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Iran and the Oscars!!


By Parisa DeFaie

A close and intimate discussion with the most powerful man in Hollywood!

Parisa DeFaie and Sidney Ganis

Following a short news article I read about the Academy of Motion Pictures visit to Iran, I decided to learn more about this important trip. My sense of curiosity was so heightened that I searched high and low for more information. To my surprise there were not too many news articles about what seemed to be an important mission in Iran. I immediately put my forces together and contacted The Academy who then invited me and the crew to the headquarters' office in Beverly Hills. What you are about to read is the transcript of the televised discussion Mr. Alireza Amirghasemi, founder and CEO of pbc-Tapesh Network and I had with Sidney Ganis, President of Academy of Motion Pictures. I was not surprised to hear the networks enthusiasm to record and broadcast this important interview. The technical crew came prepared and did a great job setting up the stage for me, Mr. Amirghasemi, Mr. Ganis and of course, the Oscar himself!!

Parisa DeFaie: Mr. Ganis, Thank you for inviting us to the home of Oscars. Please tell us about your recent trip to Iran. What was the purpose of your trip?

Sidney Ganis: The main purpose of the Academy was to make it clear that that we are not a Hollywood film organization. We are not an American film organization. We are worldwide film organization. That's why it's up to us to reach out to the rest of the world from as you said the home of Oscars. We had to reach out from the headquarters and make our presence felt. So, we came up with a plan five years ago and one of the first places we wanted to visit was Iran, but we couldn't because of all the complicated issues we had. Instead we went to Vietnam, and had a very successful trip. We went back and met with filmmakers, and it could not have been a more successful trip. Then after Vietnam, we tried again going to Iran, and what do you know, we were able to get all the permits, the visas and the sponsor which was the house of Cinema in Tehran, and became our gathering place. 8 of us plus Ellen Harrington form the academy went to a 10-12 day trip to Iran. We first visited Tehran, where we would start watching Iranian movies at 7 AM every day. We had our Tea and started watching movies. At the end of the day, each of us in the delegation showed one of our movies to the audience of filmmakers. It was a long day and of course we took a little holiday in between and visited Shiraz and Isfahan.

Alireza Amirghasemi: Did you have to get permit from the US government to visit Iran?

SG: No. we just called them up and said we were going. The first time we tried, was during the previous administration and they said: WHAT??? WHERE?? The second time, the current administration had just taken over and they were thrilled that we going on this trip and it was so gratifying to us. But they did not help us; in other worlds we did not need them. We are not part of the sanction, so we just wanted to let them know. They did put us in touch with the Swiss Embassy in Tehran and we had a contact all the way through.

PD: It seems like the purpose of this trip was for cultural exchange, although we can't help but to think there is more good things coming out as a result of this trip. One of them being, we are here at your presence having a dialogue.

SD: Sure enough! You are right! And we did not know this Parisa! We went for movie reasons, and as it turned out it became more than that. Who knows, maybe it will serve a very good purpose. Countrymen to country men, Americans to Iranians and push all this stuff and get to know each other a little bit.

PD: and that's citizen diplomacy, something we have been trying to encourage. And it seems like this trip is also promoting that.

SD: Exactly! And we did not set it up to be like that! We were just bunch of filmmakers wanting to meet other filmmakers.

Photo courtesy of House of Cinema

AA: When Sean Penn traveled to Iran, there was a so much buzz in the Media. But we did not hear so much about 8 delegates with bigger names not only in Iran, even here in US. No one made a big deal. Why?

SD: well, two things happened, first of all we knew what happened with Sean Penn. But since we were not there for political reasons, we decided to keep it very low key and house of cinema also agreed, But when we got there and the word got out, the cameras started coming out. Then the advisor to president said we should apologize for the movies 300 and The wrestler. We looked at each other and said: what??

And that started making news. But we were not invaded by the video cameras, even though we had two big movie stars , Annette Bening and Alfree Woodard, plus big name movie executives with us. The press was there but they were not too obtrusive.

AA: What did you do about the presidents' demand of apology for 300 and The wrestler?

SD: As the president of the Academy, I said the simple truth! We are here for a cultural trip and I would never think about apologizing for an artistic venture made by someone else. Iranians specially would understand that since their culture is so steeply into poetry and art. So I made it very clear that I had no intention of apologizing!

