Tuesday, November 27, 2012

AIFF2012: Roozbeh Dadvand's Mossadegh Takes a Different Direction from the Movie Argo

The film Argo begins with Mohammad Mossadegh being the first democratically elected prime minister of Iran in 1953, soon to be overthrown by a CIA backed coup.  It then fasts forward to the 1979 takeover of the US embassy.
Mossadegh - screenshot from Mossadegh.com

Roozbeh Dadvand's Mossadegh takes a different direction.  It visits Mossadegh six years after the coup when he's in house arrest and ill and is offered help from an overseas doctor.

I emailed some questions to the director and I got a long, thoughtful response that adds to our understanding of the history in the film, his personal interest in it, and also the process of making the film.  

His email had, first, direct answers to my questions and then he added at the end some answers he'd sent to  Reorient Magazine, which bills itself as a Middle Eastern arts e-magazine.  Their reviewer liked the film.  (Their main page has a lot of interesting looking stories that certainly give a contrasting view to what our media tell us about the Middle East.)
By the way, that Saturday morning showing at 11 at Alaska Experience Theater has three of the shorts that are in competition - Mossadegh, Calcutta Taxi, and Lapse.  (In competition means the judges chose them as the best and in competition to win the festival's golden oosik awards.)

So here is the email interview with Roozbeh Dadvand director of Mossadegh.  I'm adding the questions and answers he sent to Reorient at the bottom.  There's a lot of interesting information there.

I'm probably spending way too much time on one 24 minute film I haven't even seen, but it's won a lot of awards at other film festivals, and, well, I can't cover everything, so I get to pick what I want to cover.  Most important, Roozbeh responded with thorough and interesting answers. 

The Interview

Steve:    Mossadegh follows up what happened to Iran's democratically elected leader after the 1953 CIA directed coup.  Is this based on a what actually happened or complete fiction?  If true, how did the story come to light?
Roozbeh Dadvand:   The story of the film is fiction, but based on historical circumstances. An American physician never in fact came to treat Mossadegh at his home. It is true that following the 1953 coup, Prime Minister Mossadegh was placed in jail for 3 years and then in house arrest for the rest of his life until his death in 1967. It is also true that he suffered throughout his life from mysterious ailments that his son, a doctor, could not satisfactorily diagnose (this link provides a good summary of his problems: http://www.mohammadmossadegh.com/biography/medical-history/). In real life, Mossadegh's family had sought permission from the Shah of Iran to have a specialist come and treat him. The Shah gave permission for a specialist from abroad to come but Mossadegh only wanted a domestic specialist from Iran. When Mossadegh heard that the Shah was allowing a physician from abroad to come treat him, he refused. My source for this is from Farhad Diba's biography of Mossadegh. I used those circumstances as a jumping off point in developing the story for this film. 
Given that this was a student thesis project at USC, [University of Southern California]  it was particularly challenging and perhaps overambitious to do a short film about Mossadegh. I almost canceled the project. It is a big subject that is challenging to condense in a short format. Also given that it is a period piece, I felt that the only type of story that could be effective and even film-able within the scope and budget of a student film would be one that focused on Mossadegh in house arrest. I found a story that dealt with him imprisoned to be poetic. At the same time, a house arrest story allows you to limit locations and to keep the film small enough in scale to actually film.

Steve:   This seems to be a film that shows a different direction that Argo could have gone. How has the release of Argo affected your film, if at all?

Roozbeh Dadvand: I actually haven't seen Argo yet. Did you like it? I will be seeing it soon this week! I don't think Argo has affected my film too much, mainly because of timing. I researched Mossadegh for a few years before writing the script (from 2005-2007). In 2007 I went to Iran and traveled to Mossadegh's actual home where he was imprisoned. It's about 50 miles northwest of Tehran. After that, I developed the script from 2007-2008 and filmed the project over 2 weeks in California in December 2008. It was edited, sound designed and scored over the next year and a half. Student films at USC typically take so long for 2 reasons: Each process such as editing or sound design takes at least a semester or more to complete. Also, other students are required to fill all the other main roles in the crew. So for example, my editors were fellow students, my sound department heads were other students, the producers, the cinematographer, and the film composer were all USC film students. No one is paid or anything. Those are part of the rules. So work is done on it when other students find time outside of class to do it. The film premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London in October 2011 and has been on its festival run since then. So it has been released out into the festival circuit well before Argo.

But I hope that Argo has overall increased attention towards films that deal with Iran; and if it makes people more interested to see Mossadegh, then I will happily take that.

Steve:    I notice that you have a couple of Voice of America videos and something called "Jebhemelli."  Playing with internet translations it seems to be something like National (or Popular) Battlefront (or warfront), but I can't figure out what kind of station it is.  It looks like it might be Persians outside of Iran.  Did VoA
pick this up after it was completed or did they help with the financing?  (I see it
was a student thesis project, but funding would have been helpful I'm sure.)

