mimicking the pilgrims who were like the gentle
waves of an inland sea pushing against a far shore. Seeing a
in your film
brought me right back to that long forgotten moment. Is it any
wonder that so many things of beauty especially in Iran have
the word" light"
them?" Garden of Light"," Sea of Light", "Mountain
of Light... " Even the word enlightenment has the word "light"
I loved the depth of your film, its simplicity, its respect for
history and past saints especially women, its respect for the
its message of love. I think it is wonderful that the dervishes
allowed you to film
their rituals knowing that it would be viewed by the world. It
as if they too believed in the great importance of your mission
and wanted you
to take their message out to the world in your film as well,
at a time when we are in, what I feel, is a new Dark Ages; one
Tell us about your own experience with mysticism and Sufism.
How old were you when you discovered this path and did you
were you trying to accomplish with this film?
A: We are all born with these abilities. Sometimes the universe
forces us and opens the door for us to use the hidden power.
didn't come until later and it was then that I went to see
masters at spiritual
centers and later on, at Sufi centers for guidance and to
understand what I was experiencing.
I have been on a spiritual path for a long time. I started
out practicing yoga and meditation when I was living in Paris
then I ended up
practicing Sufism later.
With mysticism you need a guide
at some point in
order to advance. It is hard to progress alone. I did not
have just one great master
but many masters in the U.S.A. and in Iran. I was told
that you don't have to look for the teacher; when the student
will come. The reason for my film and my going to Iran
in 2000 is that I want
about spirituality. I want to make a series of films on
spirituality in many parts of the world. This first one was about
because I know it
I was born there and know the language and the country.
It seemed like the best
place to begin. The next film may or may not be made in
This Ritual, for me, is a combination of bodily exercise, meditation
and prayer; it is all encompassing. I had a car accident in L.A,
me with back
problems. When I went through the women dervish ritual in Kurdistan,
my back pain left permanently. This ritual, sema and zekr, is
like yoga. It
practice, which involves the physical, mental and spiritual.
I am a filmmaker by training and that is what I do. With this
film, I wanted to share my spiritual growth and pass it to others.
easy to understand and easy to follow and I tried not to disturb
or exploit my
subjects either; it was a film from heart to heart.
makes Sanadaj such a hub of Sufi activity?
A: Sanadaj is more open to outsiders perhaps because it is
so remote from the central government and large urban centers.
Sufi centers in Kermanshah or Tehran where they are much
more secretive due to fear of government and non-believers.
Q: Once when I lived in Tehran back in the '70's as a teacher,
one of my students learned of the interest that my American
girlfriend at the time and I had in Sufism and he invited
us to a Sufi center
in Tajreesh of
all places right off the meydan which I had passed by many
times and never knew was there. The first thing I noticed
an old, old man sat smiling
in the doorway handing out paper money to everyone who
came in. That was my clue that something was very different here
I have never been into
any other church or temple where I didn't end up having
part with money rather than be given any.
Then I noticed
women though wearing
headscarves sat on the left side of the room in plain
view of the men on the right rather than behind them or in a
Eventually after what
seemed like a long time, we got to the part of the ritual
in which, up in front of the audience, there was walking
bare feet like in some
of the sequences in your film. I remember when I came
into the daylight, what a contrast it seemed like with
all the cars and buses and traffic noise
in such close proximity but a totally different mindset.
I wonder how you ever got the dervishes to consent to being
filmed? There must have been some very memorable experiences
had while making
Can you tell us about some of them? Tell us about that
lady dervish whom I consider the star of your film. You
one who was
A: Yes, you mean Aisha. We gave her the code name Aisha.
The most memorable experience I had was with Aisha.
In 2000, I had gone to Kurdistan and Sanandaj many times,
location scouting for the film. The first trip, I interviewed
were very kind. We smoked cigarettes together, which
made our Kurdish guide
very nervous. They promised to think it over about
being filmed, but no answer.
One day, our Kurdish guide asked me if I wanted to
meet women dervishes in Sanandaj. I ended up joining
I am not a spectator
a participant in life. After my participation with
them, the Khalife agreed to the filming at a later
and my crew to join her group of women dervishes
on a pilgrimage, which we did.
We started out at 3 AM following behind them in a
mini bus from Sanadaj to the village of Najar. We did not
9 pm... it
was a very long and mountainous drive.
When we got
there, we saw a huge
Sufi center. I
went to the second floor, which was the women's
center. It was a dorm style room, covered with kelims on
the floor. The women
the sema. I decided to take a picture, forgetting
were taking their scarves
off. Most unfortunately my flash went off and all
the women dervishes started shouting: "film, film" and
their heads with
scarves. Khalife told me to sit quiet. I went to
the corner and kept quiet.
Everyone quietly went off to sleep. I realized
that I had disrupted the ceremony.
One of woman dervishes, Aisha, was still in trance
and she was "speaking in tongues." I was alone
was asleep. I
was worried about Aisha. She kept crying, lamenting
as her friend came around, I asked her why Aisha
was in that state. I found out that her Sema
was stuck in
the cycle of sema. I went down stairs and asked
Sheik Najar's daughter in law to join the circle and play
the Daf. Aisha
the trance and dancing. Gradually one by one
the women dervishes sleeping
and joined the circle of Sama. We finished around
4:30 in the morning. I
got close to Aisha and her friend after this
episode. The scene of fire eating happened the next day,
at 6am, while
Q: What an incredible story.
