More than three decades into the mass immigration of Iranian nationals to other countries, Iranians now enjoy large communities in many different parts of the world. A highly-educated and professionally-dedicated community, we are past our initial years of trying to find basic comforts and needs for our population. As our population comes of age, its social, cultural, and entertainment needs shape up and become more sophisticated. Thirty years ago, we would have been happy to travel hundreds of miles to eat at a restaurant that served Iranian food, or to buy some necessities at an Iranian store. Today, Iranians in diaspora hold amongst themselves world-renown scholars, filmmakers, painters, and entertainers, and our community continues to raise the bar on our expectations of our artists, our community leaders, and ourselves. It is exactly in such a vein that the blossoming of events such as the annual Noor Film Festival becomes significant to our community. As the fifth annual Noor Film Festival gears up to open in Los Angeles on Friday, August 3, I had a chance to talk to Siamak Ghahrehmani, the man who, along with his friend, director Anthony Azizi, started the film festival. Another year-long “project” is bearing fruit for Noor Film Festival this year, and here’s someone who can best tell us what the Festival is all about this year.
NK: What were your reasons and motivations for creating the Noor Film Festival?
SG: The main reason for the Festival was all the negative news and publicity Iran was receiving in the world media seven, eight years ago. When CNN and other news outlets were reporting on Iran, everything seemed so one-sided, so biased. It seemed the Iranian community did not have a voice to represent itself and its motherland of Iran. The positive things about the Iranian culture and nation were never fairly represented. Not that this is the job of any one organization, because how could any ‘one’ organization represent all of us? But, there should be a group of Iranian arts, culture, and social organizations that represent us and the people of Iran, their thoughts. I, myself, am not the political type, or don’t want to publicize my political views. My goal is for the non-Iranian community to become more and more familiar with the Iranian community and to be able to make good decisions when they come into contact with news about Iran. When there is bias, all kinds of unfair statements are made. When people who know nothing about Iran see this, they think this is all that Iran is all about. Film is a universal language that can build a strong, important, and much needed bridge between Iranian and non-Iranian communities in the United States.
After the first year of having the film festival, we realized that we are in the position to bring people together not only through the films shown, but through the festival itself, as a cultural event in a State that has so many Iranians living in it, to showcase the Iranian arts and talents to all.
NK: What are some of the challenges you have faced in doing this?
SG: Over the years, I have had to face many challenges. During that first year, while we were trying to market and advertise the event to the local community, most of the questions that we received from the Iranian community were related to the concept of a film festival, what it was, and how it worked. The other problem was that a lot of the people in our community had left Iran before the revolution, when the Iranian film industry produced different types of films and we never had so many films with such international acclaims. The Iranian community in the US was slow to embrace the new Iranian film industry. We had to convince people of the values of a film festival. We realized that in order to raise some of the money it cost to put the festival together we needed the help of the non-Iranian community, both as judges and as visitors of the festival, who had to love the Iranian culture, and indeed our non-Iranian judges have added a lot to the film festival.
Because there had never been another film festival exactly like this, we had to base the whole format and structure of the festival on a non-Iranian model. I had to create everything from scratch. I wanted to make an event that would make Iranians proud. Noor Film Festival had its first Iranian red-carpet event in 2007.
My love for the cinema started in my childhood and continued to grow into my adult life, where I have given all I have in order to share that love with others, and because of this love, I have personally invested a great amount of money in the festival throughout all these years, without seeing any monetary profit in return up until last year when we finally broke even.
It has been a challenge for me to try and pull Iranians out of their comfort zone to take steps to experience new things. Over the years, we have reached the point where many Iranians are now involved in the event, and Noor is now one of the first festivals where there is hand-in-hand collaboration between Iranian and non-Iranian communities.
I always said I will give Noor five years, because you make mistakes in the beginning, and there are lessons that must be learned along the way, and we did make a lot of mistakes over the years. I have learned and improved the event year after year.
NK: What is new and exciting about this year’s Noor Film Festival?
SG: This year for the first time we are receiving very good attention from American media and organizations.
Noor is very close to my heart. And at the same time, despite the initial problems and what we had to do to establish ourselves in the Iranian community, this film festival could not have become what it has become if they didn’t support it at the level that they did. There are a lot of individuals and organizations that helped us, and I am grateful for all of it.
Another good thing this year is that we had a lot more film submissions. This is always a good indication of how good and successful a film festival is. I see people who have never submitted their films to us before, just because they never knew about the Noor Film Festival. They have told me that they regretted not knowing about it earlier. I know we have to publicize more.
Over the past few years, the Iranian cinema has gravitated toward the European market. Iranian films were never sufficiently recognized in the US. During the recent years, a new wave of interest has been generated about Iranian films, where films like Persepolis, Circumstance, A Separation, and Stoning of Soraya has received excellent reception in the US market. ‘A Separation’, especially, brought profound recognition for the Iranian film industry. This year, we will show ‘A Separation’ as our closing film.
Hollywood is now paying attention to the Iranian filmmakers, actors, and actresses.
Also, there is interest around films made about Iran and on Iranian subjects. George Clooney bought the rights to Argo, originally called Escape from Tehran. For years, there was not enough interest in the market for this kind of films, but now all of a sudden it has picked up. There will be more mainstream films about Iran in the near future.
NK: What about the demonization of Iranian nation in some of these films?