PD: I think it's the political climate that makes Iranians feel the way they do. I mean we are identified by the government! Which is not the truth! And as you said Iranian people have thousands of years of culture, therefore we are being sensitive,

SD: We did not know that Parisa! And if we did not know it just imagine the rest of the American society! By mid trip we realized that we were not listening to the people but to the two governments, both Iran and US!!

We experienced the famous Iranian hospitality. People could not be any nicer, not just nice; but these are the people who were welcoming and wanted to know about movies, what we do and how we do it! What appeared to be a naïve question was in fact a sincere question. I was asked about the restriction we face here in US on making a movie. And I said none!!! Besides the little parental advice, we have no restrictions! Another interesting question was how much support/money we get from the US government which the answer was also none!

PD: the Iranians inside the country deal with oppression and the Iranians outside deal with stereotyping, which is horrible! Do you think your visit to Iran and experiencing the culture first hand is actually going to help biases we see in media? Do you think Iranians have been portrayed fairly in cinema or news??

SG: It is Horrible! I have to tell you that I understand this much better now and you'd think I'd figure it out before going to Iran. But people being stereotyped is so awful and ugly and often with no biases and truth.

Well, I know how I feel. And I'll say it to anybody who asks me. The Iranian people, their Iranian culture, and the film history which I discovered were a 100 years old art form and are amazing. If I make a movie and I have to portray an Iranian, I'll do it based on my experience. But as far as portraying Iranians in a movie, NO. It is up to the director and the artist. Art is art and you cannot dictate how a something should be portrayed and it's in the hands of an artist.

PD: Yes and that creativity comes from the freedom of speech and freedom of expression, which brings me to the next point. Even though Iranian filmmakers do not have these privileges, and face many limitations and restrictions, they make films that are amazing and rich in content, despite the lack of 3 elements we see in American films which are extreme violence, sex and sophisticated action sequences.

SD: In the films that I saw, the filmmakers were so skilled that you'd never know there were any restrictions. An Example is the movie" about Elli", which was screened at the Tribeca film festival and was very well received. But all of us thought that movie was sensational. There was no touching! A husband and wife fight scene was so real that I thought they had actually physically confronted each other. But what is odd of course was that all women in this movie had their head coverings, even though they were in the privacy of their homes. That was a surprise to me that you are not allowed to uncover at home. That did not make artistic sense to me. And that's the restriction that exists. I wish to share something with you and your viewers. We were surrounded by men and women and we had a 16 year old young girl who was one of our guides. We talked about women in Iran and head scarves and all the obvious stuff that worry some people when we talk about women in Iran. This young girl who is very bright and intends to apply to Princeton University, said:" it's okay! It's a custom! It's the way we live and it does not matter to us at all". So that too was something that I had to hear, and she was not the only one! Others have said it too .It's inconsequential!

PD: do you think by mixing the Iranian cinema with American genres, Iranian cinema may lose its authenticity since the two are so different?? I am afraid that it may lose its organic feel since the bases of both are not the same. Dollar sign is the basis of most Hollywood films were Iranian films are purely about expressing their feelings based on the trauma they have been experiencing.

SG: It cannot happen Parisa! Only if it's a fantasy! The Iranian movies are technically perfect and beautifully produced with beautiful stories, and with contemporary techniques. But No! They are clearly Iranian movies and I don't even know what Hollywood means these days. Hollywood films are about commodity and Iranian films are about family, culture. often! Here I am stereotyping again!!!...but often they are about serious matters. Particularly the ones government sanctions. And I'd think they don't have a vast audience inside or outside of Iran. And here we of course make movies that are common denominators to the world like XMen. I can't see an Iranian filmmaker planning to make a film like Xmen.

AA: Maybe they don't do it because they don't have the facilities to make such films. I don't even think an actor have been in front of a Panavision or Panaflex cameras. They don't' sell it and there are no relations between the filmmakers and the companies.

