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All the right stuff
Babak Shokrian's bitter sweet film on the Iranian diaspora

May 8, 2003
The Iranian

I have just previewed an opening of America So Beautiful in Paris UGC Cinema. To this date, rarely has any Iranian movie caught my attention or moved me as a truly cinematographic experience. Babak Shokrian's directorial début has all the ingrediants that make up both an entertaining and thought-provoking movie.

I could not help sit through the whole film hoping to see more. This is what I call a movie that is for the first time, in the iranian category with a comprehensive dialogue and a good plot supported by excellent professional actors-- far from the great Abbas Kiarostami and his metaphorical abstractions accessible only to the cultural elite.

This movie tries to draw a picture of a generation which shortly before and shortly after the revolution had to struggle to survive. Shokrian's early film influences from Scorcese and Elia Kazan are apparent, in some scenes and particularily in authentic recreation and setting of LA in the 70's and Disco years.

The film spans over the 444-days during which 52 American diplomats were taken hostage in the US Embassy in Teheran. Excerpts of radio news, and TV images of the Revolution and the fall of the Shah sets the historical and political context.

America So Beautiful fortunately avoids cliches which could have been easily the case in trying to draw a strict line between Good and Bad characters. The racial comments made by a middle-aged bartender (an attentive ear allows you to hear her pronounce Iran "Eye Ran" and Iranian as it should be, that is "ee-raani-ans") is rooted in lack of education and social standards, and constant news reels showing the American hostages humiliated and hostile revolutionaries shouting "America Go Home".

The same hateful looks also appear when Houshang, having met Lucy (Diane Gaidry) an American bartender who works in Sahmi's (Houshang Touzie) Disco, joins her at her party flat. Unlike Lucy, the other young people give Houshang angry looks as they hear more news on the hostages being badly treated in Tehran.

The movie does not try to say who is right or who is wrong but simply shows those who are caught in between political rivalries that surpass them and contrast their more down to earth realities. Ironically it is in trying to fulfill their American Dream that the protagonists are actually confronted with the same prejudices -- not to say racism -- for which they left their own country in the first palce.

The sad if not tragic aspect of their predicament lays in the fact that the protagonists mostly come from educated families; they are intelligent and cultured -- and probably more qualified for the jobs they have. One wanted to be a doctor, then an actor and ended up as a taxi driver. Another has a grocery shop.

Maryam, Hamid, Parviz, are all perfectly in phase with the American language, culture and mindset and although attached to their roots they are hoping for a better future but in realistic terms and in that are certainly the most stable and positive characters in the movie.

That's not the case for Houshang. Strangely, by holding on strongly to his dream, Houshang is probably the most American of all the characters in the movie. He is down to earth and entrepreunial. He tries to convince people to believe in his project, but he is constantly faced with a cultural wall he cannot climb and doesn't seem to grasp the consenquences of events in Iran on his life in America.

The cultural gap is also shown among Iranians themselves. At one point Parviz the cab driver is trying to make a deal at the grocery is interrupted by a younger Iranian with glossy hair and dressed up like a gigolo who hides his real name Darius with a nickname "Danny Disco", only to be reminded in a humourous dialogue that his birth name is that of one of Persia's Greatest Emperors, without whom he would not be who he was.

The scene is quite representative of the educational standards which were forced upon the last Iranian generation. They were mostly sons or daughters of doctors, engineers or any other middle-class family (thanks to the Shahs educational programs and financial support to the most rewarding students who once sent to the US became politicised and came back as revolutionaries to topple the regime). They could not always live up to the same ambitions of their parents. This led to a cultural gap after the 1979 revolution and not quite been filled.

This is shown in a wonderful and tense scene in a Persian restaurant, where young friends realize they belong to a lost generation. Not quite Iranian and not quite American, it ends in a fight because of a particularily jealous husband who refuses to see his wife dance with another man and the whole group is kicked out of the restaurant.

As Houshang wants to make his dream come true by building a disco on the advice of an unscrupulous Sahmi -- a "second class godfather" character played excellently by Houshang Touzie. He finds himself lured into stealing money from his own cousin's grocery. On the other hand Sahmi is also luring the Shah's ex ministers and generals into making them believe that with their money he is preparing a counter coup against the mollahs.