Roozbeh Dadvand: Unfortunately the Voice of America videos are not translated. I should work on that. The problem is that my Farsi isn't at a good enough level to actually do the translation. I can only speak it conversationally. My reading ability is pretty poor (elementary school level). Voice of America did not pick it up or help with financing. They were only aware of the film after it was completed and they requested an interview of me and my actor who played Mossadegh. Voice of America is interested in broadcasting the film but they will have to wait until I finish screening at festivals. I also do have a Canadian based distributor that is picking up the film to broadcast on tv and on video on demand services over the next couple years.

I would have loved funding from them but alas that did not happen. Honestly I had a lot of donations and breaks on this film. For example, USC has a SAG Waiver with the Screen Actors Guild that basically says no actors we use have to be paid. So an actor working on a USC film gets only copy and credit. Film schools typically do this to give students a level playing field to be able to cast and actually work with actors. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to afford it. And actors that work on student films do so to receive reel material, to work on their acting chops and to establish connections. Because they are short films, we don't take too much of their time so it seems to be a pretty fair system. I was very lucky to have the actors I got. I did have a union casting director (Mark Tillman, CSA) that was willing to work on my project to help cast my film. I felt that having him was a tremendous help i.e. I don't think I would've gotten the quality of actors I did without him.

The film was shot on the RED Camera (which professional feature films shoot on nowadays). I had friends that owned a package that donated it to me. The film was edited on my editor's personal computer. Sound was designed on my sound editor's personal computer. We're all friends so I had a lot of breaks throughout the process. So overall the movie looks more expensive than it actually turned out to be. I'm not sure I could have actually afforded to make this film with the production value it has without those benefits. But there were costs in the production associated with make-up, food, travel to certain locations.
I can confirm that jebhe-melli is not an organization based in Iran. It would be illegal there. In America and Europe, there are a variety of Iranian groups that are against the current regime in Iran. Jebhe-melli is one of them and they take their name from the Jebhe-Melli (National Front) party of the 1950s in Iran. You probably have read this already: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Front_%28Iran%29. In the 1950s in Iran there were a variety of factions and different political parties spanning the left-right political spectrum. Most or all of them went underground following the regime change in 1979 and have since sprang up in name only on different websites that are run in Europe or North America by Iranian exiles living abroad. None of those old parties are actually politically active in as far as they have no ability to incite change in Iran. They only have news sites with a certain ideological flavor based on what the political party stood for decades ago.  [UPDATE:  Roozbeh sent a clarification so I replaced the original paragraph with this clarification.]

Steve (in follow up email):  I'm just curious who is behind this website?  

Roozbeh Dadvant (in follow up):  In regards to jebhemelli, my interviewer there was Bijan Mehr. He sought me out and he's part of jminews.com (which i assume stands for jebhe-melli-iran news i.e. the national front of Iran). That site is probably associated with jebhemelli.info as well but I am not sure. I don't know if he is the founder of the site or if he runs it but he is a contributor. He did a phone interview with me (he's in Boston) and he posted a VOA interview about my film on jmi (http://www.jminews.com/news/fa/?mi=35&ni=7182)

Steve:   Is anyone from the film going to be at the Anchorage festival?
Roozbeh Dadvand:  Unfortunately, no one will be attending the Anchorage Film Festival. My actors and fellow crew members are all working. I really would love to but film festivals typically don't have the budgets to bring short filmmakers over. Because I work in Los Angeles, I just can't schedule a trip up. It's disappointing because Anchorage is really quite beautiful. I was in Anchorage and in Kenai 2 years ago  filming for Alaska State Troopers on the National Geographic Channel. Alaska is really quite lovely. To be able to go for a screening of my short would be awesome. But unfortunately it is not possible.

Here's the official trailer and the extended answers are below that.

The Extended Answers that Roozbeh added to his response:

1. Why did you decide to produce a film about Mossadegh? What is it about him that caught your attention?

I was born and raised in the United States and had never even heard the name Mossadegh until 2003 when I read Stephen Kinzer’s All The Shah’s Men, which is one of the more well-known biographies on Mossadegh and the inner workings of the 1953 CIA coup.

[For those not familiar with the history, Stephen Kinzer gives a very concise interview about Mossadegh and the greater context surrounding his overthrow on NPR at the following link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1357781 ] In short, Iran had existed under quasi-imperial British rule for several decades before 1953 during which Britain would refine Iranian oil and take much more than their fair share of profits. In order to maintain these benefits, Britain held strong influence over Iran’s political system, namely over the Shah of Iran and by manipulating the election of Parliamentary members that would benefit their policy.

When Mossadegh rose to political power as Prime Minister, he saw that a nation such as Iran could not truly evolve democratically when another country (Britain) exercised such influence over its own national resources and politics. He therefore nationalized Iranian oil and expelled British oil workers and embassy staff from the country. In response, Britain brought Iran’s economy to a standstill by preventing the country from exporting oil and took advantage of cold war communist fears to manipulate the American CIA into overthrowing Mossadegh, arguing falsely that Mossadegh had Communist sympathies and will leave Iran and its oil vulnerable to a Russian takeover. Following his overthrow, Mossadegh was placed in prison for 3 years and then in house arrest for the rest of his life; the Shah of Iran became more powerful and developed into a dictator up until his downfall in 1979 and Iranian oil ended up split into a consortium among U.S. and European powers.

