Interview by Brian H. Appleton, www.zirzameen.com
An independent filmmaker recently released his latest film, two years in the making called "Iran: Hot Tea, Cool Conversations." Directed by Brenden Hamilton and co-produced with Mehdi Ghafourifar
Brenden is a very affable, soft spoken young man, a product of Northern California with an irresistibly endearing smile and a winning personality whose friendship immediately becomes apparent and desirable.
Brenden Hamilton above Tehran
Q: Brenden, I loved your film. As someone who spent five years in Iran and loves Iran as much as I do, let me say that you did a totally awesome job in capturing and presenting what a wonderful people and culture Iran is in a way that was sensitive, subtle, and captivating. Your political insights were understated yet poignant and your obvious understanding of the Iranian culture is impressive. I am amazed that you could do this so effectively and well in only 6 weeks of shooting and never having been to Iran before.
Let's start at the beginning. Where were you born Brenden?
A: I was born in SF California, Oct 7, 1980. Then we moved to Oakland briefly.
My parents divorced when I was at a young age after our move to Sonoma County so I grew up commuting between parents in San Francisco and Santa Rosa. I went to Analy High School in Sebastopol. Anna Lee was the daughter of one of the Sebastopol city fathers.
Q: What is your earliest childhood memory?
A: Vague memories of Oakland. From the earliest age I expressed an interest in telling stories. My mom used to tell me that I loved to make up stories from a very early age and I enjoyed telling my stories to an audience.
I watched many films and paid close attention to media growing up. I thought a lot about what went into making stories I watched on TV from a very early age.
Brenden's mom Arlene
Q: Was there one story or film in particular which had a big influence on you as a kid?
A: "Glory" (1989) was one of them. The film making process in itself was interesting to me but it was also a kind of an escape.
Q: I believe that entertainment is partially an escape from our present situations and realities. It is also a way to make a viewer experience or think about other realities and ideas right?
A: So, we live in a culture where conversations and discussions of philosophical ideas are not particularly encouraged. A documentary is a place where people can safely have different ideas presented to them and spend some time thinking about them. Because of the power and influence of the mass media, our impressions of other cultures are based on pre-packaged information presented as objective when in fact they may not be. Intuitively, I just didn't trust the media portrayal of Iran. Due to media distortions, most Americans think of Iran as a flat desert full of terrorists.
I believe the anti-intellectual climate of our culture stems from fear. This fear can be induced and managed by the media. Also the media having the loudest mouth insinuates that most of us, as the American public, are ignorant about foreign affairs, which is actually not the case. America is predominantly a nation of immigrants. Most Americans trace their roots to other countries and have an ongoing cultural liaison with them. This may be especially the case with first generation Americans who still have families in other countries and are in continual communication with them. There are also many Americans working abroad and so the point is that we have other sources of information against which to measure the veracity of the media.
Q: I agree totally with your diagnosis of Western media. Most Americans have the impression that Iran is Saudi Arabia and Vice Versa....not because they have a poor sense of geography but their perception suits their agenda. The West accuses Iran of gender apartheid and yet women vote, women work, women drive, women go to grad school which is not true of Saudi Arabia but Saudis allow US military bases and ARAMCO, while Iran has committed the sin of insisting on its own sovereignty much like we did in 1776.
What upset me the most about the going to war on Iraq was that at the time 99% of Americans only knew the name of one Iraqi; Saddam Hossein. That would be like letting George W. Bush represent all Americans.
When you read a book, there is no visual aspect to it other than some photos perhaps so you as a reader are forced to use your imagination; the imagery is suggested and the details are left to your mind's eye. The greatness and the danger of the film media is that the director can portray reality exactly as he wants to, leaving little room for visualization.
A: I think that the mass media does in fact have a huge influence over what people think and talk about. That is why I believe so firmly in citizen diplomacy because each one of us can represent our country and perhaps in a more accurate way than a government representative can, as well as going beyond nationalism and discovering our shared humanity. As a citizen and not a government or corporate representative I have a different agenda. What citizens of every country share an interest in, is usually the same thing...having friends, a decent career, healthy children, peace... When our government or our media speaks about American interests abroad, they are not necessarily speaking about the average American's interests nor about what is in the best interests of the citizens of another country; they are often speaking about what is best for American corporations or special interest groups.
