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Extreme filmmaking
People in the film business are gangsters. In Iran, it's extreme.

Jason Rezaian
July 8, 2004

I never thought making a film would be easy. And when I decided to make my first one in Iran, it often seemed as though the idea of finishing the thing was more of a fairy tale than something that might actually happen.

It was almost two years ago that a friend and I started to write our proposal. There were characters and interviews, scenes in mosques and the bazaar. We were going to do it all and we were very excited. We even raised a considerable amount of money to get the project of the ground, getting non-profit status to further help our cause.

From the beginning I was committed to making a film that would be different than all of the others I'd seen about Iran: it would question, not confirm, the many stereotypes by Iran and Iranians held by Westerners. Since that was my primary goal and I believe we have accomplished that, it's okay with me that we have veered so far from the original plan.

You may have heard that people in the film business are gangsters. This seems to be true around the world. In Iran it's extreme. Film people are worse than rug merchants. When I first arrived in Tehran I was invited to meet a well-known Iranian director who told me of his colleagues, “Stay away from these people. They're the scum of the earth.”

I assumed that he and the others I met had been jaded by all the restrictions in Iran and the cutthroat approach of movie producers. They were artists and couldn't be bothered with the business side of making films I thought. I was wrong.

During the first two months in Iran I began and cut negotiations with several companies who wanted to “produce my film”, which is a loose translation for wanted to “take my money.”

We would stay in only the finest hotels. They told me. A chef will be with you at all times. You will have a driver and perhaps he will speak English. Your crew will be the best in the Middle East. We will have Kiarostami's cameraman and soundman and the one who does the lighting for Beyzaie. We will find the finest young actors in the land...

It went on and on like this. I tried to explain that the film was to be a very intimate documentary. A crew of no more than three or four at a time, including myself. And there was to be no actors; we wanted real life.

But the producers couldn't get passed the green they were envisioning that, as I young American who actually made it to Iran and was in negotiations with them, I must have had access to. They were wrong.

Finally, I realized I was wasting too much of my money by not getting started. The expenses were piling up; an apartment, phone calls to my girlfriend back home, food. I knew I was in trouble when I had to give up dar bast taxi rides.

Instead of dealing with the problem head on though, I ignored the producers. They would call and I wouldn't answer. They'd leave a message, I wouldn't call back. For a couple of weeks I even stopped answering my door. They were that persistent. At the end of June they stopped calling.

I thought, naively, that when we began shooting, all of our problems would magically disappear. I have to admit, once the camera started to roll things got more fun, but by no means was it easy.

Our production manager was a famous TV actor named Behrouz, who was able to get us the required permits in a couple of hours, which none of the others who I spoke with was ever able to do, and he did it before I gave him a single rial. This feat won him the job. And his recognizable mug would get us out of several jams along the way, as well as save us money and make sure that we were fed on a couple of occasions when shooting went well into the night.

Our cameraman was a good friend of Behrouz's named Hossein. Hossein had worked with many outstanding directors, and had a reputation as having a steady hand. He did his job well, but no one warned us of his propensity to talk on the phone, which he did almost constantly between takes.

We set out on a location trip to visit the young people I had chosen to tell the stories of Iran's contemporary generation. They were scattered around the country in Mashhad, Esfahan, near the Caspian and in Tehran. They had all agreed enthusiastically to participate in the film. And when we arrived they all gave us the excuses of why they couldn't do as promised. In this instance tarouf would turn out to be very expensive.

My partner in the projects and its director Nader, one of the last honest guys around, tried to keep it all together.

On the third day Nader and Behrouz came to me. Our approach of filming a single character wasn't cutting it. Not only were our characters not giving us the access we needed to see into their lives, they were hamming it up for the camera, too. It made for some very boring home movie type footage.

After a long chat we decided that I should be part of the picture, as a sort of bridge between Iran and America. And soon, as documentary films often do, we were on a different path entirely.

For the next two months we traveled around Iran filming in locations that truly represent the contrasts and beauty of Iran. We give a window into the Iran that actually exists at the moment. Not a complete view, but an honest one. I am always encouraged when someone sees our footage and asks “Are you sure that's Iran?” It's a question I get all the time from non-Iranians and Iranians alike.

It looks like the dream of completing the film is becoming a reality. We've produced a work in progress piece that has been getting very positive feedback from the audiences who've seen it [ film festival in San Francisco]. With any luck (film speak for: more funding) we'll be finished by the end of the summer.

If you'd like to learn more about the film or how to contribute, visit my website.

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