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March 8, 2001
The Iranian

Recently I met an amazing young man. His name is Ramin Serry and he is a film director. The American reaction to the hostage crisis after the 1979 revolution affected him so deeply as a teenager that he has now made a movie which I think is amazing. The movie releases in the SF film festival this week and you should see it if you can. It will likely move to the community later and there is a definite buzz on this one folks! Anyhow, what better way to continue on with my series on exciting Iranians doing exciting things! What follows is my interview with Ramin.

B-Ramin, what made you even consider this idea in the first place? I mean, why not go to work for the industry? Why not work with Joel and Ethan?

R-Part of it's probably because I'm in New York, where there's a lot less temptation to work in Hollywood. But a lot of it has to do with being me being really naive. I remember I'd just gotten my masters from Columbia film school and didn't have much to show for it. I made two short films but they didn't get very much attention. New York was feeling claustrophobic so I decided to take a trip out west to figure out the rest of my life. I drove from Seattle to LA on Highway 1 and 101. Somewhere between Portland and San Francisco, it hit me. In a rented car, driving by a bunch of cows, I realized that I wanted to do a film about Iranians during the hostage crisis.

Somehow I just knew it. And when you get an idea that you know is right, it's a great feeling. I remember jumping up and down in the car. The idea of making a film which explored that part of me felt pretty liberating, like some kind of psychological breakthrough. I grew up in the U.S., thinking I was a typical American. But when the revolution happened and the hostages were
taken, I was teased and attacked in school and it totally screwed up my personality for the rest of my life. I became ashamed of being Iranian and wanted to hide it.

But as I grew older, I became more curious about my roots. I figured that if I could make a film about being Iranian, maybe I could cure some of my own problems. But if I knew then how hard it was going to be, I wouldn't have done it. A lot of people said it was a bad idea. When I first started passing around the script, one of my teachers said "You're never gonna get any action on this movie cause it stars a bunch of Iranians." Even some Iranians told me that I should drop it because nobody wants to see a film about Iranians. I've been spending a long time trying to prove them wrong.

B-What made you choose the cast you did?

R-My producer Shauna and I knew that we wanted actors who were very talented and hopefully were also Iranian. That made it really rough. There aren't a lot of people to choose from. We auditioned people in New York and found a few great actors but they weren't quite right. So we went to LA and saw dozens of young Iranians in this tiny room during this awful heatwave. Everybody was sweating. It was hell. Most of the girls we saw for "Maryam" weren't very confident. I bet they don't get much encouragement to be actors from their Iranian parents. And some of them cared too much about their looks. I think they thought it a fashion show or something.

But Mariam Parris was this really strong and confident bundle of energy. Plus she had this bright, pretty face. The second we saw her, we knew she was "Maryam." The same thing for David Ackert who we picked for "Ali". David's one of these multi-talented people who'd be great at almost anything. Plus he's got these chiseled, classically handsome features. Later we found out that he's the grandson of Rouhollah Khaleghi, the guy who wrote the pre-Islamic Iranian national anthem.

Maziyar Jobrani, plays "Reza" and he's this gifted comedian who'd never done a film before. But Maz was so funny in his play that I saw, "The Be-lind Date and the Wedding" that I had to cast him. Now he does regular stand-up comedy at The Comedy Store in LA.

Finding the parents was even tougher. Shaun Toub is a great actor who's been in some big Hollywood movies and he's all over TV. Watch for him on The Sopranos. He blew us away in the auditions but we were scared that our movie was too small for him. But Shaun was very cool from the start.

He helped us get Shohreh Aghdashloo who's a big star in the Iranian community. We felt really lucky to have her. At first she scared me because she's this sophisticated intellectual who likes challenging, avant-garde-type stuff and my movie is more straight-ahead entertainment. But Shohreh was totally enthusiastic the whole time and cooked all this great Persian food for the crew. Everyone fell in love with her.

All the actors made the film more real because they really understood the characters. David emigrated to the United States as a ten-year-old and he had a rough time in school. Shohreh had experiences with the Savak secret service, so she knew all about that. And Mariam was too young to know much about the revolution so she was perfect because the character doesn't know much either. They were all amazing and it shows in the film.

B-How long did the film take to make? From concept to can.

R-Too damned long. I got the idea on that highway back in 1995. Then I spent 3 years writing it off-and-on. We shot it in the fall of 1998 in 25 days which is not a lot but pretty standard for a low-budget movie. We finally premiered the film at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in April of 2000 and we've been to a bunch of festivals since. It's been a long time but it's worth it. The audience reaction has always been great.

B-Why this film now?

R-Mostly because I was being encouraged by my girlfriend, Shauna, who is also the producer of the film. We're a team and I wouldn't have been able to do it without her. But my reasons were also very selfish. I wanted to let everyone know what a rough time I had as a kid. This was my chance to complain.

