The first time I met Aryana Farshad and her parents and her six siblings in Tehran was in 1966 when I went for my initial visit at the age of 16 to Iran. I had gone there to spend the summer with her next-door neighbors and family friends, whose eldest son, Touss Sepehr, was my school friend from boarding school in Rome.
This interview was conducted this spring of 2004 over the course of the past six weeks with me tracking Aryana down by phone, mostly at 5 am, from my office in San Jose, California to the studios in Beverly Hills to London to Paris and back to Beverly Hills on the occasion of the first screening of her new film in Europe under the sponsorship of the Iran Heritage Foundation.
Q: Aryana, I remember you quite clearly even though it has been something like 36 years… crikey? How time flies! The last time I saw you (we were all young) I was 18 years old in Rome. I went to dinner with you and your sister Keyvan, Parvin Ansary (see my interview of Ms. Ansary called: “The last colony“) and her niece Saideh at the Maiella Restaurant. I hadn't thought of that till now. There were 7 women and me and I fought Iranian style over who would pay the bill. I was the youngest but I insisted on paying because I was the only guy.
A: Whahhhhhh! I remember you. What a memory you have! Of course, it was my sister Keyvan, Feri, Parvin, Saideh, myself, and two other girl friends of ours who went to dinner that night in Rome and you were the only young man with us. Good old memories. Brian jan, you have to follow me around by phone for this interview since I will be leaving for London Feb 5th for a screening and will be back in L.A. for another screening event March 8th for International Women's Day! Lots of work to be done, empty handed, like the making of the film and my life as a whole.
Q: Last time I saw you we had more of life ahead of us than behind us and now we have more behind us than in front of us. We were both like clean slates not knowing what we wanted to be yet. This keeps happening to me lately. Two years ago I ran into Shohreh Aghdashlou in Cupertino, California after 23 years, back stage after her performance of “My Share of Father's House” with her husband Hushang Tozie.
The last time I had seen her was for a photo shoot in the garden of Touss Sepehr's yard next door to your family house in Tehran. Don't you think it is odd that we should meet again like this after all these years and also why does it appear to be the year for Iranian Women: Nobel Peace Prize, Miss World Canada, Miss Germany, first woman of Iranian descent in German parliament, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination, and now your film! What is up?
A: Life is a cycle. It is a rule of the universe… . You have to finish what you have started; if you start some energy with a person you have to finish it with them, you have to finish your karma with everyone. Karma is not only a bad thing but good business too. We are bundles of energy which attract each other… it is no mystery to me to run into old friends again after all these years and distance.
Regarding Iranian women rising to international stature, that is not surprising to me either. First, it is not something that happens over night. As human beings, we don't bloom over night. It took all of these incredible women, years to come to the point of becoming successful in their crafts and it certainly comes from having strong faith and belief in what they want to do, what they want to say and what their goal in life is. It requires dedication, discipline, hard work, sacrifices and lots of pain. As Iranian women, we initially grew up in an open atmosphere in Iran or abroad.
When I lived in Iran, we were even more advanced than Western women, in many cases. If we get into this, it will be a long list and long story to tell. So it is not a surprise for Iranian women to shine inside or outside Iran. Some of us were long overdue, like Shohreh, myself and many others who are shining and will shine at an international level.
In my case, I initially mastered my craft at a young age and was already good at what I was doing and I was working at an international level. The revolution postponed the process. We found ourselves in a different culture, a different speed, and different thinking patterns. We had to learn all over and adjust to the new life style and culture, which was very different than ours. So it took years to adjust, to learn and grow again.
For me, it was like going inside, into seclusion and solitude, evaluating my life, my abilities and my goals and growing from the inside out. Along the road, there were major obstacles, being a foreigner, being an Iranian, being a woman, having an accent, the negative feeling of Americans toward Iranians, financial problems, work problems, proving ourselves and mostly lack of support from society and being alone.
Many years ago, I was working at one film studio in Hollywood. To be accepted, I had to work 3 times more than the others to prove myself. Once I was told by a colleague “why don't you go back to where you belong?” Well, as you know me, I don't accept these kinds of comments very well. I asked this colleague what was his origin? We found out that he came from an immigrant family during WWII and hopefully he understood my situation.
Many times, I was told to change my name and tell people that I was European or Canadian, due to the nature of my accent (French speaking background) and my look. I refused and instead, I rushed to Sherkat Ketab in Westwood and purchased many books about Iran, some even very expensive, like Bridge of Turquoise and many others. I took them to work or invited people to my home and educated them about our history, culture, and life style. A grass roots education, which worked very well.
The pressure AND THE FALLS help you to bounce back stronger. We all went through a rebirthing stage to become who we really are and who we are today.
Q: So who are you now after all these years?