SG: But somehow, they get what they need, they get up high and shoot their films as they were using a crane. We went to a set of a long running television series about Mecca. They had built the studio with gigantic sets in a big space they had outside of Tehran. It was functioning and it felt like I was at the back lot of the Sony Pictures in Culver City. From the look a feel of the place it felt very comfortable. So they may not have the Panavision Cameras, but have the production value. And in movies like" About Elli", it looks so fully produced. A Lot of it is hand held but very sophisticated. That's what I think about Iranian filmmakers, Sophisticated.

PD: Do you have any plans to share some of the Equipment with the Iranian filmmakers? From what I hear only a handful of filmmakers can afford renting the equipments that are equivalent to what is used in the US. For a long time I was thinking of an alliance that could bring these equipments to Iran so a larger number of filmmakers could have access to them.

SG: Very Interesting! But wouldn't a place like house of cinema provide this facility? Here in US the Independent film organization has a program that helps young filmmakers learn and then use their knowledge to shoot film. I think that model is good and it works. I think they can do that if they wanted to.

PD: I hope so! And I hope your alliance with the house of cinema will close that gap.

SG: Well, we are very much in touch! Don't be surprised if you see Iranian filmmakers right here in the US at the headquarter of Oscars.

PD: I would love to see that! Not only Iranian filmmakers but the Iranian actors and actresses, a collaboration of all Iranian talents. In fact when I saw Golshifteh Farahani in" Body of Lies", I knew something was going to change, and something will happen!! I mean, she is a fantastic and capable young actress. But the fact that we had an Iranian actress coming from Iran and in a major production was a surprise?!

AA: But there is a price to pay for that.

SG: what's the price?

AA: the price for her not to be in front of the camera anymore!!

SG: Yes, that's the price for her to pay. Absolutely! it depends though on her. Then it becomes up to the individual and what his or her goals are in life. This may all change. I don't know why but I feel it. Maybe that's just me being excited to have been there for two weeks. Enjoying the place, the people, the filmmakers and the food!! But I also think there is more to it. This is the beginning of some changes.

AA: Did you go to restaurants there? Did Annette and Alfree also go with you?

SG: yes! We went to fancy restaurant! But you want to hear something crazy?? Because people watch the Oscars, they recognized ME!! I mean, here I am with two of the most beautiful and famous American actresses, and they recognized me! A guy came up to me and said:" I saw you at Oscars"!! and our trip was a week after the Oscars.

PD: That's great! That shows people actually are following up! In fact, as a satellite channel we have been trying to be an out-let for filmmakers and people. As you may know there are not too many theatres in Iran. Some filmmakers can afford sending their films to fllm festival. And some can't. So do you think part of your goal to close this gap between Iranian filmmakers and US is to have an alliance with outlets like us and Noor Film festival to promote these filmmakers?

SG: Yes! The answer to your question is yes. And that relates to our Foreign Language Academy Awards and how Iranians would choose that. And we are talking to them, and they are talking to us about all of that.

PD: The house of Cinema represents the Iranian filmmakers inside Iran, how about the filmmakers outside of Iran? They don't have a house of Cinema.

SG: I only mention the House of Cinema because we are making progress there. But I know they are also outside of Iran. And that's you guys! I am willing to be at your channel anytime to talk about Iranian films and filmmakers. As this relationship continues and the Iranian filmmaker's visit here which I hope it will be soon, then we can talk about it.

AA: Mr. Ganis, you'll be showing Iranian films here in US. How about Hollywood films in Iran? Would the house of Cinema show Hollywood movies in Iran and would the government allow it?

SG: NO! As of this moment we cannot do it. You can do it by having somebody else distribute the movie, not an American company. But even then the government would not be happy with that situation.

AA: So how would movie lovers see their favorite movies inside Iran?

SG: the way they do it now! They see them all. And how do they see it? Through the black market. Through illegal ways. On the streets of Tehran, I saw in a rack of films a film I produced. There it was right in front of me with Persian writing! And I bought it for the equivalent of $1.50, but that movie was done 3 years ago. On the same rack I saw a movie that has just been released, the movie "Given". So Iranians see our movies and it's fruitless! And that's crazy!

And Excuse me but here is an American, walking into a foreign place, creating impressions for himself. But I did it! What can I do?!  I saw contemporary Iranian men and women living a totally logical lifestyle! That means yes, they attended to the customs of the day, which is very enclosed, not shaking hands etc. But underneath the coverings, the girls wear their pink sneakers, and tight jeans, and they are being kids! The art of today is available to them from around the world.