Q: The media has us believing that Israelis are 100% war hawks in favor of attacking Iran when we know in fact that is not the case and there are peace advocates in Israel who protest this aggression and the expanding of settlements on occupied Arab land. Also interestingly enough American Jews are the biggest critics of Zionism, a fact most Americans are unaware of.
A: This is a passionate topic and I'm sure there are people on both sides of these issues. We haven't been focusing on this area. One of the members of the former New College faculty, Peter Gable writes for the Jewish magazine and interfaith movement Tikkun and I believe he is a Jewish pro Palestinian advocate.
My dad Martin worked at New College in SF for 35 years as a VP for a long time and eventually President. My mom was a New College graduate and a peace activist. She moved here from Florida and became very active in American Indian rights. She founded an organization called "Weaving for Freedom" which helped to give women on the Big Mountain Indian Reservation in Arizona some income. She helped to market their weaving to a large marketplace while simultaneously broadcasting their plight to the public.
Brenden and his dad Martin at the airport
My mom was more or less adopted into the Big Mountain community. She was one of a very few outsiders allowed to experience the Sun Dance ritual of the Navajo. I spent time on the reservation and was greatly influenced not only by her enthusiasm for social justice but also by her entrepreneurial ability as I watched her literally grow that business from a very small local operation with a trading post to a large international one. I think that she gave me the courage to become an independent filmmaker.
My mom was an advocate for the Navajo. There had been a long, long history of pressure from the BIA as well as private industry to relocate this tribe ever since it was discovered that there were significant coal deposits under the reservation land they had been given. At one point when Peabody Coal Company was corrupting certain of the tribal leaders with bribes to gain their consent to mine in their sacred sites, she assisted the elders in buying up enough shares in Peabody to become voting members of the board and a group of them went with her to London to negotiate with Hanson, the parent company.
My mom, Arlene also had a program called: "The Garden Project" which still exists and teaches prisoners how to garden. It is also called horticulture therapy. It gives prisoners a useful skill and some empowerment. While on the reservation I can remember wanting so much to be home watching TV and playing basketball. It was only much later that I realized what an incredible experience it had been and how much it influenced my life.
Q: Your mom sounds like she was quite courageous, intelligent and had a passion for social justice. I am sorry that she met her demise five years ago and that I will never have the pleasure of meeting her.
A: I am touched that you would honor my mother in this interview.
Brenden and Aziz
Q: Why Iran and what was your purpose for making this film? Your first film "Bound" was about Robert Johnson so this one about Iran is kind of a radical departure. Were sports your first love?
A: Yeah, "Hoop Dreams" (1994) was kind of the inspiration for that film. "Bound" picks up where "Hoop Dreams" leaves off; the character made it to college in "Hoop Dreams" and in "Bound" the film begins following Robert Johnson in his senior year of college attempting to both graduate and get drafted into the NBA . We were filming "Bound" at the time of March Madness and America's "shock and awe" bombing of Iraq. This kind of eclipsed our film as far as relevance. We did a few film festivals and had a great opening at the Roxy, which was very exciting. The DVD is coming out soon.
The invasion of Iraq definitely grabbed my attention. I was always interested in politics.
I thought Iran would be next. I had learned in public high school about how the opposing side is dehumanized in order to make war possible, in order to get popular support for it, especially using the fear factor which accompanies demonization. I wanted to see Iran for myself and bring back a real perspective for the American people.
Jerry Dekker taught some courses on Iran at New College which I attended and I also took a course there about Middle Eastern religions that talked about Iran. Plus my dad also talked a lot about it and wanted to go to Iran. The politics unfolding about Iran intrigued me including the mystery of Iran and what it was really going to be like. While I was filming in Iran, I was so caught up in the process that I really didn't have time to digest it. But once back in the US, in my cutting and editing studio, it really began to sink in-Iran, what an amazing, culturally and historically rich country.
Jerry had spoken highly of Iran and said it would be possible to go to Iran and film there. So I was really curious about the so-called "Axis of Evil" and wanted to see it for myself.
Q: Did you plan from the start to make the film a series of interviews or did that just kind of evolve as you went?
A: It evolved as I went. I had no idea what to expect about how receptive Iranians were going to be about being filmed and interviewed.
I watched the D.A. Pennebaker film "Don't Look Back" (1967) starring Bob Dylan. I used Pennebaker's real intimate style. His camera work liberates the camera from convention. Free hand held, personal, and intimate, almost like one on one.