A: As I mentioned, I am a late bloomer, but at least, I think, I am blooming. I want to do many things in addition to making documentary films. I want to live, to experience, to travel, and meet different people from different cultures and different life experiences and share it with others, in any format, photographs, books, documentary or feature films. The door to creativity is one door. When the quest is truly from within, we can create what we want, from intuition.
I have spent 25 years of solitude in the USA, after the revolution. I had to go into solitude in order to come back out, in order to recreate myself. I woke up one day and realized that I had no country, no father, no mother, and no help. At first I panicked and cried for days. You have to understand that I grew up in a leisurely life style and very spoiled. Consequently life was hard, very hard, but then I came to a conclusion: “I have my health and myself… ” I didn't allow myself the luxury of depression, nor leisure… I went to work and worked hard, 14 hours a day and seven days a week, and still do.
I take life as living in the moment and do my best, every day to push forward. The rest, I can't predict it. Could you?
Q: Let us back up to the time before you came to the USA and talk first about your childhood. I remember you had a large family and I remember your parents and your siblings, especially your two brothers. Who was the biggest influence on you during childhood?
A: Dad was the biggest influence on me. I was very close to my father. He was educated, honest, hard working and a giving man. He dedicated his life to educate the younger generations for 60 long years. He loved his country and would sacrifice for it. I use to wait up till midnight for him to come home so I could sit with him while he took his late supper, so that I could have a chance to talk to him.
Q: What was he doing that he would be coming home so late?
A: He was a professor at Tehran University and later on became the vice president of Tehran University and Dean of the Science Department. He also helped found Tehran University. He was a true teacher and very open minded. The kids used to call him “Baba Agha” and he was father to everybody and helped everyone he could. There are stories about how my dad helped people.
In 2000, I traveled to Shomal on a business trip, when a local man was introduced to me at lunch. Upon understanding who I was, he immediately threw himself at my feet and told me everything he had was from my father's help. It turned out that he had once been a paparazzi, who it happened, had one day harassed my father's guests. In response, my father had told him that he should get a real job and went on to help him. The man ended up working for him at the University of Keshavarsi, in Sari.
Another time a burglar was caught in our old house; the house where you had visited. The thief was trapped hiding under our dining room table. My father ordered everyone out of the room and he stayed in there and talked to the thief alone till 4am, even promising to help him get a job. To my father's dying day, he blamed himself that he had not been able to help this man.
My father believed that education was the key to leading a decent life and to being independent, for men and women. He never discriminated between men and women; never favored his sons over his daughters. He gave me a philosophy to live by. What I am doing right now. Live each day as if it is your last. Be good to people, be giving… life is all about giving… it creates a flow of energy… a cycle of life.
Q: I understand that philosophy; that one must give in order to get. I try to live by that same philosophy. Your father sounds like he was a wonderful person. I'm glad that I had the privilege to meet him. Let us continue: When did you leave Iran?
A: I spent my childhood in Tehran. I had very little knowledge of the rest of Iran. I left for France when I was 18. Some of my character was formed in Paris. I can say that is my favorite city.
Q: I noticed that you studied film making at “LIDHEC” (L'Institut Des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques.) When did you first develop an interest in filmmaking and what was it like studying there?
A: I had a passion for film from a very early age, like many others. Mom took us to the movies from the time I was three years of age. Hollywood films were big in Iran in those days. So, I developed a taste for films and later I studied film makers' life stories and… I remember, the late Hajir Dariush, – a film maker, a connoisseur of international films and the first president of Tehran International Film Festival. He started a film club at a young age, maybe 17. So, we mingled with them from an early age. In France, I studied French literature and language at the Sorbonne.
During this period I studied the existentialists; Andre Gide, Sartre, Camus; once my French became good enough. I improved my French reading on the Metro. I had a very busy life going to school all day and going out all night…
In those days, film school was not considered acceptable for an Iranian woman in general. One day I ran into Parviz Kimiavi, who had studied at “L'IDHEC.” He was the one who guided me on how to go about getting into the school. I told my dad about the film school. To my surprise, he asked me what he could do to help! He also said that if he had his life to live over again, he too, would want to become a film director.
I had to take a four-month course just to pass the entrance exam along with 2,000 competitors. The “L'IDHEC” prepares you for the exam with introductions to art, cinema and culture; mostly French, music history, art history, literature… I passed the exam and was accepted into the institute where I studied for two years. There were two big filmmaker professors I studied with there: Jean Mitry, a documentary maker and George Sadoul, a film critic. It was a very hands-on school and many filmmakers such as Costa Gavras come from that background.
Q: I want you to tell me about working with Albert Lamorisse. In preparation for this interview, I did some research on him and I am extremely impressed with him. He made only 8 short films (average 38 minutes each) in his life, which was cut short at age 48 by a helicopter crash in Tehran. Of these films, two were awarded Oscars.
