March 8, 2001
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!