Q: You went to film school?
A: I took ROP video courses in High School and then took additional filmmaking courses at Long Beach. I graduated from New College of California with a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities with concentration in Film/History in 2007. My film courses were good for learning techniques and processes. But I learned most about filming through hands on experiences.
Q: When did you shoot this film and how long did it take?
A: I shot the film in 2006 and it took a couple of years to complete it, including all the editing, narrations... At first I had a rather didactic segment about going into a culture shock upon my return home and the 24-hour news cycle. What I mean by 24-hour news cycle is the way in which old news goes stale in 24 hours and people can't remember what happened last week let alone one, five, or 100 years ago. The media seldom puts anything into historical perspective so people may not have a good idea of why certain events are taking place. In the end, we chose to make the film more subtle and stay out of divisive political rhetoric as much as possible.
Q: I was at your San Jose movie premiere and lucky to get in as there was standing room only. The film made me weep because it did such an effective job of portraying what marvelous humanity exists there which was my experience as well. I was so impressed that I immediately called Jerry Dekker from the parking lot to tell him how great it was and what a star he had been and I e-mailed Farzaneh in Tehran to tell her the same thing when I got back to my lap top. What was your favorite part of the film?
A: There were so many great moments that I could talk about.
Q: Yeah like that segment with everybody riding the donkeys.
A: That again was completely spontaneous. We saw the donkeys alongside the road and pulled over. The owners let us ride them and then we all ended up having lunch together.
Q: Well I could tell you guys were definitely having fun especially the girls.
A: One of the ladies on our trip ran over and tried to get on a donkey. She had been studying Farsi in school and her language acquisition really blossomed when she was totally immersed in the culture. The donkey owners had been just taking a lunch break when suddenly out of nowhere this American lady was trying to ride their donkeys. It was really quite hysterical.
Q: Another moment in the film which I found interesting was when you ran into a Jamaican Muslim professor at the holy shrine of Hazrat-e-Masoumeh in Qom, who took it upon himself to represent and explain to your small group, the Shiite political perspective and how they view the motives of the West.
A: I was particularly impressed by how open he was and also the mullahs there in their willingness to discuss politics and world religions with us. They shared their lunch with us and then acted as our tour guides around the shrine.
Q: What are some other memorable high points from the film for you?
A: When we got to Takht-e-Suleiman, the old Zoroastrian unofficial archeologist and Takht-e-Suleiman guide., Azzi, who had assisted the German archeologists in the original excavation of the site in the 1930's, really struck a cord with me. The Germans at that time of the Nazi era were obsessed with finding their Aryan roots. Anyway Azzi was still a practicing Zoroastrian and for some reason I just felt really comfortable talking with him and really enjoyed spending time with him. In fact I would consider meeting him the high point of my trip. I just feel like there was a spiritual connection made between us. I felt that there was something extra sacred about that entire site and a lot of energy was emanating from it. He taught me the fundamental principles of Zoroaster which were: Think Well, Speak Well, Do Well and then all your endeavors will be successful because they have the right motivation. I took these words into my heart and they kept me going during the editing and completion of this film once I returned home.
Q: What a moving experience this has been for you, that the very first monotheistic religion could, thousands of years later, exert such an influence over you. In closing I want to thank you very much from my heart for making this film because the cause is the same one which makes me write. I have a deep love for Iran and for peace. I wish you every success and hope and pray that millions of people get to see this film in the West and in Iran and worldwide and whatever I can do to help you promote this film would be my privilege.
A: I am very grateful for this interview and, for me, the cause is also the most important thing. Peace was the motivation behind the film but the ultimate message is citizen diplomacy. I am hoping to demonstrate it by this film and to inspire ordinary people of every walk of life and nationality, that they have the ability to empower and represent themselves independently of any government and that essentially humanity shares more in common than what divides it. Ultimately this is all about overcoming our fears through healthy dialogue.
Q: In closing how can our readers obtain a DVD copy of your film or go to a screening in a theatre.
A: For all up-dates on screenings please go to www.iranthemovie.com. Our plan is to have DVD copies available for purchase through our website and other distribution channels within the next few weeks.
Brian Appleton and Brenden
About: Brian H. Appleton is the author of Tales From the Zirzameen.
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