A group of Hollywood filmmakers traveled to Iran recently on a mission of cultural exchange as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ International Outreach Committee. Writes Joseph Njata
The journey was colorful, adventurous, surprising, and exotic as any of their famous 1940s “Road” movies, although admittedly their purpose was a bit more serious than those long-gone ambassadors of entertainment.
As the first Western group of artists to be invited to the Islamic Republic of Iran since the revolution there exactly thirty years ago, Academy president and producer Sid Ganis, actresses Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, writer/directors Frank Pierson and Phil Robinson, producers Tom Pollock and nomadic documentary filmmaker James Longley, were guests of the House of Cinema (or Khaneh Cinema), and put on a series of screenings and seminars for their members with questions and answers about the art and craft and business of filmmaking.
A similar visit by members of Academy of Motion Picture is scheduled to Rwanda in July this year. The Hollywood filmmakers will visit Rwanda after a humble invitation by Mr. Eric Kabera, a renowned Rwanda Filmmaker (100 days, Keepers of Memory) and founder of the Rwanda Cinema Centre. Eric is currently in Los Angeles where he is writing his next film and working on partnerships for Kwetu Film Institute, a film school that is expected to open its doors in July this year. The institute will offer both diplomas and affiliated degrees in both filmmaking and media. While in the Rwanda, the Hollywood filmmakers will grace the official launch of Kwetu Film Institute on July 18th 2011 where master classes will be conducted. They will also attend the 7th edition of Rwanda Film Festival slated for 16th July through 30th July, 2011 among other activities.
While in Iran, they had a great opportunity to talk with their Iranian peers about the problems of personal versus commercial storytelling, insufficient budgets, scarce financing, intransigent directors or overindulged stars, studio interference and competition for screens. Government censorship is Iran is very real and privately frustrating for many of the filmmakers they encountered.
Most people there were quite surprised by these filmmakers, but perhaps not more surprised than Frank and Phil, who thought of the trip years ago. Their impulse to reach out and extend the Academy’s mission overseas by promoting the idea of filmmakers talking to established and emerging cultures of cinema around the world was the genesis of the international outreach program. What seemed impossible nine months earlier, was suddenly a reality, thanks to the determination and industry of project director Ellen Harrington, and the aid of some non-governmental Iranian contacts like producer Behrooz Hashemian who helped broker and arrange their trip.
When you’re attempting to build a bridge, it is easy to get shot at from both sides of the river, and they did anticipate the response from hardliners in both countries, which was unfortunate but not surprising given the complicated political histories between their governments dating back to the early days of the Cold War. But doesn’t most insensitivity come out of a lack of knowledge and a lack of communication? Is it possible that the more you understand a person, or a people, or a culture, the more you can agree or disagree from a place of mutual respect? How can this understanding arise except through dialogue and education? The desire to recognize and understand what people have in common as professional artists and actors and filmmakers is exactly what brought them to Iran, and from that point of view the ten days certainly shook their world, and their journey down the road to Isfahan and home again was an unqualified success.
The writer is the admin Assistant of Kwetu film institute and press officer of the Rwanda Film Festival. [email protected]