The second was awarded posthumously for the film he made in Iran. He invented an apparatus enabling filming from a helicopter called Helivision and used it while making “Le Vent des Amoureux” over Iran which cost him his life. Also I would add that there is no one of my generation who has not seen: “The Red Balloon” when they were a child in school for which he won his first Oscar. He also invented and designed many board games.
A: Albert was one of the best documentarians at the international level. Despite his great achievements, he was a very down to earth person and very spiritual.
I remember, he was terrified of Tehran traffic and he used to hold on to anything or anyone for dear life, in the car at times. He was in a circle of French mystics who lived in Iran at that time. His film:” Lovers Wind” Bad Saba, is about mythology, messages from the mythological winds. The entire film was shot from helicopter.
I did my internship with him. He was making that film through the Ministry of Art and Culture. I spoke French and was a film student and so they sent me to be his assistant. I think unconsciously, his work had a big influence on me.
I must tell you the story about that helicopter crash. Albert as I said was a mystic. He had always had a premonition that he would die in Iran over water, in the Caspian Sea, but instead it was over the Karaj Dam.
The government insisted that he include footage of industrial sites in order to show the West how much progress was being made, even though Albert did not really want this part in his film. When we were scouting the location at Karaj Dam, he immediately expressed concern about all the high-tension wires over the water and wondered how they would manage to fly about without running into them.
I believe he had confidence in his pilot and his Helivision system and he knew more about the dangers than any body else in Iran. People responsible at the office brushed aside his concerns, by assuring him that he would have the Shah's own personal pilot to fly the helicopter. The day of the crash I had called in sick. I learned about the shocking news a day later.
That was in 1970. His family was devastated. His wife went on to finish the film from the notes he had left and submitted it successfully for an Oscar.
Q: What an amazing but tragic story. Karaj Dam always scared the hell out of me. I remember the first time I went up there and was looking down, the wind caught my hat and it was gone in a heartbeat. But what a privilege it must have been for you to have known and worked with such a great man.
It is now my ambition to see and revive an interest in that film; it sounds like it must be absolutely gorgeous: an aerial tour of Iran… by browsing the Internet, I have located only one copy which is residing in UCLA's library. Next I want to hear about your experience as one of the judges at the Tehran International Film Festival.
A: I had only been back in Iran a few years and I was working for the Ministry of Art & Culture, later at NIRT and I taught at the Film and TV Institute of Higher Education. The late Hajir Dariush, a pioneer in Iranian Cinema, – not well known to the public but known among film makers- became the Director of the Tehran International Film Festival. I had worked with Hajir and the late great documentarian, Bahram Raipour before.
I can say these two great filmmakers were my mentors. Hajir asked me to collaborate on the film festival. I remember the first film festival. We were doing all the tasks ourselves, from serving on the selection committee, to the scheduling, invitations, etc… Tehran International Film Festival grew very rapidly and unexpectedly. Suddenly everyone wanted to be in Tehran and every body was in Tehran. From Maestro Fellini, to Gina, Goldie Hawn, Lauren Bacal, you name it…
Q: I remember. I ran right into Michelangelo Antonioni during one of those film festivals in the lobby of the Tehran Hilton and also King Emanuel III, pretender to the thrown of Italy, who was living in exile in Switzerland.
A: Being a judge was a good experience for me. I learned about the politics, which went along with merit as far as who received awards. Someone might receive an award because he had been in the industry for 40 years and had never been recognized yet, even if there was a new guy who was just as good. As a judge you make friends and enemies with your choices, and a lot of gossip and animosity are generated as well. But you have got to go with your heart and do the right thing.
Q: When and why did you leave France for the USA?
A: I came to the USA in the late '70's. US culture had become the focus of the world. I wanted to experience the life style and the new culture. First I continued my higher education at USC and eventually, I did work in my field, later, in the Hollywood studio system for Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios.
Q: How did you find the US compared to your experience in Europe?
A: I find Europeans more intellectual, more cultured, better read and with a more relaxed life style. In the USA, the government and the media are run by the major corporations. It is all about corporations, not people and for sure not education, intellect or spirit, just material things, sell, sell, sell, buy, buy, and buy. Bigger house, bigger car, bigger… One's identity is based on material possession. Sometimes, I think these people are really lost in transaction, rather than “Lost in Translation.” They live to buy, kind of slaves to our material world.
Q: I know: consumer culture has replaced culture. American culture is: buying things! I tend to agree with you after having grown up for 16 years in Europe myself. Sometimes I feel that our government, our institutions and our producers, in trying to “serve the needs of everyone” end up serving the needs of no one. It is all become so impersonal here and lonely. So what made you stay?
A: The Revolution made me stay. I had to start my life all over and it took a long time. Survival became a real struggle.
Q: I know what you mean. I would have stayed on in Iran myself if not for the Revolution. That life of 23 years ago seems almost like a dream now that never really happened. One of my Persian friends told me she returned home for the first time since the revolution this year and could not get over how friendly everyone was to her.