A: Hostility and negativity can stop the flow of
positive energy and purification. The spirit
of the Sama can
be disrupted by
I heard one story in Sanandaj among the men
dervishes that once when they were
performing the ritual and Tighzani (they cut
themselves or swallow razor blades, stones etc... ) unexpectedly
bled. The sheik
walked right up to a non-believer in the audience
and asked him to leave. This is
why they normally don't allow outsiders. Nor
they perform for money.
Q: One of my friends told me that once, 40
years ago when she was in her late teens,
and Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus sent
agents to try to negotiate with some Kurdish chiefs
their circus. They
and told that if dervishes performed for
money they would lose their power.
A: It is neither for fashion nor a magic
show. Some dervishes have gone to Europe
is a performance,
not the real
Q: I have heard that Konya in Turkey has
become pretty much a show for the tourists
too. What a story!
during the making of the film, which you
would like to share with us?
A: On our first trip into Kurdistan, we passed
by two young men, carrying huge boxes up
the mountainside, miles from
anywhere. I asked the driver
and give them a ride. After several hours
of driving they asked to be dropped right
We stopped on the road a few times and
had lunch. Later,
we reached a plateau, on top
of the mountain and in the midst of it
there appeared this market out of nowhere.
were about 300
to 400 men,
and it was full
It looked like
a swap meet to me. I decided to stop
and see what was happening. I noticed also
given the ride,
to stop and kept driving, despite my
anger and frustration. Later I found out
that the market turned out to be a black
market, one of the spots where the
contraband goods, like cigarettes, alcohol,
electronics, weapons, and drugs exchanged
hands and entered
Iran, via Iraqi borders.
we could easily be kidnapped and disappear
in the mountains.
Q: Well I think you could write a whole
book about your experiences making this
Kurdistan. I am sure
that it will be
a great triumph for
you regardless of whether you end up
to National Geographic or PBS
or how it eventually
will come to market. I wish you all the
success with this film that it so richly
and I am sure
talk a little bit more about the cinema
industry in general and how you would
characterize the differences between
A: I think that creation and art
are the reflection of the people and the
they live in,
the soul of
and violence. If we go back to the
early films, such as Wild West and cowboys,
to the nowadays-virtual
there has been
script. It is still the good guys against
the bad guys, from chase scenes on
horse back, to fast cars, to airplanes, to
cruise missiles and
now virtual entities, it remains the
same scripts... Even the spiritual
are about bad spirits.
Q: You are right. Even in a comedy
such as:" Ghost Busters "the spirits
as evil and
demons to be fought.
think that it is all a part of the
conspiracy on the part of the capitalists
masses stuck on consumption. The
spiritual world is one area of existence, which
they would not
use the media
to make it a fearsome place to be
fought and avoided because they can't
in the market place.
Like I said
the culture of America is:
Dying is un-American and yet they
have even made a big industry out of the
funeral business... money, money,
religious holiday; Christmas, Easter,
Day has been commercialized
into opportunities to sell something
and go to bazaar.
I think violence and sex in the media
is a way of keeping consumers minds
the deeper values
in life and who
is really in control
and in charge of their lives. Consumption"
is the opiate of the people" or
as Julius Caesar once
In this way we remain indebted
wage slaves for
the capitalist oligarchy. Our cars
and our TVs even act
to cut us off
further from each other
get to share our grievances and
We live in cocoons afraid
of our neighbors,
afraid to let
in our front
yards, let alone
bike the neighborhood. We don't
each other here. I have never
lived in a society
desperation in isolation. Small
wonder people go postal. Why for example
would they make a film about
a woman serial
murderer and award her an Oscar?
It is sick when
you think about it, but as you
said our art
describes our culture.
A: There is definitely a love affair
with violence in American culture,
. but there is more
to the human experience than
fighting and destruction. Once
in a while, Hollywood makes a
are extremely creative
in the capital
of the movie industry, but it
seems like a facade. That's all.
the fact is
are very different.
have a human message, both emotional
and intellectual versus commercial.
look at the history of American
film. Where did it begin?
Q: Griffith, "The Birth of a
A: Yes, this was about war.
If you look at the history
the moment an actor shows
cries, they are up for Oscar.
The mainstream culture does
but it is based on materialism,
as we spoke.
Q: I know. Here the attributes
of machines are admired
over the foibles
I remember when I first
came back to America at age 16
I found that the only guys
I could make friends with
here who had
in the arts,
A: People have lost touch
with reality and I feel
TV and cinema
couple that thought
Q: I am reminded of how
difficult it was for
me to fathom the
liners hitting the
it looked so much
like just another disaster
movie like "Towering
Inferno" or "Titanic."
A: The US cinema is
into depth here
an idea to
something that sells.
no time to think
here. European movies
have more sensitivity
and leave more room
IRI there is
pressure from the
threat of censorship,
You have to look
for the hidden message.
to look with
the eyes of
Q: In my interview
with our mutual
we talked about
out of great
societies become decadent and
the great film
era was after
the war, which
was a time of
for their role
era of great
A: Well in a way,
you could say that
come out of
the country. Both
sides have suffered.
Q: You know I am
reminded of something
which was that
country and forced so many
exile, the refuges took
world with them
for the benefit
keeping it confined
to the remote
fastnesses of Tibet. I
about this until
out into the
world from its seclusion
is a great
the rest of humanity.
A: They say "Gol Niloofar grows out of ab lajan." (The water lily
grows out of stagnant water.)
Q: Now, I want to thank you for the privilege you gave
me of seeing your film and the time you have sacrificed from
schedule to make this interview.
Thanks again!!! It's been incredible and I'm sure the readers
will agree that it has been a real education. I will miss our weekly phone
A: Sorry for the delays and for making you chase me from city
to city, and country to country on the phone, to finish this interview,
but this is the
American life style!
.................... Spam?! Khalaas!