It has been fun blogging about my adventures in Iran as part of the Academy's international Outreach Committee, and I am sure I will have occasion to write more about the trip in the future. We are looking forward to the follow up, as one of the measures of the success of our mission is how we can extend the dialogue and relationship engendered by this cultural exchange.
Your comments have been great, as always, and it has also been gratifying to get emails from Iranians in and out of the country, who have enjoyed my stories and recognized themselves or some reflection of their country here.
A few parting words on the subject:
Driving down the madhouse streets of Tehran one day we passed a sign for an establishment called The Bare Feet Shoe Store. Hilarious. I wish I had had time to stop and take a picture of it as something about the oxymoronic title of the shop seemed to evoke for me all of the contradictions and paradoxes of contemporary Iran.
I think I can safely say that I speak for all of us on the delegation of filmmakers sent to Iran for a cultural exchange by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences if I say that one of the chief pleasures we had on our ten day lollapalooza tour of contemporary cinema and culture, was the chance to get to know two members of the younger generation there, our guides and translators provided by the House of Cinema, Hamidreza and Parastoo.
With the unflagging energy and enthusiasm of youth, they put up with our group of occasionally grumpy and dislocated travelers, and they gave us insight and understanding as they guided us through this very foreign land. And they did it all with a sense of humor and grace.
Parastoo discovered that I was a blogger fairly late in the trip, and shared with me that she was one of the first women bloggers in Iran. She speaks very good English and was educated in London. She's concerned with women's issues and I hope she'll come and be a guest blogger here sometime, and share with all of you more about herself and her generational perspective as a young woman growing up inside Iran.
Hamidreza would be everyone's dream intern or assistant if he lived here in Hollywood but he wouldn't last long in that position as he would be quickly snatched up and promoted, given his smarts, his extensive knowledge of film, and his mad computer skills.
On top of all that, he is a cartoonist, and was really excited when I told him about my own passion for cartoon illustration, comic books, and graphic novels. As a parting gift, I asked him if he would draw a cartoon for me, and he came back with this caricature:
And thanks to Parastoo, too (I always wanted to write that sentence!!).
On my next to last day in Tehran, Behrooz took me to see a massive development underway in the north part of the city. A Malaysian/Iranian joint venture was developing the mother of all malls, with a huge cinema center and shopping mall with food court, a separate cultural center, small theme park and mosque all on one mile long site. "Parking for 2,800 cars" he boasted.
This is a scale model of just one small part of it.
I know it will sound somehow condescending to say I was really surprised to see this kind of large scale economic development in the leisure sector taking place in Tehran, and that is not my intent, but it certainly defied my stereotypical, outsiders view to think of The Grove on Steroids being built in contemporary Iran.
With a huge youth population, it seems the government there recognizes the need to develop facilities for this next generation, and the need for outside capital and cooperation to boost their economy. As someone put it to me: "With no bars, no alcohol served publicly, no public dancing or concerts, and very few options for young men and women to meet socially or be together in public, the cinema is one of the few outlets for the basic human need to congregate socially outside of the family."
The project manager was a friend of Behrooz's and with typical Iranian hospitality, as soon as I arrived they made tea for me, and offered me a delicate fluff pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar that was an Iranian version of a churro. As we sat in the office of the main boss, he asked me about my travels around Iran and I told him of our visit to the beautiful city of Isfahan.
With admirable passion, he told me that he saw this 21st century development as the continuation of a long and proud Iranian tradition.
"After all, what was the great square and grand bazaar of central Isfahan but the mega mall of the 15th century."
Now who could argue with that! :)
For many years, Hollywood has been defined by the tension between Art and Commerce. Some might argue today that that tension is over and commercial considerations have won out completely. But the businessmen have never been able to entirely make a business out of show business, and what we are left with is the contradiction of risk adverse corporations engaged in a casino-like enterprise that leaves most mere mortals caught in this conundrum screaming for their psychiatrist.
Tom Pollock and I have had fun embracing these stereotypes and developing our "Frick and Frack" act (I'm "Art", he's "Commerce", as if you had any doubt!) as we have traveled to the communist country of Vietnam and the Islamic Republic of Iran as Producers to preach the gospel and sing the blues of making films for audiences.
Tom is the gleeful capitalist in our little morality play.
Which is not to say this brilliant mind who has been a top lawyer, studio chief, and successful commercial producer is not an artist in his own right. It's just that his canvas is the free marketplace, and his passion is in making movies that millions of people all around the world will go to see.