But then I started talking to all these other Iranians who also had bad experiences and were also having a hard time figuring out who they are. I wanted the film to speak for all of us and tell a side of the story that hadn't yet been told. I figured the subject was great because everyone remembered the hostage crisis. But I was wrong. From talking to people about the project, I started to realize that the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis were fading from memory.

In America, the crisis was more of a media event than anything else. It helped bring down Jimmy Carter, but it wasn't as profound a part of American history as, say, the Vietnam War or Watergate, so it doesn't get passed down from generation to generation as part of an oral history. I couldn't get any older Iranians to talk about it. They'd rather forget it completely.

So I started to feel a duty to preserve this part of history and keep it from totally disappearing. Also, the new signs of reform in Iran were pretty encouraging. I thought it was a good time to look back on those events with a fresh perspective and objectivity. In a way, though, I wanted to make a timeless film and I think it shows in the style.

B-What do you think about the recent burgeoning popularity of Iranian filmmakers like Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf in the international film scene?

R I think generally it's really great. I didn't really know anything about Iranian films and then sometime around 1994, a friend of mine told me about a film called "The Runner" by Amir Naderi. I was in LA and saw a copy of it in a store so I bought it. I was glad that it had English subtitles because I don't speak Persian. That's another story.

Anyway, I watched it and thought it was an amazing film. Really great. Then "Through The Olive Trees" was released in the U.S. and I loved that too. And then suddenly Iranian films started winning all these awards. I couldn't believe it. The whole thing took me by surprise.

Since then, I've seen more Iranian films, some good, some bad. I don't have much in common with those guys and I'm not really influenced by Iranian films, but I've taken the time to learn more about their history. These guys have been making films for decades and it's only just recently that they've become trendy.

Also, there are a lot of films made in Iran that don't make it out of the country. Another thing is that not many Iranians in Iran actually go to see these films. They're not as popular in Iran as you'd think.

B-Personally I have found their films to be a bit too predictable in their simple and overuse of symbolism and metaphors. I'm also tired of seeing Iran depicted as a 3rd world 19th century hovel? What is your opinion of their films?

R-Those guys are working with a lot of restrictions so I understand why they keep retreading the same subjects. It must be hard for them but in a way, the restrictions are the reason why the films are so good.

The popular films that are given awards use a documentary style called "Neo-realism" that started in Italy in the 40's. The Italians came up with it when their government took over the film industry, just like in Iran. It's a great style but it can get tiring when the film is bad.

But I've been to a lot of festivals and seen films from other countries and I have to say, it's uncanny how good so many of the Iranian films are. There are not a lot of good films in the world, period. So I think that we should be proud because there's already a feeling in the air that this trend is over and that the popularity of Iranian films is dying. In a few years, we might be wondering what happened to Iranian Cinema.

Looking back on it though, I'd say my favorite is still "A Moment of Innocence" by Makhmalbaf, followed by "Saalam Cinema" also by Makhmalbaf. My least favorite has got to be "The Taste of Cherries" which I thought was terrible and amazingly overrated. Believe me, I understand all the multi-layered meanings but I can't forgive it because it forced me to look at the side of a guy's face for an hour.

B-Do you have plans to take your film to Iran?

R-Someday, I'd like to, but I'm not sure how I'd approach them. My film is American but it's an Iranian family, so it's confusing. There are women with their heads uncovered, there's dancing and there's kissing. Also, the film has people talking pretty bluntly about the politics of the time. It's not like anything ever shown in Iran. But if I can find a way, I'd love to screen it there.

B-You know they will be dying to see it as soon as they can on pirate video!

R-Tara Bahrampour, The New York Times reporter, said something about the movie that I think is probably true. She said that many Iranians would love it because many Iranians in Iran wonder what their lives would be like if they had moved to the U.S. and "Maryam" shows a family doing just that. So maybe you're right. It could be a huge hit.

B-What do you want the Iranian-American audience to take away from this film?

R-I want the film to be really entertaining and to touch people. That's been my approach from the beginning. Also, I wanted to make a movie that both older and younger Iranian-Americans could enjoy. I wanted to let the younger generation know what it was like for people who were around during the revolution. Hopefully the film can serve as a kind of easy reference for when the subject comes up. And I wanted the older generation to see that not everything about Iran has to take a political position.

Before I made the movie, some older Iranians were pretty angry with the script, saying that it was politically naive or that I was too nice to "this side" or to "that side". Some even urged me to take a stand, saying that it was my moral obligation. They didn't understand my point of view. They could only look at things through a political filter.

