“Film is one of the three universal languages, the other two: mathematics and music” -Frank Capra
As one of the youngest nations in the World the United States of America throughout its history has forged its identity upon cultural diversity. It is precisely thanks to this melting pot of races, colors, sounds and sensitivities that it contributed to the invention (*) one of the most attractive and enduring popular art forms that changed not only America but also the World at Large particularly throughout the 20th Century and beyond: The Motion Picture. What was deemed as merely an industry soon became one of the most powerful cultural mediums, which, with each technological breakthrough, pushed the boundaries of individual and collective creativity towards higher standards. However this quintessential American Art form benefited from the works and talents imported from all over the world. Some of Hollywood’s Greatest representatives were hardly American by birth at least. Be them directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Erich von Stroheim, William Wyler, Billy Wilder or male leads like Rudolph Valentino, Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Yul Brynner, Richard Burton to Silver Screen Goddess’ like Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Ann-Margret all were “imported” talents who for most wrote some of the most glorious chapters of film history. If European Artists constituted the first legion in Hollywood, they have long been joined by many other nationalities worldwide that have enriched it in ways that are reflected by Hollywood’s unique capacity of reinventing itself while remaining a reference for professional craftsmanship and enduring modernity. Interestingly this has also been true for the highly successful community of first generation Iranian Americans artists today most of whom left Iran during or after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 or were born and/or grew up in the US. Some have since become household names for the American community and have had both critical acclaim and popular success both on Television and the Cinema Screen. To name a few: Oscar Nominee Actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog, X-Men3, 24), Anthony Azizi (Commander in Chief), Shaun Toub (Crash, Iron Man, The Kite Runner), Bahar Soomekh (Saw III& IV, Crash). One should also include to this list those in the community who are the fruit of mixed marriages between Iranian and non Iranian parents and whose cosmopolitan identity add an extra flavor of exoticism thanks to such talents as Adrian Pasdar (Heroes, Top Gun), Omid Djalili (Gladiator, The Mummy, Casanova, Spy Games), Catherine Bell (JAG, The Triangle, Army Wives), or Sarah Shahi (The L-Word). To this largely incomplete list of talents one should also include the dozens of Iranian Americans who occupy key positions in the industry as directors, producers, cinematographers, screenwriters, technicians, stunt coordinators or SFX wizards. To name just a few in each category respectively: Legendary director Reza Badiyi (Mission Impossible, Bay Watch, Six Million Dollar Man), Prolific producers Bob Yari ( The Illusionist, Matador) and Lions Gate’s Mark Amin (Saw, The Prince & Me, Cinematographer Darius Khondji (EVITA, Seven), screenwriters Hossein Amini ( Oscar® nominated for Wings of Doves, Four Feathers) and Cyrus Nowrasteh ( The Path to 9/11, Into the West), Oscar Nominated Sound Editor Kami Asgar (Apocalypto) , Stuntman Darren Shahlavi (300 ) SFX wizard Habib Zargarpour. This ever-growing pool of exceptional talents also offers a great opportunity to bridge the Iranian film community at Large working both within the Diaspora or in Iran with that of Hollywood and the independent film society across North America. Iranian American Producer Siamak Ghahremani has filled in this necessary gap by founding the Noor Film Festival (NFF) which will be holding its 2nd annual this coming April in Hollywood. A glittering event and much welcomed initiative that acknowledges contemporary film and acting achievements while paving the way for future aspiring talents.
I had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Ghahremani and learn more about his Film Festival.
Darius KADIVAR: Tell us about yourself and what led you and your partners to create the Noor Film Festival.
Siamak GHAHREMANI: My co-founders, Anthony Azizi, Krista Behi, and Cymbeline Smith and I share passions for both film and Iranian culture. Bringing these two things together was a natural idea. We wanted to showcase the work of Iranian filmmakers as a way to unite people, particularly in the current global climate of extreme distrust. When we hear and see each other’s stories, we learn we are more alike than different. Thankfully, there was plenty of support for this idea in both the Iranian community and the film industry. A number of dedicated and talented individuals got on board early and helped make this dream a reality. None of the co-founders take credit for creating the festival. At its heart, this is a grassroots, community-based event.