I play the role of the brooding craftsman fretting over the quality and content and consequence of what I choose to try to help put out into the world. (And no jokes about how I'm from central casting!)
Which is not to say that I don't have massive respect for the power of populist entertainment, and ambition to make "Ants In Your Pants of 1939" even as I am perceived as the driving force behind a series of "O Brother Where Art Thou's".
With Tom as elder statesmen, and what contributions I can make from my own experience, we give out as much information as we can about what a producer does, how and why films happen over here, how they get financed, made, marketed and distributed, and, mostly importantly, what happens between the lines, as the devil is always in the details.
While we debate for the entertainment of our audiences, we mostly agree that no one knows anything and that it is harder than ever to get a good movie made and seen today. Tom has a skill that I never acquired in that he can make movies aimed at an audience of which he is not necessarily a prime member, a skill required to program the diverse slate of entertainment that any studio must put out to fill its distribution pipeline.
For better or worse, although I like good movies in almost every genre, I always feel that I am an impostor if I try to make a movie that I am not passionate about and that I wouldn't go see myself. I have no compass to guide the ship and can't really tell the writer or director if they are off course unless I can see clearly the distant shore myself.
One thing we emphasize everywhere we go is how the key to making movies that can play around the world is to make movies that can play to the audience in your own back yard first (more difficult in Iran where government censors determine what can be shown in the country). And that no film industry can survive let alone prosper where piracy is rampant and copyright is not protected, problems that are certainly not unique to Vietnam or Iran, but plague filmmakers and film financiers everywhere.
I've learned a lot listening to Tom at the various seminars we've held together. I'm not ready to switch roles in our little play yet, but maybe I can be an understudy someday! :)
While we think today of Iranian cinema in terms of the brilliant poetic quality of international arthouse auteurs like Kiarostami and Panahi and others, clearly, as evidenced by these posters I found in the basement of the Museum of Cinema in Tehran, they once had a thriving genre cinema that would've made Quentin Tarantino happy.
I guess it was only fitting that my trip to Iran became an opportunity for me to catch up on some classic film noir on dvd. There are parts of Tehran that would make a great location setting for a black and white, down and dirty noir melodrama, if only Orson Welles were still around to film it.
What is "Hollywood"? An actual place? Or a long ago real estate developer's marketing scheme? Like the notion of Los Angeles as a land of indigenous palm trees, or like the movie business itself, the very idea of "Hollywood" is an illusion of smoke and mirrors, that some very powerful marketing corporations have been selling effectively to the rest of the world for almost a century.
Certainly our delegation to Iran was seen to be representing "Hollywood", whatever that means, and we spent some considerable time trying to deconstruct that narrative with our host at the House of Cinema, and to see our diverse group of filmmakers as individuals, with different life stories, different dreams, different aspirations and different notions of our relationship to the industry of making movies in America.
It is certainly hard to imagine anyone whose life I would describe as less "Hollywood" than documentary filmmaker James Longley, who is filming his current project in a small city in northern Iran and who joined up with us upon our arrival in Tehran to be The Ninth Man on our International Outreach delegation.
James is a nomad with a camera who lives a fairly monastic existence as he travels to remote and often troubled corners of the globe to reside among communities of strangers and gradually discover a narrative from the truth of their daily lives.
His feature-length doc "Iraq in Fragments" was nominated for an Academy Award, as was his Iraqi-set short film "Sari's Mother", but he has also made documentaries in the Gaza Strip and even Siberia.
James grew up in the Pacific Northwest and, unbeknownst to me, was a fellow alumni of Wesleyan University (okay, I admit, I dropped out as a sophomore, but I still consider it my alma mater). James studied Russian, and eventually went to Russia to live in the '90's, where he studied film, worked as a journalist, and lived in a mining camp in Siberia where he started making his first full-length documentaries.
He went to Israel in 2001 and filmed during the second Palestinian intifada, before turning his camera on Iraq just as Bush was declaring "Mission:Accomplished" and the insurgency was starting. At this point in his life he has spent almost as much time outside of the U.S. as in it, and his definition of home is a more loose and shifting concept than for most of us.
I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing James' other work, but I attended his screening of "Iraq in Fragments" at the Khaneh Cinema in Tehran and the q+a session afterwards, and I was deeply affected by this movie. At some point in the middle of the film I leaned across to Tom Pollock seated next to me and whispered "this guy has balls of steel", which is a rather coarse expression but the only one that seemed possibly appropriate to what we were witnessing James record with his camera.