So in a way, I wanted to show them that there is a younger generation out there that wants to move beyond the politics of the past. It's a positive movie that looks to the future with a lot of optimism. And it's full of funny moments. If the film weren't entertaining, I don't think that with this subject matter, it would have made it this far.

B-Okay how about a bit about yourself. When/where you were born, where are you from, when did you come here and what is your educational background?

R-My mom and dad are both doctors who came to the U.S. after meeting each other in medical school in Iran. My dad's a cardiovascular surgeon and my mom is an anesthesiologist. Both of them lived in Tehran but were from families who were originally from Azerbaijan. I guess I'm a "Tork" so you can make all the jokes you want!

When my parents first came to the States, they thought it would be just to do their residencies and then go back to Iran but, like a lot of people, they stayed. I was born in 1968 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. I grew up loving the Cubs and The Who and hanging out at the mall.

My parents worked a lot and weren't home much, so I never learned Persian. That's been a big problem for me my whole life. I always get embarrassed at big parties. I went to Iran once when I was five and I've had a lot of cousins come over but I still can't speak the language.

I was much more influenced by American TV and my friends in school. I went to college at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Like a lot of Iranians I tried to please my parents and studied pre-med but it was a huge disaster. I nearly failed out of school.

I switched to English Literature and decided to go to film school, and suddenly things got back on track. That's also when I met Shauna and we've been together ever since. After college, I moved to New York to go to Columbia University's graduate film school. Now Shauna and I live together in downtown Manhattan.

B-What made you go into moviemaking?

R-Like a lot of people I always loved movies since I was little. My best memory is of my dad taking me to see "The Sting". I barely understood it but I loved it. I also loved that my dad was taking me to a "grown-up" movie. When "Star Wars" came out, I became a fanatic fan. I wanted to learn everything I could about how they made the movie.

Pretty soon, I was going to as many movies as I could. Ever since I can remember, I had this talent for drawing. I was constantly drawing for hours in front of the TV. Usually it was superheroes like Superman or Batman. But then I started winning a bunch of awards for my artwork in school so I got used to being called an "artist."

I used drawing to win friends in school, usually drawing caricatures of teachers and friends. I was also acting in school plays, usually playing the lead roles. But I gave it up when my dad told me that nobody would hire me because of the way I looked. I remember once in high school I played a cowboy and someone said, "I've never seen an Indian cowboy before."

When I got into college, I started writing short stories and I really loved it. So filmmaking seemed pretty natural because it's a combination of all the things that I was good at. After my sophomore year of college, I took a summer filmmaking class at New York University. It was a very intensive class that threw us out onto the streets with cameras. I loved it and knew that it was what I wanted to do.

I was also introduced to New York which I thought was the best place in the world. So I talked to some people who said that graduate film school was the way to go and I applied and got into Columbia which was very hot at the time because a student from there had just won an Academy Award. We were all pretty excited to be there. Independent film was just starting to happen. We didn't know that in a few years it would be dead and that the Internet was gonna take over. By the time I made "Maryam" the market for independent films had dried up. Oh well.

B-What are your favorite movies?

R-For a long time, through junior high my favorite movies were "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back". They were the reigning champions. I liked "Raiders of the Lost Ark" too. Then, in high school it was "The Godfather". Then "The Godfather Part II" which in a way is better than the first.

By college, I became obsessed with Martin Scorsese and everything he did. I loved "Raging Bull" and "Goodfellas." I also started watching "Chinatown" by Roman Polanski over and over again. I loved "Nashville" by Robert Altman. When I saw "The Kingdom" and "Breaking the Waves" by Lars von Trier, I thought, this guy is amazing. Right now I'm trying to see films from the French New Wave which I'm liking a lot.

B-Which movie have you seen recently? What did you think?

R-I finally saw this film, "Yi Yi" which everyone has been saying is great. I liked it a lot. It's beautifully shot and it's very touching. It's a 3-hour story about a pretty average middle-class family in Taiwan. It shows them struggling with some pretty common life issues. And even though I liked it, I was thinking about how if the movie were about an American middle class family, it would never see the light of day. Maybe it would be on TV. But even if it were beautiful, it probably wouldn't make it into the smaller art theaters. There's a whole classification of films in the art theater circuit that's as rigid as Hollywood.

B-What CD are you listening to in your car or home right now?

R-I liked the indie rock movement so I'm a big Pavement fan. It's part of my midwestern roots. The lead guy from Pavement, Stephen Malkmus just put out a solo album so I'm listening to that. I'm also listening to Radiohead. Shauna's really into PJ Harvey so that's on in our house all the time.

B-Ok, the most important question- what is your favorite Iranian dish, and where do you get it when you're jonesing!

R-I like some good old-fashioned chelokebab and one of my favorite places is a little restaurant in Chicago called Noon-O-Kebab. It's amazing!

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