By Dokhi Fassihian and Lily Sarafan
The National Iranian American Council, Washington, DC
Maryam, a film about an Iranian-American family living in New Jersey during the 1979 Iranian revolution, has recently been released on DVD following the film's initial appearance in theaters in 2002. NIAC conducted this interview with Iranian American Writer-Director Ramin Serry on his feature film debut. Serry, born in Chicago, Illinois, received his M.F.A. in film from Columbia University's Graduate School of the Arts. There, he wrote, directed and edited two short films, Tom Comes Over to Visit and My Sister's Wedding. He received his B.A. in English and American Literature from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana.
NIAC: For those who have not yet seen your film, can you provide an abstract of Maryam?
Serry: Maryam is about an Iranian family living in New Jersey during the revolution and hostage crisis of 1979. Mary (Mariam Parris), a 17-year-old girl, sees herself as a typical American teenager until her cousin, Ali (David Ackert), comes to live with her and her parents (Shaun Toub and Shohreh Aghdashloo). Ali is filled with revolutionary spirit and holds a grudge against Mary's father. When the hostage crisis leads to an American backlash against Iranians, Mary finds herself questioning her cultural identity, as Ali, increasingly frustrated, chooses a violent course of action.
NIAC: Since the film's release, what has been the general reaction from the American public? The Iranian-American community?
Serry: The reactions from both American and Iranian audiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Many Americans tell me that they totally identified with the characters. Others have thanked me for presenting the Iranian perspective on the events of 1979, something with which they were otherwise totally unfamiliar. But there have been a few criticisms. Some Americans have felt that the film portrays Americans as shallow and racist and that this is an anti-American film. But just as many Iranians have complained that Ali's character is a negative portrayal and that this is an anti-Iranian film. When I hear such a wide range of or opposing responses, I feel that I've accomplished my goal, which was to make a balanced film that doesn't support any specific political agenda.
NIAC: Do any of the characters resemble people in your own life, past or present?
Serry: The "Maryam" character is largely based on me. Like her, I grew up in the U.S. without much connection to Iran. During the Iran-Iraq war, two of my male cousins fled Iran and came to live with my family. Mary's mixed feelings of curiosity and embarrassment regarding her cousin are based on my own experiences. I had a cousin named Ali who was very energized by the revolution. I used this for part of Ali's character. But Ali's feelings of frustration, resentment and struggle with his faith are actually based on me.
NIAC: What has been your general experience as an Iranian in the United States? Were you living in the United States during the Revolution?
Serry: I was born in the U.S. and, like Maryam, grew up thinking I was a typical American, until the hostages were taken and other kids started telling me that I was a foreigner. During that period, I was constantly called names and harassed. The hardest part about it was that some of the kids who harassed me were, otherwise, some of my closest friends. They weren't "dumb" bullies. These kids were very intelligent and could be incredibly charming. This complicated the issue and, at the time, left me feeling very confused.
NIAC: How did you find your actors?
Serry: We looked in New York and LA and saw dozens of young Iranians. In Los Angeles, we found Mariam Parris, who we immediately knew was perfect because, like the character; she is very strong and confident. We also found David Ackert who is a great actor, but also a multi-talented person who would be great at almost anything. He is the grandson of Ruhollah Khaleghi, composer of the pre-Islamic Iranian national anthem. Maziyar Jobrani, who plays "Reza" is a gifted stand-up comedian and a regular at The Comedy Store in LA. Maz won us over with a videotape of himself doing a mock TV commercial where he played a bumbling, self-serious Iranian lawyer. It was hilarious. Shaun Toub is a very powerful actor who has been in dozens of big Hollywood movies and television shows. He helped convince Shohreh Aghdashloo, who's a big star in the Iranian community, to do the film. We felt lucky to get Shohreh because she is such an impressive woman and maintains a huge following in the community. On the set, she cooked Persian food for the crew which they all loved.
NIAC: Of your main actors, who was Iranian and who was not? For those who were not [e.g. David Ackert], how did you familiarize them with the Iranian culture or language? Had they had previous experiences with these topics in film or otherwise?
Serry: All the actors who played Iranians are actually Iranian. The few moments when the actors speak Persian, I let them invent their own dialogue. The film feels much more authentic because of it. David Ackert, whose real name is Ramin Ackert, lived in Iran as a boy, then came to the United States right around the time of the hostage crisis. Like me, David had a very hard time in his new American school and so, years later when he read the script for Maryam, he immediately felt a very close connection to "Ali." Shohreh had significant experiences with the Savak and she consulted us on that aspect of the story. Mariam was too young to know much about the Revolution so she was perfect because her character is learning about it for the first time. In the film, Mary sings a lullaby. This was not originally in the script. One day, while driving home from the film set, Mariam Parris sang this song, explaining that her grandmother used to sing it to her. We immediately knew we had to put it to the film.
NIAC: With everything going on with Iran and in the world today, why did you focus your film on life in America during the Iranian Revolution? Do you see any parallel with post 9/11 life in America?