DK: For the first time in decades, the 80th Annual Academy Awards® held this February had a particularly international feel to it. The Oscar® winners ranged from Ireland, Italy, Spain, Austria, France and the UK. The European Press, France included noticed that Marion Cotillard's best actress victory, for La Vie En Rose, made hers the first non-English language performance to win the best actress Oscar since Sophia Loren's in 1962. Spain's Javier Bardem - winner of this year's best supporting actor Oscar - went so far as to deliver a part of his speech in his native tongue. To your credit the Noor Film Festival (NFF), which was first inaugurated last year, seems to have predicted this global awareness that Hollywood is turning into a melting pot of International talents. How do you situate NFF in this regard and what are your ambitions, goals and vision in this regard given the cosmopolitan nature of the Iranian Diaspora and Film Community?
SG: The phenomenon you describe is not exclusive to Hollywood; it’s occurring everywhere. Technology has made the world smaller and given us access to other communities like never before. We have new opportunities to connect with, learn about, and appreciate other cultures. And as we connect, we find out we’re all similar people with common fears and hopes. The geographic and cultural differences simply add a new perspective on what we are experiencing ourselves. So as we learn about others, we’re learning about ourselves. The films we will showcase at the 2008 NFF were submitted from seven different countries spanning three continents. But that’s all just geography. They resonate globally because of our shared humanity.
DK: I was impressed by the professional quality and prestigious star studded names that appeared in your Jury/Judges last year (**), but I see that you have reiterated this with equal panache with this year’s eclectic Jury/Judges. Could you name and present them for our readers.
SG: As I mentioned earlier, we were blessed from the beginning with support from highly accomplished individuals in both the Iranian community and the film industry. This year’s judges are: Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog, X-Men: The Last Stand), Reza Badiyi (Hawaii 5-0, Mission: Impossible), Rainn Wilson (The Office, Juno), Omid Djalili (The Omid Djalili Show, Pirates of the Caribbean), and Ever Carradine (Women's Murder Club, Law & Order: CI). We are committed to having a diverse panel of judges each year.
DK: This year’s event wishes to celebrate Women in particular. Why so?
SG: We decided to articulate themes each year to focus the festival and deliver a cohesive message. Last year’s theme was Tolerance and this year we’re “Celebrating Women”. By encouraging film submissions that focus on women, we hope to amplify the female voice in filmmaking, as well as to draw attention to women’s issues.
DK: Who, when and how can someone apply films to NFF, what are the different Award categories?
SG: Filmmakers can download an application from our website and submit it with their film. We purposely keep the application fee low and do not discriminate against films based on their country of origin, topic, style, length or any other factors. We want to encourage all those who wish to apply. The only requirement we have is that films cannot be religious or political in nature, or affiliated with religious or political organizations. Submissions are judged for Best Director, Best Documentary, Best idea/story, and audience favorite.
DK: Beyond the films selected to date what has been the general outlook of your American colleagues towards Iranian films but also our culture and community, be it the Judges but also by someone like the Legendary Hollywood icon Sydney Poitier who accepted a special achievement Award by NFF at last year’s event?
SG: The non-Iranian community has embraced the Noor Film Festival in ways I did not imagine when we started. Those who are jaded by politics and religious rhetoric find a cultural exchange to be less threatening. They are open to learn about Iranians and Iranian filmmaking. They appreciate the quality and artistic merit of the films, and they respect the community that produced the work. The reception we received last year was extraordinary. Our opening gala, in particular, enjoyed great press coverage from mainstream media, like CNN, and was attended by a number of high profile celebrities.
