Pari: welcome to my program and thank you for accepting my invitation,
Aryana: Thank you for inviting me.
Pari: allow me to begin by congratulating you on your fascinating movie Mystic Iran, I watched it and was mesmerized by its beauty and strength, I would like you to describe it in your own words for our viewers.
Aryana: Thank you, the movie is a geographical and spiritual journey into Iran. From the message of Cyrus the great to the heart of shrine of Hazrat Massoumeh, or Zoroastrian temples and among dervishes, we travel into different holy places and highlight major spiritual messages based on that religion. For example, when we travel into the Zoroastrian center, we talk about the Zoroastrian’s doctrine of “Good thought, good words, and good deeds”. The same applies to dervishes and the rest. We quote Hazrat Maulana’s verses many times over the Sema of dervishes. I call it spirituality 101. I focus on spiritual side of the messages rather than the religions itself.
Pari: Hollywood and spirituality is a strange mix, how did you come up with this idea?
Aryana: actually spirituality is becoming very popular subject in Hollywood. I could say that most holyywoodians are joining a kind of spiritual path. Even you can see the impact in the films too.
As for myself, for years, being a disciple of many spiritual paths, I had this vision to make a documentary film on mysticism and spirituality, to share the acquired knowledge with others. Why it goes back to who I am. I always was a seeker, not knowing what I was looking for and where to look for? I started practicing yoga and meditation in Paris, while hanging around cinematheqe, cafes, museums and night clubs, a mixture of both civilizations. At that time, I was just following the fashion “de jour”. After a while, the practices worked out regardless of my unawareness and I felt the changes from within. Spiritual practices open up the hidden doors to the inner human dimension and bring about a transformation, manifesting in outer world. Soon I learned to pray everywhere, regardless of the religious teachings, settings or the languages; I attended Pop’s Sunday prayers in Vatican, a mosques in Cairo, a synagogue in Beverly Hills, Zoroastrian temple in Iran, or Sufi centers in Kurdistan. Then, obviously, it became most important part of my life; followed by more searching, which led me to Sufism and Sufi centers. As a professional Film maker I wanted to share my knowledge with others and what better way than a film. I also believe that time has come for more depth, I see a launching in society and I believe there is a need and room for spirituality even in Hollywood.
Pari: The movie has a very strong message of tolerance and peace, emphasizing similarities between civilizations, was this influenced in any way by September eleven?
Aryana: The film was shot in year 2000, before the 9/11, but finished in 2002. I believe 9/11 had a strong impact on my decision on how to tell the story at that time.
At first, my vision for making the film and the trip was rather to learn and experience the spiritual life in Iran, to share my spiritual growth and pass it to others by this film. As I traveled into the heart of Iran, I fall in love with the country and the spirit of the people. We have one of the most ancient cultures and civilizations. Our ancestors planted the seeds of human rights and civilization. I filmed everything on my way and decided that I will show my country from a new angle. When I returned here 9/11 happened which was heart breaking for me. I stopped for a period of time to heal myself and then I worked non-stop to pass the message in a healing way. I hoped that it would help to bring a new message of friendship, reconciliation and healing among cultures.
Pari- Why did you felt essential to go to East to bring the message of spirituality? Why Iran?
Aryana? Living in the west and being introduced to Eastern mysticism, I felt that I needed to experience it first hand from the eastern masters. At first, my intention was to travel to India or turkey. Gradually, my energy shifted toward Iran, I needed to start from my own country, a place where I was born, had families, knew the culture, spoke the language. So I started from Iran where I had a soul booming experience and abundant journey inside Iran of mystics and passed some of it to the west in this film.
Experiencing both sides of the practices, east and west, I knew I had a good understanding of how to approach and offer the subject. In East, spirituality and mysticism is not something people talk about, but it is a life style you follow. You most find it in Persian literature which reveals the knowledge almost in form of codes. The knowledge is passed on from masters to seekers, and heart to heart. In west, people are more open and are revealing the knowledge. there are lots of books and films and more are coming out to the market. Hopefully it will help the western hemisphere to rise above current excessive materialism and be able to reach a balance.
Pari: Many of us who left our country long ago are returning, as often as it happens, yet, the stories of reunion is unique, how was it for you
Aryana: Practically, I left Iran at age 18th and that’s sometime before revolution. I was back to Iran 3 times, for just a few weeks before my 2000 trip. The first thing I noticed was how overcrowded Tehran was. Visually it is very different and it does not help that almost every street name is change. So I had a very hard time to recognize anything. Of course peoples out look is changed tremendously, I was surprised how most men nonchalantly following a dirty looking style while most women were following latest fashion combined with a colorful scarves and heavy make up. It is amazing try to break the dress code imposed on them. I also found a chauvinistic attitude towards women. Enormous lack of respect for women in society.