She went to a palace, now turned museum and was dismayed to find the tour guide pointing out that one of the private offices there, next to the Shah's office, had been her father's. She identified herself to the guide and the tour group as his daughter and everyone was very curious to ask her a lot of questions. Many young people know very little about that time.
A: The museum in Tehran was an out of body experience for us too. One Friday morning, we were walking with one of my sisters and we were passing by the Niavaran Palace. We decided to go in. The experience was unbelievable. The same thing; the guide was talking about recent history as if it happened on the distant horizon, centuries ago.
Q: Let's get back to cinema. Tell me about some of the other Iranian film directors and actors that you have known. I believe you are a friend of Ghobadi? I found his “Marooned in Iraq” very moving and powerful in its understatement.
I thought the way he had the recurring sound of the American fighter planes in the background without any accompanying political diatribe, to be very effective. I also thought it was fantastic how the Kurds were in such close communication amongst themselves, despite the rugged mountainous landscape and national borders separating their many villages, that they could immediately spot an outsider.
A: Ghobadi is very creative and talented. For the first time, a Kurdish filmmaker is opening up a view to his culture, bringing up the pain and obstacles of this region. His angles are very original. He is not duplicating anyone else's efforts.
For the rest, I don't have a favorite though. I like many Iranian filmmakers' work. My character is such that I only worship one God, I don't create lesser deities, just as with nature, I like all flowers not just one over the others.
I have known Kiarostami for years. I find him extremely creative and sensitive. He gives his audience room to think. I love his visuals, very artistic and poetic. He also tends to dwell on the morbid side of life and brings in the harsh subjects of death and demolition, and yet, in such a delicate way.
I love his “Under the Olive Tree”, it is a masterpiece. And then, there is Rakhshan Bani Etemad with her soft and Forough- like style, portraying the society she lives in, and Majidi, Panahi, and obviously Makhmalbaf and his family. I admire Samira's work and her character. She has this super star quality.
Talking about Iranian women rising to the international level, Samira is one of the best known filmmakers. I was invited to the Montreal International Film Festival, for “Mystic Iran.” Samira was there, chairing the judges committee for young filmmakers. She was the center for the international press and she has been for many years. Her younger sister, Hana is rising too.
Let's go back to the history of Iranian films. Many people who are not in the business think that the rise of Iranian filmmakers to the international level is a new phenomenon, but in reality, it goes back to the '60's. There were directors like Mehrjui and Kimiaii, who are conventional filmmakers with a line of social stories and the late Sohrab Shaheed Saless, who was very well known in Europe in his day.
Saless and I worked together at the Ministry of Art and Culture. When he came back from Europe, where he studied films, he wanted to make a feature film, but the people at the center wanted documentaries. He got funding for a documentary and came back with a docu-drama film about a switchman for the railroad focusing on the repetitive and boring aspects of life.
Again, Parviz Kimiavi, he was a pioneer too. His first documentary film “Ya Zamen Ahoo” is a breathtaking work of art. He went on making films with no professional actors and using the beauty of Iranian landscapes. “Bagh-e-Sangi” and “Mongols” are the same. The style of Kiarostami and the new generation Iranian filmmakers has precedents. It has been carried and developed by them, but not originated by him.
Q: Speaking of current, tell us about our friend Shohreh Aghdashloo.
A: The first time I saw Shohreh, I think it was around 1974 or 1975, in Shiraz. I was invited to the Shiraz Art Festival. Dear Farokh Ghaffari, film maker, critic and film historian, was the president of this Art Festival. He advised us to go see Shohreh's performance. Shohreh, had dyed her hair blonde for the character. I remember when I saw her act; I felt that she would become one of Iran's leading actors.
I saw her 23 years later in Los Angeles. When I finished the rough cut of my documentary film, I was looking for a narrator. At first, we were looking for a male voice, but when we decided to go from 3rd person to 1st person story telling style, I decided on Shohreh! It turned out that she had heard about my movie and wanted to see it. She came to the studio to watch the film. I remember she was in tears.
I asked her if she missed Iran and she said: “Yes, but it is not just that.” I worked with Shohreh on the narration, many nights, late into the night. I knew she was auditioning for the “House of Sand and Fog” part. One day, on her way to the studio to read the narration, she got a call that she got the part. She walked into the studio, happy and in tears. Janelle Balnicke, my co-writer and Pam Parker Mosher, owner of the studio where I was cutting the film and myself, we shared this moment of excitement with Shohreh.
Shohreh is very intelligent. She will not do something that would not come from her heart. She preferred not to act and refused many parts, which were not her line of work. When she agrees to the part, she is easy to work with, very giving and very professional. She read the lines for the film over and over again until she was happy herself, even if I already was. She is an incredible actress with the most beautiful voice.