SG: There are two sides to every coin. A lot of Iranian actors and actresses don’t accept terrorist roles, while some others see it as a chance to work in Hollywood. My personal view is that terrorism exists in the world. There are bad people, some of whom are Iranians, but that does not mean that there are no good Iranians. Unfortunately, there might be good reasons for portraying Iranians as “bad guys” and “terrorists.” If we don’t like this, we have to do something about it. Hollywood will go on making movies to make money. We can sit around and nag and complain, or we can go out and make something happen in Iran, or put a group of people together and motivate them to create films and art with a positive approach about Iranians that would cancel out the negative portrayals in some films. We should “do” something that can neutralize and reduce the demonization. I very much would like to see that happen. Iranians have enough money and talent to see it through. They need to have teamwork and motivation to do better, to bring change, and work together to create something good. When we don’t go out there and do something positive to show who we really are, we have no choice but to stand back and watch. We are responsible for our image. We can’t just be the victims. We have to take responsibility. I believe that is what I am doing with the Noor Film Festival. The Iranian government may be bad and there may be bad people inside Iran, but there are a lot more good Iranians in the world. We must take the responsibility to make a difference, to bring those people together. Show the people the good side of Iran. This is something I truly believe. Everybody has the same choice.
NK: You know that some people, such as the Iranian director Parviz Sayyad, believe that there is no such a thing as an independent Iranian film industry, and that all the Iranian films that find their way to foreign film festivals are indeed government-produced propaganda that aim to portray a positive image of the Iranian government, promoting it as a system that allows freedom of artistic expression, where in fact it doesn’t. What do you think about this?
SG: Personally and as an organization, we are opposed to censorship in any shape or form. I agree with Mr. Sayyad to a point. It is true that the Iranian government has complete control over the making and production of films, and that some of what is made in Iran is propaganda. We are using Iranian films in a positive form, but it can also be used as a negative tool. Where I disagree with Mr. Sayyad is that we are no longer dwelling in the Iranian film industry’s landscape of 30 years ago. Thirty years ago we had a handful of filmmakers in Iran that made good films. Because of the revolution and a growing community in Diaspora, Iranians are now scattered all over the world, and the Iranian talent for filmmaking has now spread into a new generation of filmmakers abroad. What he says is only a portion of the reality about the Iranian film industry, but not all of it. For example, Maryam Keshavarz, who made Circumstance, has nothing to do with Iran or the Iranian film industry inside Iran. She is a second generational Iranian. The Iranian cinema is no longer only about films that come out of Iran. Today, there could be an Iranian filmmaker that can make a good film that has nothing to do with the Iranian government.
We are constantly evolving. The Iranian film industry is much bigger than films made inside Iran. This year, most of the films shown at Noor are made by Iranian filmmakers outside Iran.
Even under such censorship and limitation, Iranian filmmakers are still making films. Instead of turning our backs on the entire industry, because the Iranian government may use some of those films as propaganda, why don’t we support effort to make good, independent films instead? I believe that artists should and will find a way to show their art and reach their audiences. I also believe that the more experienced Iranian filmmakers, actors, and cinematographers should train a whole new generation of film artist to carry the industry forward. Parviz Sayyad is a legend, a true artist. He should teach others how to do what he did so brilliantly.
NK: Tell me about the films you have in the festival this year.
SG: The films in this year’s festival are from all over the world, Iran, Europe, US, and in different categories, short films, long films, and documentary films. They are entered into the film Festival because they are made in Iran, are made about Iran, are made by Iranian filmmakers, or have Iranian actors in them.
This year there are films about immigrants, Iranians in diaspora, and their hardships, and violence. We have short comedies and drama. What is extremely important for Noor is to showcase young and upstart filmmakers, so that they can show their work. Some of these filmmakers may never get an opportunity to show their films elsewhere, and as good and promising as they are, their careers may never take off the way they should. That is an opportunity that doesn’t exist in Hollywood or anywhere else in the world. That is the reason I have put in so much energy, and my own financial resources into this. My reward is to see young Iranian filmmakers receive recognition and support, which only a Festival can offer in promoting them and their films.
The emails, phone messages, and conversations I have had with Iranian artists over the past years are a big part of the reason for putting up with the rest of the problems of pulling the festival together every year. Why shouldn’t people like these young directors and actors be supported and cherished! It is a blessing for me to see that, because of what we do a young Iranian’s life could be touched. There was a guy who came to the first Noor Film Festival with his father and saw all the films. The next year and the year after, he became a volunteer at the Festival, and then went on to attend a film school. I am proud to say that last year his film was screened at Noor Film Festival.
Additional information about the Noor Film Festival:
“The Noor Iranian Film Festival (NFF), a non-religious and non-political organization, is an international event, with the goal of educating and informing the non-Iranian community about the culture and heritage of Iranians around the world through the medium of cinema. The Festival also cultivates and promotes Iranian-American talent in Hollywood.”
The primary location for this year’s festival will be held in Los Angeles, August 3rd through August 8th, 2012. Winning films will be shown in other cities later in the Fall. Behrouz Vossoughi is scheduled to appear.
Festival’s website: www.noorfilmfestival.com
This year’s films: http://noorfilmfestival.com/Films.html
This year’s judges are: The legendary Iranian actor Behrouz Vossoughi, actor Kristoff St. John, actor Tony Plana, Iranian-American author and journalist Homa Sarshar, and Iranian-American actor Navid Negahban.
The Screenings will be held at: Laemmle’s Music Hall 3; 9036 Wilshire Blvd.; Beverly Hills, 90211; 310-478-3836.
The 2012 Red Carpet Awards Ceremony will be held at: Skirball Cultural Center – Magnin Auditorium; 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd.; Los Angeles, CA 90049; 310-440-4500.