DK: Although Iranian Cinema has gained global and critical recognition in the past years, Iranian filmmakers back home including the great ones like Abbas Kiarostami, Bahman Ghobadi, or the Makhmalbaf family are still struggling with an often crippling censorship. For instance no real Iranian produced films truly got noticed in Cannes in the past 3 years. What was first seen as a “creative” constraint is now actually leading many to exile. Mohsen Makhmalbaf now works between Paris, France and Kabul, Afghanistan, Kiarostami is currently shooting his first film outside Iran with Oscar® Awardee Juliette Binoche and French New Wave Star Sami Frey. Some directors like Niki Karimi for her film One Night have never seen their films released on Iranian screens. Do you see NFF as a platform for showcasing such productions in the future and even having some of these talents on board?
SG: Absolutely. NFF is positioned to be the leading outlet for all Iranian filmmakers throughout the globe. We want to give Iranians an opportunity to tell their stories. Unfortunately, filmmakers inside Iran are not only limited in their ability to exhibit their films, they are also limited in their ability to make them. We hope that changes in the future so that NFF could be one of the many platforms to showcase Iranian film and filmmakers.
DK: As you may know Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s film Persepolis has had a great Box Office and Critical acclaim both in Europe and the United States. Despite losing to Ratatouille at the Oscars® and Golden Globes® it did nevertheless win two French Oscars® (known as Les Césars). Has this global recognition strengthened the Iranian American film community as to the critical and Box Office potential of Iran-related themes that avoid social and political clichés about Iranians in general particularly in the US?
SG: Yes. Persepolis is an important film for a number of reasons, including its box office success. It showed the industry that Iranian themed films can be commercially viable. But it wasn’t the first to do this. The House of Sand and Fog was also a successful film. It too showed an Iranian perspective without the typical clichés. In the end, a good story, well told will resonate with any audience. We may find, in years to come, that the biggest contribution these films made was to inspire a new generation of Iranian filmmakers.
DK: Some of your partners like Beyond Persia, Bebin TV are doing some excellent work in reflecting the young generation of talents in the Diaspora. In your view how can we develop our culture outside Iran without losing our identity?
SG: We must continue to express ourselves and develop our culture no matter where we are. Beyond Persia does this through its events. Bebin TV does it through its shows. Namak magazine does it in print. NFF does it through film. Each one of us explores our culture in our own distinct ways, and in doing so, we not only preserve our identity but also expand it.
DK: In recent years we have observed the development of Iranian cultural organizations a little everywhere like Roshan Institute and PARSA in the US or Magic of Persia, and Iran Heritage Foundation in Great Britain. Have you considered exploring avenues of mutual interest and cooperation in order to expand NFF outreach not only in the US but towards Europe?
SG: We are well connected to Iranians throughout the Diaspora and have received film submissions from around the globe. We hope to expand that reach to eventually showcase films in other countries as well. Cooperating with other Iranian cultural organizations is certainly a key to that effort.
DK: Could you briefly summarize the major highlights of your week long Festival (April 6th-13th,2008) ? Will the ceremonies be available online or aired live on Satellite Televison / Radio?
SG: The Opening Ceremony will kick off the festival on April 6. Actor and comedian, Maz Jobrani, will act as host. The evening will include keynote speeches, live entertainment, dinner and dancing. We will also exhibit clips from last year’s award winners and this year’s selected films. The films will be screened on April 10-12 and the festival will wrap up with an award ceremony on April 13.
DK: Thank you Siamak for your time and all my best wishes of success for the 2nd Annual NFF.
Official Website of NFF ( Noor Film Festival)
(*) France and America equally claim the paternity of Cinema respectively by Lumières Bros and Thomas Edison in ~(1895-1896).
(**)The 2007 Noor Film Festival judges included: Natasha Henstridge (Species,
The Whole Nine Yards), Maz Jobrani (Friday After Next, Interpreter), Harry J. Lennix
(Matrix Reloaded, Matrix Revolution),