Serry: I started writing the film in 1995, during a time when the world was not quite as focused on the Middle East and Islam. I chose to make it about the Revolution because it still seemed to be the one most influential event in my life and the lives of most Iranians all over the world. Before September 11th, we had shown the film in some festivals and received some positive reviews, but after the tragedy, we were told how timely and relevant our film was. Friends urged us to release it into theaters. The Hostage Crisis can't really be compared to The World Trade Center disaster. But, in 1979 and after September 11th, there were similar backlashes against Middle-Easterners, Muslims or just anyone with dark skin. Except, in 2001, some people were victims of reprisal killings. I don't think there were any reprisal killings in 1979. One positive change is that the media, which has grown since 1979, offered much more sensitive coverage of Middle-Easterners in America. Both Carter and Bush called for tolerance, but Bush committed much more time to getting this message out.
NIAC: But in the end, it didn't prevent the reprisal killings. Iranian Americans are experiencing this climate of discrimination for the second time since their arrival to this country. What is the fundamental problem and what can Iranian Americans do to prevent a third backlash against them in the future?
Serry: That is one of the most difficult questions. It would help if Iranians took a more active, visible role in society. I think this will happen but only over time, as this current young generation gains experience and matures.
NIAC: What is the main message that you hope film viewers would take away from Maryam?
Serry: I hope that the film will entertain and raise some questions. But it is not meant to express any kind of specific agenda or message.
NIAC: What knowledge about America or Americans were you trying to disseminate through Maryam?
Serry: The single most important thing I wanted to say about America is that the Iranian-American experience is just as much of an American story as the experiences of the many other ethnic groups who have come to the U.S. and contributed to its history.
NIAC: What were the biggest difficulties you encountered in making this film?
Serry: The biggest difficulty we encountered was the resistance to the film from the film industry. Because Maryam is about a relatively small ethnic group in America during a controversial time, no distributor wanted to have anything to do with us. Even after Roger Ebert wrote a wonderful review, and after September 11th, distributors told us the film was not marketable. So we distributed the film ourselves, using grassroots promotions to attract Iranians. I am still working hard to promote the film because I feel it has much to offer the Iranian community.
NIAC: We're seeing a gradual increase in the representation of the Iranian American community in films, sitcoms, and in the entertainment industry as a whole. In your view, how accurate is Hollywood's portrayal of the Iranian American community? What and how long will it take before our story is considered an American story-your main point in Maryam?
Serry: There is still not an accurate representation of Iranians in Hollywood and, in fact, almost no representation at all. I don't think that this going to change any time soon. But there is hope. Whoopi Goldberg's new show is going to feature the first Iranian character on American prime time television, played by the hilarious Omid Djalili. I have heard that, on the show, his character makes a point of saying "I am not an Arab. I am Persian!" This is definitely a first. Also, I have received many emails from young, motivated Iranians across the country, who want to become filmmakers. If these people succeed, then we're bound to see more of an Iranian presence in Hollywood. But, at this point, there are no Iranians in positions of real power in the entertainment industry. If some Iranians reach these positions, then it will be up to them and hopefully myself to highlight for the public how the Iranian story is an American story.
NIAC: Which filmmakers have inspired you and your work? Can you name any favorite films?
Serry: Like most of the film students my age, I was influenced by the great filmmakers of the 60's and 70's: Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. My favorite films are probably The Godfather, I and II, Chinatown and Nashville.
NIAC: How about Iranian filmmakers? Do you enjoy Iran's national cinema?
Serry: I didn't really know much about Iranian cinema as a boy. But, one day in film school, a friend of mine told me about a film called The Runner by Amir Naderi, which I bought and loved. Then I saw Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees which I also loved. My favorite Iranian filmmaker is Makhmalbaf and my favorite film continues to be Bread and Vase/Moment of Innocence. I am very impressed with Iranian cinema, especially after going to many film festivals and seeing films from all over the world. It really is uncanny how generally good Iranian films are compared to those from other countries.
NIAC: Where has Maryam been shown? How can interested individuals see Maryam?
Serry: We've played Maryam in more than 30 American cities. It has just been released on DVD which people can buy on Amazon.com or through our website, www.streetlightfilms.com.
NIAC: What are your future projects? Do you plan to make more films on Iranian-related topics?
Serry: My new script is a romantic comedy set in the Midwest. It is not about Iranians but is just as personal of a project as Maryam. I have an idea for a big fun Iranian comedy and another idea for an epic about the Persian Empire. But I don't want to make these films unless I do them with relatively big budgets. I'll just have to wait until I'm more successful.
To purchase the film Maryam, click here.
The National Iranian American Council is a Washington, DC-based non-profit educational organization promoting Iranian-American participation in American civic and political life. For more information, please visit www.niacouncil.org, email NIAC at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a fax to 202-518-6187. NIAC is a 501 (c)3 non-profit organization. All donations to NIAC are tax-deductible.
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