The film is divided in 3 parts, with the first showing a devastating portrait of a young Sunni boy working for an abusive boss in an automobile garage in Baghdad, and the last being a portrait of everyday Kurdish farmers living in harsh but somehow beautiful conditions in Northern Iraq.
But the middle section demonstrated the long held truth about cinema that "timing is everything" as James described in his post-screening interview how he happened to knock on a door one day looking for someone to talk to in Najaf and stumbled into the office of the then relatively unknown Moqtada al-Sadr. Amazingly he pursues this nascent movement with his camera and is an uncomfortably front row witness to the birth of a violent insurgency. At times the camera (and implicitly James behind the lens) is in such a "how the hell did you get there" point of view that you want to scream out "run" to the screen.
But more than the courage that it took to film, the fact that the film gives voice, often uncomfortably, to voices and ideas and opinions that are rarely or never heard here in the West, is what made it so memorable to me.
Ironically, it was that same quality that probably made it a quite different viewing experience for the invited audience of Iranian filmmakers, who were surprisingly harsh in their own assessment of this Oscar-nominated film. Their familiarity with both the imagery and the arguments in the film, and perhaps even more, their own first hand recent experience of life during wartime, as well as their vastly different relationship with Iraq, seemed to dull their appreciation for James' portrait of three faces of their neighbor. I thought James handled their criticisms with equanimity, and admired again his courage in even choosing to show his movie in that context.
I can't wait to see what comes next as James continues his edgy cinematic odyssey with the film he is currently shooting at a middle school in rural Iran. He showed me some of the dailies at dinner one night on his iPhone (ha!), and even in that small format and without translation, they looked curious and beautiful and arresting and provocative, as I can now say I have come to expect from James Longley!
Iran is a very bilingual country, with English taught in most schools and road signs and other information we saw throughout our travels being presented in Farsi and English (other than the graffiti, of course).
But some things are hard to translate, so it was a happy occasion when two young men approached Annette Bening and I in the central plaza, called the Naghsh-i Jahan Square of the ancient city of Isfahan and asked us to explain to them the meaning of some Eminem lyrics that had apparently been troubling them for quite some time.
"Persepolis" is the name of a wonderful pair of graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi and a subsequent animated film based on these highly entertaining and moving memoirs of life growing up in Iran under the Shah and after the revolution and the almost decade long Iran/Iraq war that followed.
It was also our first destination outside of Tehran, as we flew on a late night flight south to the city of Shiraz (planes only seem to fly there very early in the morning or very late at night - or at least the ones that we flew on) and then woke up early the next morning to drive the 70 kilometers further south to visit the ruins.
The ancient city of Persepolis is a World Heritage Site that was built starting in around 515 BC and was the capital of ancient Persia. It was started by Cryus the Great and then really developed by Darius the Great and later Xerxes the Great (whose armies were defeated by Alexander the Great) - hey, enough with all "the Great" already!
The last Shah of Iran, the late Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, staged an elaborate coronation ceremony there in 1971 in an effort to present himself as a contemporary manifestation of the 2,500 year old tradition of "great" Persian rulers, and cloak himself in this symbol of national pride. The bleachers he built for the occasion, on which sat the kings and queens and prime ministers and presidents of many nations during that time at the height of the Cold War, are still standing on the site, but today they sit empty and unused and the pomp and circumstance of that distant ceremony are like the faded trumpets of a deposed era.
This was the most typical touristic day of our trip to Iran, but it was important for our delegation to get out of the cinemas and seminars and to allow our hosts to share with us their pride in their amazing cultural heritage.
As I played tour guide to the group with a book I borrowed from our real tour guide, it was easy to imagine a hopeful day in the future when, in a different political reality, Americans might include a stop at Persepolis as often as they would visit The Pyramids or the Parthenon.
Hey, maybe Yanni will even have a live concert here one day!! :)
The walls that are still standing are covered in the most amazing reliefs carved into the grey limestone. Looking at these drawings from thousands of years ago, with their rows of pictures telling stories, was like peering into an ancient nickelodeon and seeing the first movies ever made! I love these dudes holding hands in this shot! :)
A short drive from Persepolis and up on a high plateau where we were buffeted by a fierce wind and stunned by an amazing view stands the Necropolis, where the tombs of the Kings were carved from the sides of high cliffs overlooking the valley and Perespolis in the distance. Looted over the centuries, nothing remains but these monumental crosses in the stone.
At the same location was one of the coolest buildings we saw there, a tower of astrological purpose built by the ancient Zoroastrians. It looked like something that Stanley Kubrick should have used in one of his movies.
A truly awe-inspiring day in every way.