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Hate this movie
Selling "Maryam"to the Iranian community

By Ramin Serry
August 24, 2003
The Iranian

A young man raised his hand and, with a slight Middle-Eastern accent, said, "This is the most racist movie I have ever seen, and 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 Archive, 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.

Maryam, which is now being released on DVD and video, is about an Iranian family 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."

Their 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 film?"

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 shows 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 moment).

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? They call from Australia, Holland and Tehran... we are everywhere!"

But 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 when 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."

Far more 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 phone number?"

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 compete.

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