Initially I received some criticism from Iranians about Shohreh narrating the documentary, due to her accent, but that is what I wanted. I wanted an Iranian speaking because it was supposed to be me speaking. As soon as Shohreh's Oscar nomination was announced, all of the sudden, all the criticism stopped and turned to support. It was only the Iranians who had been critical, mostly coming from lack of confidence and shyness about our accent. Other non Iranians loved her voice and performance.
Q: It's funny; human nature. It's not just Iranians who are hard on themselves and need to hear a foreigner say an Iranian is good at something before they believe it themselves; it is the same for Americans. Look how many American singers, writers, poets and actors had to gain recognition in Europe first before they got any recognition back home in the USA. All the writers of the '30's in Paris; even rock stars like Jimmy Hendricks started in Germany.
Speaking of Shohreh, what did you think of her nomination, her role, her film and her not getting the Oscar award? I myself thought she acted extremely well but I thought the film was too dark and not typical of the Iranian immigrant's experience in the USA, which has actually been largely a striking success story.
A: The fact that Shohreh was nominated for her very first American film is a great thing. She just hadn't been in enough American films yet, but this will help her to go further in her professional life here.
About the “House of Sand and Fog,” I know people who loved it and cried through it, and some didn't. It is a matter of personal taste. I think the film did bring some needed attention and dignity to the plight of the Iranian Americans. Most of us lost everything and struggled mightily and worked very hard when we came here and we were alone and confronted by prejudice and had to recreate ourselves all over again. For the first time, a major American film is talking about our immigrant society. It is attracting a lot of attention and I hope it helps change the feeling of hostility toward our community.
Q: Let's talk about your new film now! To begin, if you don't mind, I should like to tell the readers of my impression from the private screening that I had with just your DVD. 'Ary, it transfixed me!!! I sat spellbound without moving for its entire 52 minutes. I believe that had I closed my eyes during the Sama sessions that I would have achieved an altered state.
Watching your film for me was like a religious experience. It was more than mesmerizing. You came as close to portraying visually, an altered state of consciousness on film as I have ever seen. It is an impossible task to film an inner state of being and the outer manifestation looks bizarre to the public and the eyes of most Westerners and yet even Christian fundamentalist evangelists have their rituals and trance states and “speak in tongues;” as is mentioned in the Bible, so it is not really as foreign as people would think.
The majority of humanity passes through life in ignorance of the spirit dimension… most modern individuals in post industrial societies around the world hunger for spiritual truth and a purpose for life or put another way, an experience of God… and our traditional churches have failed to provide this and have become social clubs where the chance of gaining real enlightenment is exceedingly slim. They take our money or failing that, our services in kind on committees and prayer groups and such. We can pray but that is only filling our minds up with our own words. It is by meditating and quieting our minds that we make room for the outside to come in instead of always our endless clutter of thoughts streaming out.
I remember that as a teenager I was achieving trance states and I had no one to talk to in the society around me in Washington D.C. about what I was going through. Small wonder that mystics throughout the ages have had to be secretive. Two centuries ago we burned our witches in this country and now we would give them psychiatric evaluations. I was supposed to be applying for college at the time and thinking about a major and all I wanted to do was pursue mysticism but no Western university would offer a degree in mysticism, as they do now, so I had to settle for Anthropology which was a distant second…
In my humble opinion science is not really searching for God at all but rather seeking ways of allowing an individual to harness nature and exploit energy and technology to increase the illusion of ego. In fact modern science seeks to cure death and the aging process as if it is a disease rather than a doorway to eternity. The wonderful thing about mysticism is that it requires no proof; one has only to experience it. We have lost touch with our inner selves and this is the crisis of our modern times.
I recall the words of Jesus: “Know thyself… ” if you want to know God. This is not the rule of hierarchical priesthoods with seemingly endless lists of restrictions, like the IRI, which is an extension of the rule of man. Sufis and mystics have been martyred throughout the ages because they are in touch with a part of human nature that no Caesar can rule. No Caesar can rule our hearts.
It is in ritual with its shocks that challenge or bypass the usual conventions of our senses that an awareness or communication with this greater reality begins. We ordinarily cling steadfastly to the perceptions of our ordinary senses in order to give a manageable definition to reality but that is not the whole picture. That reality is but a small part of the “Unseen World” of which your film is like a small window or a knock on that door. In ritual we can suspend our self-censorship long enough to experience more of what actually is the true nature of reality.
I mean, think of it this way; there was a time in Europe when the church dictated that the earth was flat and the sun revolved around it. For their discoveries to the contrary, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake and Galileo was forced to recant. So even science has had its martyrs in the past; sacrificed by the corrupt powers of theocratic governing authority, who felt threatened for their insisting on the truth. Look at the Spanish Inquisition…
I also feel that today, this dark time we live in, is a storm before the sun comes out and that we are on the dawn of a more spiritual time. I think it is what most people really want around the world in their hearts.
