This is the second in a series of profiles of writers from the Middle East who attended the 2010 International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa. These profiles are based in large part on interviews conducted by the IWP staff.
Washington - Making films is inherently a collaborative process involving people from many different disciplines, but for Iranian filmmaker and writer Farangis Siahpour, collaboration is a way of life as much as a mode of artistic expression.
Iranian filmmaker and writer Farangis Siahpour, a participant in the 2010 International Writing Program, considers collaboration a way of life as much as artistic expression.
When she was invited to apply to the International Writing Program (IWP) at the University of Iowa in 2010, Siahpour realized that it would be "rich and interesting" to work closely for three months with other writers and poets from around the world.
"As a filmmaker, I'm always working with a group of people, and that's why I am having such a productive collaboration with the other writers," she said in an IWP interview. "It's like I'm behind the stage with a group of people and one of the best things is when the producer says, 'What about this?' and 'How about that?' and everyone is giving feedback."
As with many other writers, Iowa provided Siahpour with the space to focus on her work. In Siahpour's case, that meant bringing a screenplay she had been working on that was now in its third draft. The U.S. State Department is a major sponsor of the IWP, which hosted 38 writers from 32 countries in the fall of 2010.
"Finding the place and time for a writer is half the battle of writing," she said. "In Iowa, you can get ideas and hear people's thoughts, which is really useful."
Siahpour is eager to explore as many different media as possible, from print and stage to film and the Internet. "I write scripts and short stories and make movies," she said. "I see myself as someone who wants to explore different models of storytelling."
In a paper she delivered in Iowa, Siahpour discussed the excitement and complexities of cross-media and interactive storytelling. As much as 80 percent of the world's population can't afford DVDs or even go to the cinema, she pointed out. "But almost everyone seems to have access to satellite TV; almost everyone seems to have a cell phone."
Contemporary filmmakers, Siahpour argued, must recognize that the multimedia, digital environment has become the new cultural norm for today's younger generation. "Where media content flows fluently between platforms, it opens up new possibilities for storytelling," she said.
The new media also redefine the boundaries between artist and audience, in her view. "The great pleasure of today's cinema is in an active collaboration - voting, sharing, commenting, discussing, tweeting, and so on."
She said that even though traditional storytelling platforms may be retreating, "at the end of the day, we all still want to hear a story."
MAKING AND STUDYING FILMS
Siahpour studied cinema and dramatic arts at Tehran University from 2002 to 2008 and earned a second master's degree from the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, located in Aqaba, Jordan. The institute is a joint effort of the Royal Film Commission of Jordan and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.
She has written, directed and produced two short films: Once Upon a Time, about a boy whose childhood is overshadowed by war and death, and The Day After Tomorrow, the story of a mother and small son in a male-dominated society where both women and men can become victims of violence.
Her documentary Ferdowsi is a depiction of the author of the epic masterpiece of Persian literature, Shahnameh (Persian Book of Kings), as seen through art and the painting on his tomb. Another documentary, Situation, examines the conditions of women who travel to the Middle East seeking unskilled work. She is also the author of a play and a collection of short stories.
Siahpour, who now lives in California, is a student of film as well as a filmmaker. In Iowa, for example, she introduced the highly regarded 2004 film, Turtles Can Fly, made by a Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker, which tracks the fate of several children in a Kurdish refugee camp in Iraq on the eve of the U.S.-led invasion.
On her blog and website, Cinema and Culture, she highlights her own work, but also provides a meticulous examination of both popular and experimental films from around the world. Her enthusiasms are eclectic, from such classics as the French New Wave film, Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and the Italian neorealist Il Posto (1961), to a more contemporary American psychological thriller, Mulholland Drive (2001).
Siahpour is a vigorous campaigner for human rights in Iran, and her website carries frequent updates from such organizations as Amnesty International and the writers group PEN International.
She regularly posts news stories and information about the recent upsurge in detentions and arrests - and in some cases, executions - of journalists, human rights activists, and religious and ethnic minorities in Iran.
The common denominator between Siahpour's filmmaking and human rights work may rest on her belief in the power of human connection and collaboration.
"I do believe that when you have an honest, simple conversation without fighting or escaping - that's how you can change the world," she said.
Learn more about the University of Iowa International Writing Program on the program's website, and see a documentary about the 2010 IWP writers, Writing Iowa, on the photo-sharing website Vimeo.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)
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