PD: I think I give the credit to people for creating outlets and going beyond. They can cover us from head to toe, but they can never cover our identity and history.

SG: YES, and thank you for reminding me. I noticed in the crowed that we were with including the guys who were driving us around, all knew about their culture and history. Here, if you ask an American about their history, they say what?? Who is George Washington? Even about the film history! Man, they know it all!!

PD: I think the Iranian cinema started flourishing in 1997, with Abbas Kiarostamis' film which I believe was the taste of cherry. It was the first time an Iranian film won an award at Cannes film Festival. And there has been this beautiful relationship between the European film festivals and Iranian films.

SG: without a question! When we were there an Iranian filmmaker had just got back from a Berlin Film Festival with a prize. It is tough for them to get an Oscar though with all the rules and regulations. But we are working on it.

AA: For the past few years we see the academy going more toward foreign movies, is it you? Or the policies of the Academy?

SG: I am very interested in the world of International film making. Whatever influence I have with the policies of the Academy as the president are evident to you.

AA: Danny Boyle should thank you then,

SG: As a matter of fact he did! I had not seen" slum dunk millionaire". I met the writer and the director before I saw the movie. And I was really excited about meeting them, because I knew there was an Indian movie coming up. Based on what I said to you I want this academy to be a worldwide Academy. And they had a fortune of sweeping the Oscars.

AA: Everyone was shocked and frozen by "Slum dunk" winning all the awards. What were the aftershocks?

SG: There were none! All 6000 members of the academy are artists. We are all filmmakers, soundmen, cinematographer, and wardrobe and so on. So the artists decided that the art of "Slum dunk" was sensational. An artist does not care what the aftershock is, he may hear it but he/she does not care and sticks by its art. So it was exciting to see an Indian movie win, but there are fine films coming from around the world, maybe in this conversation we had, I have not said enough about American movies. There is one amazing American movie made one after another. I would have liked it if in that category of 5 nominees; there was one spectacular American Movie like Ironman. It did not happen. But it can, the quality of the American movies is excellent. In one hand it's often very commercial and vey mediocre, and in other hand beautifully crafted.

PD: One of the rules and regulations of Academy for a foreign film to be considered for an Oscar is to be screened in their hometown for at least a week. How is that possible with all the restrictions in Iran?

SG: That's the problem! You have hit on a catch! We are talking about it. Our rules have turned out to be a good one, so it's up to the Iranian group that chooses the selection.

PD: Especially because some of the greatest films are the ones that are banned!

SG: but what do they do? They go to the Berlin film festival and win a prize, so that's the logic there that the government has to figure out. Because if this was a governanment based in an Industrial society is one thing. But this is a society based on culture. The government has to honor that culture a little bit more than they do.

AA: Any memories of Iran?

SG: Ahh!! In Shiraz, there was me smacked in the middle of Persepolis. It was thrilling and Breath Taking. We spent six hours in Persepolis. And there was a time that I was able to sit on a hill and look out into the Persepolis and the ruins. I thought I was the luckiest man. And then Isfahan, which was so interesting and different. That's where a group of 30-40 school girls swept down to Alfree and Annett. All these girls were wearing black and they looked like little birds. And we were standing in the middle of this gigantic main square. Alfree and Annette were covered but with a little bit of color, surrounded by these school girls in black. It was one of those memorable moments I never forget. Then we were supposed to get a flight back, but we decided to drive. Here we were, eight personalities driving back to Tehran which took 7 hours. We stopped along the way and had tea. And we had of course the greatest bread! On this trip particularly we stopped at a place that somebody knew, and we had this beautiful fresh, flat bread! And when we drove back to Tehran, of course we had the experience of Tehran driving! There is nothing like it! I have grown up in New York, so I know what it is to be a defensive or a good driver and be in touch with what's happening. But not in Tehran!

Photo, courtesy of House of Cinema.