Pari: Yes, I felt the same when I went back after almost 20 years, it is sad to see that in spite of considerable achievements of Iranian women still there exists an attitude of inequality in the society. But I loved Iran once I began traveling in the country.
Aryana: Me too, my best memories are when I left Tehran. Throughout my location scouting trips, I realized how little I knew about this precious ancient land. I traveled almost 3 times across Iran, from borders of Iran/Afghanistan to the borders of Iran/Iraq. I was mesmerized by the beauty, history, architecture, and spirit of the people. At every corner of a caravanserai, left alone in the middle nowhere, a deserted old bazaar, an ancient site, alleys, turquoise doors, or passing by dormant desert and wild poppy farms, I asked the driver to stop and drop me off. It was a state of contemplation for me. I loved the journey and will do it over and over.
Pari: Did you employ local crew or did you take your crew with you?
Aryana: Why should I take the crew with me to Iran? We have some of the best and most talented filmmakers over there. They are first class at international level. There were so many talented people I had to interview, that it took me 3 months to put my crew together.
Pari: It is a daunting task to return after many years and begin to make a movie, how did you find Iran as a professional person?
Aryana: As among other societies, in Iran when you are starting to work in unfamiliar setting, with people you do not know, it is difficult. But when you become familiar and place yourself amongst professionals, things change rapidly. It took me a few months, but once I managed to connect, things started to move faster. Sometimes I found it hard to communicate, often I wondered about the intentions behind the words. There was also a
slow paced of beaurocracy, tomorrow never arrives unless you start yelling, time has less value, promises are half broken, schedule doesn’t exist and it is a different dimension of time and life. You have to create yours and follow with many painful moments. At our first production meeting, scheduled at 9am, I was the only one arriving on time, followed by one other person. The others started to arrive around 10:30 and most got there around noon. Amazing enough, they were surprised to see me sitting there. Later they mentioned that most Iranian filmmakers are always late and that’s the style. So I set a rule, if you are not present at designated time; you are not on board of my crew. That’s it and it worked.
Besides that, I had no problem with my crew. They were perfectly professional, knew their tasks, their work and how to deal with a woman director, possibly nothing different than a male director. Actually, at some occasions, they were more concerned about me. Women can sometimes be way more demanding than men and men can be intimated by that.
Pari: I know it is hard to get things done in Iran, and I imagine filming shrines must have been a complicated task, how did you manage this?
Aryana: I believe determined people would envision an idea and materialize it. I was determine, thought it through, planned it, and made it happen. Of course everywhere in the world when you make a film, you need the permission to film city streets and outside public places. This could be obtained by an experienced and connected line producer. In my case, we were traveling mostly outside the city area, in wilderness and small cities and villages, which made it easier to film. Getting permission to film inside is different story. We had different places to be filmed and it happened gradually, one by one. Much was not pre-meditated. When we traveled across Iran, I decided to film whatever came forth which made the process of filming more difficult, more lengthily and way more expensive, naturally.
We first filmed dervishes. I interviewed a lot of dervishes in the city of Sanandaj, in Kurdistan/Iran. Most refused to participate for different reasons. Some feared the government, some didn’t like the idea to be in front of the camera and reveal their center, and some were not available at the time we filmed. Some Sufi paths are more open to be exposed and some are not. All depends on different circumstances. Then I was introduced to women dervishes in Kurdistan. I entered their inner circle to experience and learn their practices. Then Khalifa allowed me to film their rituals and invited us to follow them to the border of Iraq, to meet with men dervishes and consequently, we were able to film men dervishes. I found people belonging to Khaderieh path quiet open minded and intellectual. They were pleased to be filmed and be known to the world. With Zoroastrians, we had no problem at all. Actually we are not the first filming in the Pyr Sabz and Zoroastrian rituals. Many previous footage of the center exists. They are welcoming film makers and journalists from all over the world to film and present it to the world.