Everything in your film was relevant I thought. Even the street scenes in Tehran, in the beginning, capture the on going struggle between “progress” and “tradition” which is still unresolved after 23 years post revolution.
I was impressed by the filming of the Zoroastrian ceremonies inside the sanctuary of Pyr Sabz and also how many women saints are celebrated in Iran despite the media created global impression that women in Iran are not considered the equals of men. I find Zarathustra's notion that evil is a creation of the human mind while goodness comes from God and the human heart particularly powerful and relevant today. It occurred to me after 9/11 that there were a million ways that this government could have responded, rather than with bombs and that a great opportunity to do good was lost.
You did a magnificent job of capturing on film the natural and architectural splendor of Iran giving a context to the culture of the dervishes as well as the incredible landscape of mountains, deserts and forests itself and how it helped to shape the people and the religions of this at once ancient and modern land.
I think it is especially important in these times when the IRI has made the entire world think of Iran as reactionary as well as the US media painting Iranians into terrorists, that outsiders are made aware of the profound traditions of mysticism which still are alive and well albeit secretive in Iran today with cultural roots that are thousands of years old and always with the same message that God is Love. This message is far from the morality police and morality trials, stonings,”religiously” sanctioned rapes, tortures and executions that have characterized the rule of the IRI.
Also the beauty and light inside the shrine of Hezrat-e-Massoumeh (another female saint) and the rapture on the faces of the devoted gave more of a voice to humanity's religious expression than any words could have… 25 years ago I went into a shrine in Shiraz and kissed the tomb of the saint there mimicking the pilgrims who were like the gentle waves of an inland sea pushing against a far shore. Seeing a similar scene in your film brought me right back to that long forgotten moment. Is it any wonder that so many things of beauty especially in Iran have the word” light” in them?” Garden of Light”,” Sea of Light”, “Mountain of Light… ” Even the word enlightenment has the word “light” in it.
I loved the depth of your film, its simplicity, its respect for history and past saints especially women, its respect for the living and its message of love. I think it is wonderful that the dervishes allowed you to film them in their rituals knowing that it would be viewed by the world. It is almost as if they too believed in the great importance of your mission and wanted you to take their message out to the world in your film as well, at a time when we are in, what I feel, is a new Dark Ages; one of ignorance of the spiritual reality.
Tell us about your own experience with mysticism and Sufism. How old were you when you discovered this path and did you have one main teacher or guide? What were you trying to accomplish with this film?
A: We are all born with these abilities. Sometimes the universe forces us and opens the door for us to use the hidden power. My experiences didn't come until later and it was then that I went to see masters at spiritual centers and later on, at Sufi centers for guidance and to understand what I was experiencing. I have been on a spiritual path for a long time. I started out practicing yoga and meditation when I was living in Paris and then I ended up studying and practicing Sufism later.
With mysticism you need a guide at some point in order to advance. It is hard to progress alone. I did not have just one great master but many masters in the U.S.A. and in Iran. I was told that you don't have to look for the teacher; when the student is ready, the teacher will come. The reason for my film and my going to Iran in 2000 is that I want to talk about spirituality. I want to make a series of films on spirituality in many parts of the world. This first one was about Iran because I know it best; I was born there and know the language and the country. It seemed like the best place to begin. The next film may or may not be made in Iran.
This Ritual, for me, is a combination of bodily exercise, meditation and prayer; it is all encompassing. I had a car accident in L.A, which left me with back problems. When I went through the women dervish ritual in Kurdistan, my back pain left permanently. This ritual, sema and zekr, is like yoga. It is a practice, which involves the physical, mental and spiritual.
I am a filmmaker by training and that is what I do. With this film, I wanted to share my spiritual growth and pass it to others. I tried to make it easy to understand and easy to follow and I tried not to disturb or exploit my subjects either; it was a film from heart to heart.
Q: What makes Sanadaj such a hub of Sufi activity?
A: Sanadaj is more open to outsiders perhaps because it is so remote from the central government and large urban centers. It was impossible to get into the Sufi centers in Kermanshah or Tehran where they are much more secretive due to fear of government and non-believers.
Q: Once when I lived in Tehran back in the '70's as a teacher, one of my students learned of the interest that my American girlfriend at the time and I had in Sufism and he invited us to a Sufi center in Tajreesh of all places right off the meydan which I had passed by many times and never knew was there. The first thing I noticed was that an old, old man sat smiling in the doorway handing out paper money to everyone who came in. That was my clue that something was very different here because I have never been into any other church or temple where I didn't end up having to part with money rather than be given any.