AA: Is there syndication or a group in Hollywood that for instance makes sure if a Mexican guy is supposed to be in a movie then a real Mexican guy plays the part? We see it over an over in motion pictures that other ethnicities play the Iranian part. We were talking about The wrestler and 300 even Alexander, and none of them were Iranians. Are there any rules and regulations for this?"

SG: I can tell you how that works. Accessibility is one thing. If in 300 there were 5000 Persian extras available then you'd use it. But the other one is money! If a producer can get some group with less money then we do that. That may not be the right thing to do, but if we can get someone with $35 an hour vs $42, then we do that. But I think you are referring to leading roles. And an actor is an actor and they should be able to portray. In Iran I saw Annette Bening plays a British woman, and she is not British. I see what you mean; it's your pride as an Iranian wanting it to be the right way. And I can understand that.

PD: but I think as long as it's portrayed right and the language is delivered correctly then that's fine. Maybe the syndication you are referring to can consist of historians and dialogue coaches who can at least coach the actors to speak Farsi right.

SG: that does happen! Every director wants authenticity and nobody's fooling around .They want to get to it as close as they can, In "The wrestler ", that was all fake. It was meant to be fake. I understand the deeper question. I appreciate the fact that a person of a certain Heritage wanting to be portrayed on screen by someone of that heritage.

PD: Movies are such powerful medium that we have to make sure not only Iranians but other cultures are portrayed positive. If someone sees my son and knows he is Iranian, I don't want him to be identified by what has been seen in a movie. That just kills us and the next generation.

SG: If it's true and it's bad then it's not false. If it is false then it's unfair.

AA: 300 did this to all Iranians all round the world! Even though it looked like a cartoon.

SG: It is a cartoon based on a comic book and I am not trying to make excuses for it. Like superman. What did you guys think of it? Did you laugh at to or did you get insulted by it?

PD: I think the older generation who are more sensitive took it really hard.

SG: That's another thing about hardliners. Our trip was everything we could hope for. But every once in a while someone would come to us and say: "what are you Americans doing here? Why don't you take back your bad commercialized movies and go home". And we had to face that. We also face it in the hardliner's press. They said that I was George Bush's friend and that I spend my weekends with the Supreme Court. But that's in every culture were people are opposed and often older people who are against change. But in basis of art and culture I appreciate seeing you getting uncomfortable with seeing someone that does not represent you.

AA: Well it all started with the movie "not without my daughter" and as they told you in Iran, they believe that American Government has a lot of power on Hollywood. And one of the most important thing the Academy should do is to let people know that Government has nothing to do with Hollywood.

SG: We said it out loud and maybe we should say it again. But if Hardliners don't want to report it that way then they will. And as we said a lot of it is going to change, and it's up to Obama.

PD: Do you think your trip to Iran would be positive for Mr. Ahmadinejad's administration? The timing of this trip seems that way and not to say that it was done intentionally but it may score a huge point for him.

SG: I don't know! The only thing I can tell you is that we had no connection with the Government of Iran expect through the house of Cinema. Who knows what he may decide. Maybe he decides to say hey we had all these American guys here, and then it's true, we were there!

AA: I am sure you know there are many Iranians outside of Iran who are in this industry. We have directors, producers, and cinematographers. Are you going to ask for their help in translating the feel of an Iranian film?

SG: Yes! As a matter of fact I am making a movie with the famous Iranian producer Bob Yari. I tell all my Iranian Pals about my experience in Iran and I am sure they spread the world in the Iranian community about what we did. And they all say" Oh! I have not been home in years!! You see the longing in their faces. That's home to them and you guys,

PD: Yes, and we miss it dearly! But we are hopeful that this would be the start of a great alliance between you, us and the house of Cinema.

SG: Of course! And that's in our humanity to want good for another fellow person.

PD: We look forward in seeing Iranian films, directors, producers and actors running for Oscars, and Thank you for your time. This has been a pleasure.

AA: Maybe one day we can broadcast Oscars in Farsi for the Iranian People.

SG: Sure! Why not! 75 million viewers! I'll take them all!

PD: and we'll be happy to cover it for you.

At the end of our one hour long discussion, I presented Mr. Ganis a black tie, courtesy of Masih Zad's designs. And now, I am seating tight waiting for what we'll be seeing not only at the Oscars but on the silver screen in the coming years!

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