The older generation truly comes across through an unflattering and rather comic portrait -- some of them seem to come straight out of Pezeshkzad's Dear Uncle Napoleon, which Babak describes as virtually mad characters who have been "frozen in time" and that their way of thinking does not allow evolution or critical thinking.

The director certainly has a true point here and I share it. However from a chronological point of view he falls into a minor trap and that is that most of these generals or ex ministers were in power shortly before the fall of the imperial regime and many had either fled, or executed. Some may have turned mad after having been tortured by the IRI, but the image depicted in the film is more closer to a retired generation still sticking to a lifestyle long gone. They provide comic relief in a film which has many tense moments.

The most interesting aspect of Shokrian's first feature film is that you forget the Iranian connotation of the story. It is present, you are reminded of events several times and cannot look through it without remembering personal souveniers. However it stays first and foremost a movie, which you can follow regardless of the political message or social and national context.

For once I was happily surprised not to feel the heavy chest I usually get when I go to see Iranian films and feel that some kind of philosophical or political metophor is going to be pushed down my throat. Sorry for the comparison, but it has been true even when it comes to any Western film regarding Iran or related to the Revolution, such as Betty Mahmoudy's Not Without My Daughter.This is not the case in America So Beautiful.

Also the dual culture alternating the dialogue between both English and Persian is interesting and even gives to the film a particular flavor. One of the characters, an Iranian who has arrived in the US after the death of his father, says Iran is dead for him. "Welcome to San Francisco," Houshang replies sarcastically.

Anyone familiar to Parviz Sayyad's playboy character in the Uncle Napoleon series of the late 70's will understand the allusion. Unlike the characters of Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta had his way paved on a red carpet, Houshang and his friends are desperately trying to get into the disco, but are refused entrance. This forces them in most cases to avoid direct confrontation, but increases their feeling of humiliation and frustration. And the hostage crisis does not help either in calming the brutality of war mongering Americans.

There is true on-screen chemistry between the actors. They bring to the surface all the emotional contradictions and love between old friends, which sometimes flirt with emotionally incestuous feelings. Canadian Actress Diane Gaidry, Alain De Satti, and Fariborz David Diann, all create characters with a great deal of depth, sincerity and truth.

As much as this film is about us Iranian exiles (at least in LA but you find similar components in Europe or elsewhere) it is also an American film in the true sense of the word. The actors share the same narcissism required for James Deanish characters. This is especially true for Houshang, but also for the other characters.

Although America So Beautiful is supposed to be about the generation from the time of the revolution, it is about the Iranians of today. The set and clothing may be that of the 70's but the questions and preoccupations which haunt the protagonists are much more in phase with the way Iranians feel today.

The number of Iranians in California increased many fold after 1979. The majority, contrary to the depiction in the film, were quite well off. Most were professionals educated in the US or Europe. They did face difficulties but they were less concerned with following the American Dream than by reasserting their situation in the US.

The children, however, had to face the contradictions of being American by birth (this is even more true for those who were half Iranian), education or upbringing and yet still strongly influenced by Iranian culture. This new generation is probably even more attached to Iran and Iranian values than the previous one. The fact that the director, left Iranas a child in 1971, is also an indication that proves this point.

I was also quite happy and proud to see Shokrian insist that he wanted to speak Persian in front of a crowd of French and Iranian film enthusiasts of all ages.

This film certainly deserves to be shown in schools and universities as an introduction to the Islamic Revolution and its impact on Iranian and American communities. It is a historic movie which says more about the problems faced by our community than any other film.

The scene in the Persian restaurant also allows Shokrian to indirectly pay a tribute to the older generation of artists who have paved the road for others in the West such as singer Aref (I didn't even know he was still alive and in good shape), Sattar or the enigmatic looks of the beautiful Shohreh Agdashlou (who is co-starring in a new film with Ben Kingsley in The House of Sand and Fog produced by Dreamworks).

A special credit should go to the female roles of Lucy played by Diane Gaidry and particularily the natural composition of Attossa Leoni as Maryam. By all means Shokrian's first work proves to be visually mature and his carreer and that of his actors deserves to be followed closely in the years to come.

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By Darius Kadivar





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