Then I noticed that the women though wearing headscarves sat on the left side of the room in plain view of the men on the right rather than behind them or in a separate room. Eventually after what seemed like a long time, we got to the part of the ritual in which, up in front of the audience, there was walking on hot embers with bare feet like in some of the sequences in your film. I remember when I came back out into the daylight, what a contrast it seemed like with all the cars and buses and traffic noise in such close proximity but a totally different mindset.
I wonder how you ever got the dervishes to consent to being filmed? There must have been some very memorable experiences that you had while making this film. Can you tell us about some of them? Tell us about that lady dervish whom I consider the star of your film. You know the one who was baking bread. She was awesome.
A: Yes, you mean Aisha. We gave her the code name Aisha. The most memorable experience I had was with Aisha.
In 2000, I had gone to Kurdistan and Sanandaj many times, location scouting for the film. The first trip, I interviewed only male dervishes. They were very kind. We smoked cigarettes together, which made our Kurdish guide very nervous. They promised to think it over about being filmed, but no answer.
One day, our Kurdish guide asked me if I wanted to meet women dervishes in Sanandaj. I ended up joining in their rituals. I am not a spectator but rather a participant in life. After my participation with them, the Khalife agreed to the filming at a later date. Some time later the Khalife invited me and my crew to join her group of women dervishes on a pilgrimage, which we did. We started out at 3 AM following behind them in a mini bus from Sanadaj to the village of Najar. We did not arrive there until 9 pm… it was a very long and mountainous drive.
When we got there, we saw a huge Sufi center. I went to the second floor, which was the women's center. It was a dorm style room, covered with kelims on the floor. The women dervishes started the sema. I decided to take a picture, forgetting that they were taking their scarves off. Most unfortunately my flash went off and all the women dervishes started shouting: “film, film” and covered over their heads with scarves. Khalife told me to sit quiet. I went to the corner and kept quiet. Everyone quietly went off to sleep. I realized that I had disrupted the ceremony.
One of woman dervishes, Aisha, was still in trance and she was “speaking in tongues.” I was alone with them as everyone else was asleep. I was worried about Aisha. She kept crying, lamenting and growling.
Presently as her friend came around, I asked her why Aisha was in that state. I found out that her Sema was interrupted and she was stuck in trance and needed to finish the cycle of sema. I went down stairs and asked Sheik Najar's daughter in law to join the circle and play the Daf. Aisha went through the trance and dancing. Gradually one by one the women dervishes sleeping next door awoke and joined the circle of Sama. We finished around 4:30 in the morning. I got close to Aisha and her friend after this episode. The scene of fire eating happened the next day, at 6am, while she was baking bread for the retreat.
Q: What an incredible story.
A: Hostility and negativity can stop the flow of positive energy and purification. The spirit of the Sama can be disrupted by the thoughts of non-believers. I heard one story in Sanandaj among the men dervishes that once when they were performing the ritual and Tighzani (they cut themselves or swallow razor blades, stones etc… ) unexpectedly one of them actually bled. The sheik walked right up to a non-believer in the audience and asked him to leave. This is why they normally don't allow outsiders. Nor will they perform for money.
Q: One of my friends told me that once, 40 years ago when she was in her late teens, the prominent Kurdish family, the Asef Vaziris, told her that Barnum and Bailey Ringling Brothers Circus sent agents to try to negotiate with some Kurdish chiefs to hire some of the dervishes for their circus. They were refused and told that if dervishes performed for money they would lose their power.
A: It is neither for fashion nor a magic show. Some dervishes have gone to Europe to perform, but it is a performance, not the real thing.
Q: I have heard that Konya in Turkey has become pretty much a show for the tourists by now too. What a story! Was there anything else that happened during the making of the film, which you would like to share with us?
A: On our first trip into Kurdistan, we passed by two young men, carrying huge boxes up the mountainside, miles from anywhere. I asked the driver to stop and give them a ride. After several hours of driving they asked to be dropped right in the middle of complete wilderness. I was puzzled at the time. We stopped on the road a few times and had lunch. Later, we reached a plateau, on top of the mountain and in the midst of it there appeared this market out of nowhere.
There were about 300 to 400 men, and it was full of huge boxes. It looked like a swap meet to me. I decided to stop and see what was happening. I noticed also the two young men we had given the ride, earlier. Our guide refused to stop and kept driving, despite my anger and frustration. Later I found out that the market turned out to be a black market, one of the spots where the contraband goods, like cigarettes, alcohol, electronics, weapons, and drugs exchanged hands and entered Iran, via Iraqi borders. We were told that we could easily be kidnapped and disappear in the mountains.
Q: Well I think you could write a whole book about your experiences making this film in Kurdistan. I am sure that it will be a great triumph for you regardless of whether you end up selling it to National Geographic or PBS or how it eventually will come to market. I wish you all the success with this film that it so richly deserves and I am sure that our readers can hardly wait to see it. Let's talk a little bit more about the cinema industry in general and how you would characterize the differences between Iranian, European and U.S. cinema.