The more I read about Mossadegh, the more I was both inspired by his life and struck by the tragedy of his political downfall in terms of what it meant for the prospects of democratic evolution in Iran. Mossadegh represented the last true hope for democratic nation building in Iran. In all my research on him, including negative propaganda against him, he was one of the very few political leaders of the last century that did not have a corrupt bone in his body. As Prime Minister, he allowed for political groups to speak out against him, he never censored these organizations or had them arrested or tortured. He lived and governed by his democratic ideals, arguably to a fault at the expense of the consolidation of his own power. It is for such reasons that he continues to be revered as a national hero today by many.

Personally, the more I read about Mossadegh, the more I felt connected to my own cultural heritage as an Iranian American. A common reason many Iranians of my generation are growing up outside of Iran is because their parents left the country during the tumult of the 1979 Revolution. Though one cannot say for sure, had Mossadegh been able to remain in power, it is possible that the course of Iranian history may have changed for the better and that many Iranians who have left the country in search of better opportunity may have instead stayed content with life in Iran. As a member of a growing Iranian diaspora, I therefore feel personally connected to the history and consequences of Mossadegh’s story.  

Ultimately it is the inspiration of his life and the tragic poetry of his downfall that motivated me to make a film about him. I was in film school at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and decided to make my thesis film about him. Because I never grew up in Iran, especially during those times, I spent 2-3 years just researching Mossadegh’s life in order to feel confident enough to cinematically express my vision of him. I read several books on him and on that era in Iran’s history from both American, European and Iranian scholars. I traveled to Iran in 2007 and met with some of his family members, met with local scholars and visited Mossadegh’s village home in Ahmad Abad where he lived the rest of his days in house arrest.

2. Was the American doctor an actual person, or was he fictional? (Excuse my ignorance if he was real)

The American doctor was a fictional character. The film is a historical fiction drama.
I did draw heavily from true situations, however. It is true that Mossadegh was in house arrest following the coup. He also did suffer from a variety of physical ailments throughout his life, some of which were perplexing and never had a fully accurate diagnosis. Dr. Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh—Mossadegh’s son and physician—sought many times to have a specialist examine Mossadegh during his time in house arrest, only to have each request rejected by the Shah of Iran. The Shah, however, did eventually give permission to the Mossadegh family to have a specialist examine him on the condition that the physician come from abroad. Mossadegh, however, rejected this because he only wanted to see an Iranian specialist from within Iran. At the time, his explanation was that he did not want any extra expense spent on his behalf to bring in a foreign doctor. One could speculate though that he may also have been suspicious of the Shah’s offer for only a foreign physician to treat him.

From those true circumstances, I took artistic license and came up with a fictional scenario in which Mossadegh has an encounter with an American physician. Given that Mossadegh was overthrown by American intelligence forces in 1953, I intended his interaction with the American doctor to explore issues of trust between the two men and to symbolize the distrust between the two nations.

Ultimately, the story I developed was meant to be an entertaining vehicle with which to introduce Mossadegh’s life, character and legacy both to viewers familiar with him and to viewers i.e. Westerners that have never heard of him. Accomplishing these objectives in a short student film with limited budget and resources was the biggest challenge. To condense the detail and complexity of Mossadegh’s life and overthrow into a 20 minute film is nearly impossible. After much thought, I settled on focusing on his time in house arrest. I felt that his imprisonment was very poetic and tragic to me because it represented the deferred dream of Iranian democracy. Also, by focusing on his time in house arrest, it became feasible to make a dramatized film with a limited budget. I didn’t have to travel exceedingly far or find too many locations. I was also able to limit the number of characters in the film.

3. Do you think Mossadegh is still relevant today? If so, why?

I think Mossadegh is certainly relevant today. On one level he is relevant because his overthrow is a prime example of how meddling in a foreign government can reap terrible consequences in a region even several decades later. The 1953 coup against Mossadegh was the first U.S. overthrow of a foreign government. U.S. presence in the Middle East was very much consolidated with Mossadegh’s overthrow. Following the coup, the U.S. really cemented themselves as a world player, having taken over that title from England at the end of World War II. But there are consequences because of that. For example, the U.S. support of a dictator in the Shah of Iran ultimately led to the 1979 Revolution and to a worse government coming to power; and this last decade we can further see the consequences of U.S. involvement in both Iran and the greater region. So on one level, Mossadegh’s overthrow represents a lesson into the consequences that can arise when you support a government at the expense of human rights.

On another more positive level, Mossadegh remains relevant because his life and ideals still live on in people. In Iranian political history, he is essentially a legend. A hero. A majority of the population in the Middle East now is below the age of 30. The region is very young. And with the movements that have happened the last few years in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Libya, etc., we see the strong desire of these young populations to have a say in the direction their country takes in the future. It is especially during these times that we should remember and be inspired by the virtues of the heroes of the past.

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