Most difficult was the filming inside the shrine. I previously had seen footage being filmed inside shrine of Imam Reza by an Iranian filmmaker and later by an American filmmaker, for the award winning documentary film “Baraka”. So, I knew somehow I could film inside a shrine. We tried to get the permission for shrine of Imam Reza in the city of Meshed. There was a six months waiting period to get the permission that I could not afford to wait. I decided to film shrine of Hazrat Massoumeh, which is architecturally similar. At first, we were allowed to film outside. The second time, we filmed at night, third time; they allowed the cameraman to enter into the men chamber and film. I didn’t settle for that. I wanted to get a glance inside the women chamber. On our last trip, we stopped at the shrine. I sat under the burning sun for hours waiting to get the chance to film. Shrines and temples are administered by an internal organization and volunteers who honorably serve the saint, handling the daily tasks. This position is inherited and passed on, similar to how churches are run in west. In some point our production supervisor obtained the permission for me and cameraman to film inside the women chamber for five minutes. I grabbed the opportunity and then convinced the volunteer in charge to allow us more time to film. I told him that I came all the way from Los Angeles, USA to film and believe or not, the word America made it happen. Actually after a while I learned that mentioning America was a powerful key to open the doors. Despite general believe, spread by US or Iranian medias, Iranian people are very pro-American and wished we could have friendly relation again.
Pari: I was familiar with dervishes and Sema dance but I knew very little about women dervishes in Iran. Is it a common phenomenon that has been hidden like all female stories?
Aryana: Yes, and that’s exactly the reason why Khalifa allowed me to film. She said, “We have been here all along and nobody knows about our existence”. Dervishood is not about gender, it is a state of spirit and women always played an important part in religions and spirituality. Look at Christianity; Santa Maria is worshipped more than any prophet. If you look deeper in the history of religions, you find out that there is always a woman behind a prophet and actually the first to believe in him; Marie Magdalena and Jesus, Khadijeh and prophet Mohammed etc… As for female dervishes, no one has ever been interested to find out about them, to be with them or talk about them. We live in men’s world. I was one of the first to search for them, find them, be befriended by them, and film them.
Pari- Over last decade we saw a sudden increase in number of female filmmakers in Iran, how were you received as a professional woman in Iran?
Aryana: Yes, in fact the number is way more than we know about. Lots of women documentary filmmakers. So, male crew is adapted to the situation. In Iran Today, women are working in every discipline regardless of the rule and regulation imposed on them. Women in Iran have become stronger, more determined on shaping their lives. They have a voice and it is getting louder. Look at Shirin Ebadi's phenomena? Who would have imagined that she will be heard at international level? I must admit on many occasions, such as filming inside the shrine, being a woman made it easier. I found that out later on, in the process of the work. It is a male oriented society and being a woman could be powerful at times.
Pari: Most of your professional life is spend in Hollywood, how do you compare your experience of working in Iran with your experience of working in Hollywood? In Iran you are a woman in a chauvinist and Islamic society, in Hollywood you are an ethnic woman, where it is harder to be heard?
Aryana: Hollywood is way harder to be heard. As I mentioned above, in Iran, when you enter a professional circle, you dissolve in it. We witness how many filmmakers, women or men, young or old, are coming out of Iran, I did the festival circle for last two years and I could not believe how many Iranian films are screened and how many Iranian filmmakers, young and old, male and female are working in Iran. Compare that with Hollywood. It is extremely competitive and male oriented and impossible for ethnic people to make it, unless they are really well connected, with huge monetary power or their society behind them. There are rules being created by unions and many organizations to fight this situation, but it is the current story. As for myself, I always identified myself as a double target, “an Iranian woman”. African American has been fighting to enter Hollywood for decades and it is just happening lately. The same with Hispanic and other ethnicities. But, I think this is the right time for us, Iranians to move ahead. I hear many young Iranians are coming into show business and are making it too. I think you just need to rise above it, believe in yourself, keep your vision, and make your voice heard, it will happen.
Pari: The film has been very successful and been screened in many prestige places, I saw it at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; where else did you show it?
Aryana: After the County Museum we showed it at Asia Society in NY and Brunei gallery in London, along with a few major film festivals such as Montreal International Film Festival & Fort Lauderdale international Film festival. Gradually the name got out and got to be screened at major spiritual or educational events such as “Parliament of the World’s Religions” in Barcelona, with prominent guests such as HH Dalai Lama, Shirin Ebadi or Deepak Chopra and many others. It followed by a successful screening event at “Agape spiritual center” in Los Angeles and most recently at a major educational symposium in San Francisco. The film was aired on KCET this last November with a great rating and will be aired at national level by March 2005, aiming for Iranian New Year, Norouz. We will have major premier
Paris and other European cities in 2005.
Got to mention that His Highness Prince of Wales saw the film and his interest in the film lead me to be invited to his summer residence High Grove castle for a small fundraising party.
Pari: I think it would be really interesting to show it in Iran? Do you have any immediate plans for it?