A: I think that creation and art are the reflection of the people and the society they live in, the soul of their culture. In the US, it is more about action and violence. If we go back to the early films, such as Wild West and cowboys, to the nowadays-virtual reality films, there has been no change in the script. It is still the good guys against the bad guys, from chase scenes on horse back, to fast cars, to airplanes, to cruise missiles and now virtual entities, it remains the same scripts… Even the spiritual films are about bad spirits.
Q: You are right. Even in a comedy such as:” Ghost Busters “the spirits are portrayed as evil and demons to be fought. I personally think that it is all a part of the conspiracy on the part of the capitalists to keep the masses stuck on consumption. The spiritual world is one area of existence, which they would not be able to merchandise so they use the media to make it a fearsome place to be fought and avoided because they can't sell it in the market place.
Like I said the culture of America is: buying stuff. Dying is un-American and yet they have even made a big industry out of the funeral business… money, money, money… Every religious holiday; Christmas, Easter, even Valentine's Day has been commercialized and turned into opportunities to sell something and go to bazaar.
I think violence and sex in the media is a way of keeping consumers minds distracted from ever thinking about the deeper values in life and who is really in control and in charge of their lives. Consumption” is the opiate of the people” or as Julius Caesar once said:” Give them bread and circuses… .” In this way we remain indebted wage slaves for the capitalist oligarchy. Our cars and our TVs even act to cut us off further from each other so we don't get to share our grievances and foment revolutions.
We live in cocoons afraid of our neighbors, afraid to let our kids play in our front yards, let alone bike the neighborhood. We don't talk to each other here. I have never lived in a society where so many people are living lives of quiet desperation in isolation. Small wonder people go postal. Why for example would they make a film about a woman serial murderer and award her an Oscar? It is sick when you think about it, but as you said our art describes our culture.
A: There is definitely a love affair with violence in American culture, which perhaps psychologists could investigate… . but there is more to the human experience than fighting and destruction. Once in a while, Hollywood makes a good film and some are extremely creative and unique, but not enough. We live in the capital of the movie industry, but it seems like a facade. That's all. But the fact is that European and Iranian films are very different. There films have a human message, both emotional and intellectual versus commercial. I mean look at the history of American film. Where did it begin?
Q: Griffith, “The Birth of a Nation?”
A: Yes, this was about war. If you look at the history of American film it is so devoid of emotions that the moment an actor shows emotion or cries, they are up for Oscar. The mainstream culture does not value human characteristics, but it is based on materialism, as we spoke.
Q: I know. Here the attributes of machines are admired over the foibles of humans. They once took their greatest poet Ezra Pound and locked him up. I remember when I first came back to America at age 16 after growing up in Italy, I found that the only guys I could make friends with here who had any interest in the arts, culture or intellectual matters were either Jewish or gay.
A: People have lost touch with reality and I feel TV and cinema are largely to blame. I know an American couple that thought the bombing of Iraq was “awesome!”
Q: I am reminded of how difficult it was for me to fathom the reality of the jet liners hitting the World Trade Centers on 911 because it looked so much like just another disaster movie like “Towering Inferno” or “Titanic.”
A: The US cinema is superficial. Going into depth here means transferring an idea to something that sells. People have no time to think here. European movies have more sensitivity and leave more room to think. In the IRI there is pressure from the government and the threat of censorship, so the stories became symbolic. You have to look for the hidden message. You have to look with the eyes of the spirit.
Q: In my interview with our mutual friend, film maker Parvin Ansary, we talked about how great artistic creations come out of great suffering and adversity while affluent societies become decadent and produce decadence. In Italy, the great film era was after the war, which was a time of much suffering, poverty and self-loathing for their role in Fascism. By the time they had recovered and become an affluent society their era of great cinema was over…
A: Well in a way, you could say that Iranian films come out of a culmination of great suffering; regardless of whether we live inside or outside the country. Both sides have suffered.
Q: You know I am reminded of something that the Dalai Lama alluded to which was that when the Red Chinese conquered his country and forced so many Tibetans into exile, the refuges took the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism out into the world with them for the benefit of the rest of humanity rather than keeping it confined to the remote fastnesses of Tibet. I hadn't thought about this until now but the Iranian Diaspora similarly has brought Sufism with it out into the world from its seclusion inside Iran and this is a great opportunity for the rest of humanity.
A: They say “Gol Niloofar grows out of ab lajan.” (The water lily grows out of stagnant water.)
Q: Now, I want to thank you for the privilege you gave me of seeing your film and the time you have sacrificed from your busy schedule to make this interview. Thanks again!!! It's been incredible and I'm sure the readers will agree that it has been a real education. I will miss our weekly phone conversations.
A: Sorry for the delays and for making you chase me from city to city, and country to country on the phone, to finish this interview, but this is the American life style!