Hate this movie
Selling "Maryam"to the Iranian community
By Ramin Serry
A young man raised his hand and, with a slight Middle-Eastern
accent, said, "This is the most racist movie I have ever seen,
I want to know, what the hell was your motivation?"It was
May, 2000, and my first feature film, Maryam,
had just been screened for a packed audience at the Pacific Film
in Berkeley, California.
I was conducting a Q. & A., and this
was the first response. A little startled, I dismissed the question
and moved on to another raised hand. A young woman declared that
the film "fails as a political vehicle" because it
backs away from fully criticizing anti-Iranian
prejudice. Another young woman agreed. This audience was starting
to seem hostile. Oh well, I thought, at least they are here.
Controversy was fine. The greater challenge was figuring out how
to get the
Iranian-American community -- an elusive, factionalized group
-- interested enough to come and see the movie.
which is now being released on DVD and video, is about an Iranian
living in New Jersey during the revolution
and hostage crisis of 1979. Mary (Mariam Parris), a 17-year-old
girl, sees herself as a typical American teenager until her cousin,
Ali (David Ackert), comes to live with her and her parents (Shaun
Toub and Shohreh Aghdashloo). Ali is filled with revolutionary
spirit and holds a grudge against Mary's father. When the
hostage crisis leads to an American backlash against Iranians,
Mary finds herself questioning her cultural identity, as Ali, increasingly
frustrated, chooses a violent course of action.
When I told people that I wanted to make this film, some Iranians
said, "Why do you want to bring us back to that painful time?" or
"Nobody wants to see a film about us -- do a sex comedy."
skepticism was understandable, but serious resistance to the project
arose when we started to make the film. When our production designer
visited Iranian shops, in search of a backgammon board to use in
the film, she was confronted with, "Is this a Muslim or Jewish
A young actor auditioning for "Ali" explained
to me, "I can't say 'death to the Shah'. My
mother loves the Shah. She says if I do this film I could be killed." Another
actor, whom we were considering for the part of Maryam's
father, yelled at me on the phone, "You are so politically
naïve. This Ali boy is too nice. And the father has no opinions.
He's a potato!"
And a very well-known Iranian actor
wrote a letter refusing to be associated with the project because
it was, as he put it, "sympathetic to the Islamic Republic." (His
daughter later auditioned to play Maryam, the lead role.)
In November, 2000, Roger Ebert saw Maryam and
wrote a wonderful review. With Ebert's support, we felt encouraged
to release the film in theaters, where we could reach a larger,
more diverse audience. We worked hard marketing the film to Americans.
But I had a particular interest in attracting the Iranian community,
especially younger Iranians, for whom I hoped the film offered
special value and appeal.
So I took on the unenviable task of dealing with the Iranian
media. With a few exceptions, Iranian newspapers and satellite-TV
were not interested in covering the film unless we paid for advertising.
Some were polite about it, others were quite aggressive. Determined
to reach our audience, we played the game and spread around what
little money we had for grassroots advertising.
Just before we
opened the film in Los Angeles, I did what I thought was an impressive
number of interviews: five on TV, three on the radio and a handful
in print. We ran TV and radio ads several times per day. I bombarded
Iranians with thousands of emails, postcards and, with the help
of some of the actors and some wonderfully helpful college students,
many thousands of flyers. I even hung around in Persian internet
chat rooms, pretending to be a big fan of the film (not my proudest
Then, on opening night, a few people approached me and
asked, "Why aren't you promoting this film in the Iranian
community?" Satellite-TV talk-show hosts are proud of the
phone calls they receive from far-flung viewers. They say, "See?
from Australia, Holland and Tehran... we are everywhere!"
most young Iranians in the U.S. are not watching these shows. They
think Iranian TV is ridiculous and, generally, only watch when
their elders are tuning in. The same is true regarding Iranian
newspapers, magazines and movies. I've received many emails
from Iranian teenagers saying that they loved the movie, but wouldn't
have seen it if they hadn't been dragged by their parents
because they "usually hate Iranian movies."
Student groups and Iranian cultural societies were by far the
most effective in spreading the word and bringing in crowds. And
the crowd gets big, the room starts to buzz and the opinions start
to fly. At the Berkeley screening, some students felt that Ali
promoted the stereotype of Iranians and Muslims as "fanatics".
A couple days later, at a screening in San Francisco, a man complained
that Ali was "too sympathetic" and should have been
portrayed more negatively, to "really show how these bastards
were." In New York, an angry woman asserted that I had shirked
my "responsibility to represent Iranians."
often, however, people have said, "I was just like Maryam" or "I
was just like Ali." Of course, there have been other kinds
of questions: "Is Shaun Toub the guy from 'Bad Boys'?"or
"Why isn't there more of Shohreh Aghdashloo? Do you have her
But when the film sparks a crossfire of opinions
I feel that I am achieving one of my most important goals: to provoke
within the Iranian community thoughts and questions about important
issues specifically related to their lives.
Years after making the film, I continue my grassroots struggle
to reach the community, now armed with a DVD. For inspiration,
I look to this very publication, or to the growing National Iraniann
American Council (NIAC).
One challenge is the mystery surrounding
how many Iranians are in the
U.S. I often hear impressive numbers: "Did you know that
there are two million Iranians in Orange County?" Trusted
sources estimate the total number in the U.S. to be slightly more
than one million. No matter, an Iranian sociologist told me that
the challenge may simply be this: the strongest motivation for
people is what pleases them "below the neck." Parties,
dancing and food will always bring out the bigger crowds. Anything
"above the neck" -- politics, poetry, films -- just can't
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