Aryana: Not a set plan yet, but I would love to screen it in Iran. I will let you know when it happens.
Pari: Your movie attracts diverse people what ahs been the reaction so far?
Aryana: Interestingly, it differs depending on the person’s intention. Some people look at it from political angle, some educational and majority from spiritual angle. I have been blessed to have incredible audiences all over the world. I had many people coming to me in tears, hugging me and thanking me for devoting my time, energy and my heart to making this film and sending the message out there. I was told that the film has a healing feeling. I had a stranger who came to me after a screening and asked me for a copy of the film to show it to hospices in US, to aids patients. I have young generation Iranians writing me from Iran and sharing their experiences. Many, some even Iranians told me that the film have showed a side of Iran that was not known to them. For western audiences, it is eye opening.
Most criticism came from Iranian viewers with political or personal intentions, criticizing me why I made a film in Iran? Why I touched Islam? Why I didn’t talk about politics in Iran? And even one person was criticizing me why I used Maulana’s spiritual poems and why not Kurdish poem, or why I am using a voice over with an accent and similar personal critics. But over all, it is received beyond my expectations and intentions. It is having its own energy and is going places that I would never imagined or planned for.
Pari: Did you receive any support or funding from Iranian community, individuals Iranians?
Aryana: Generally, very small portion among Iranian society support their artists or have the spirit of empowering their society. Most are far behind understanding the cultural values. Many pretend to support the society, with the spirit of philanthropy, but when you get to the heart of it, it is all words and it is all about showing off themselves or their fortune or it is among a very close circle of friends promoting their organizations . I have no objection to that either, but there must be a balance in every society to survive at higher dimension of civilization. Each of us comes to this world with certain abilities; some gifted for material materialization, some have artistic abilities to give others the taste of art, some can teach and pass the knowledge, and some have spiritual power. None can survive without the others. It is the rule of the universe. If one doesn’t help the other, all suffer. Coming back to your question, making mystic Iran was not an easy task. I was wondering who in this society would come and watch a film about Iran, which is about women dervishes praying in a center in Kurdistan. This was circling in my mind for months. Many times I stopped in the post-production process and worked long hours, to make enough money to support the film and finish it. I tried to raise money by grants and approached Iranian society for support. But it simply didn’t happen.
Pari: You talked about the hardship of making this movie, but now that it is over it seems that it is succeeding financially, would this ease the way for your future projects?
Aryana: yes, as you know filmmaking is a very expensive business that makes it hard for independent film makers. I know a lot of people taking a camera and make small films that goes to closet. I would like to make professional films that tell untold stories. My preferred subjects make it difficult to get sponsors. But the struggle is beginning to pay back. The time is right now and I am grabbing the opportunity. I am one of the first to knock the doors and open doors, not only for Iranians but for new concepts and visions. Mystic Iran turned spirituality into mainstream in a semi-commercial way. We made it to broadcast. That’s a big step towards this goal. Despite a non-profit status is considered a commercial film. That is opening the door for others and me in the future to be able to materialize our vision in commercial way and that am a big break through.
Pari: It is interesting, boundaries in every aspect f life is becoming fuzzy, once upon a time there were clear distinction between profit making and not for profit, today these two are mixing in an exciting way in every discipline, brining new ethical dimensions to the world. What is the impact of movie on you, how does Aryana before and after this movie differs?
Aryana: I am extremely busy, more experienced, more independent, self confident and completely open. I learned to face the falls and put myself back up and run, to take responsibility for bad or good decisions. I learned who my friend is and who my enemy is. This has been an amazing journey, a journey of discovery into myself and out to the soul of society. Age of maturity. It also forced me to come out, to be revealed. Since early age, I had stage fright, which can be very destructive. It was a gift for me to leave the shyness and stage fright behind, to open myself, a superb sense of freedom from my emotional and internal injuries. The biggest difference is that I do not allow myself the luxury of depression, nor leisure... I work 24/7 and 52/1. I take life as living in the moment and do my best, every day to move forward.
Pari: This movie was a great success what future ambitions do you have?
Aryana: A lot. Everyday, I wish days were longer so I could produce more. During last 20 years, I created many stories, essays, ideas, painting, and other art works. After mystic Iran, I looked at my materials and made a few choices for immediate future.
Currently, I am working and fundraising for a documentary film on Maulana Jalla-Al din Rumi, making a deal for a spiritual book and writing a feature film script. I have my hands full for next 5-6 years.
Pari: I wish you success for coming years and we look forward to seeing your future movies. Our Time is up and on this note I would like to wish my viewers happiness and health, until next week, the same place and the same time.