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Middle East Epic Emerges by the Bay: Producer’s Interview
by Doniphan Blair
Marjaneh Moghimi (left) and Kari Wishingrad have a vision: a fully produced period piece about love, poetry and betrayal among the posse surrounding the 13th century poet Rumi. photo: D. Blair
Considering that Iran has a daily film newspaper that sells out in minutes, on some days, and that the Bay Area has lost three film monthlies in the last four years, perhaps we have something to learn from that ancient nation beyond the endless reports on fundamentalism and nuclear proliferation. Diametrically opposed to the conservative theocratic regime, Iran's cine culture is the most advanced in the Islamic world and one of the top ten in the world.
Perhaps the time has come then to request a Iranian cinema attaché, or cultural exchange program, to help inject a little perseverance, passion and poetics into our film/video proceedings. If so, Marjaneh Moghimi would be an extremely suitable film ambassador.
Although you might find it hard believe, if you ran into her in the street, but the blond, modestly dressed and perfect English-speaking Moghimi is an accomplished documentary film producer who lives in the Bay Area but works entirely in her native Iran. If, at this hypothetical meeting, Moghimi was accompanied by her current producing partner Kari Wishingrad—the equally hard working albeit brunette Bay Area actress—and they said they were putting together a feature, you might think that it was another one of Wishingrad's indie projects, perhaps set in the raucous Iranian club scene of San Francisco and LA.
But chat with Moghimi and Wishingrad for a moment and the massive chutzpah of their ambition becomes apparent: a multimillion dollar period piece to be directed by Dariush Mehrjui, one of Iran's premiere cineastes, to be shot in India, and not only about the world famous poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi and his spiritual master Shams but starring their wives.
Titled "Rumi's Kimia," the script is from the book, "Kimia Khatoon – A Story From Rumi’s Hiram" (ie harem) by Saideh Ghods, which became a bestseller in Turkey as well as Iran. After her mother married Rumi, the historical Kimia became enamoured with his son but was betrothed to Shams, the eccentric elderly mystic who introduced the middleclass Rumi to the ecstatic epiphany which inspired his poetry.
In keeping with Sufi doctrine of communicating through multiple layers of meaning, the story evolves from unrequited love and anger to deep romance and devotion, as well as appreciation of nature and poetry. Moreover, it is classical Bay Area material: an indie, an international co-production, about poetry and featuring a revisionist "her" story.
Marjaneh Moghim can appear utterly American until she gets going on one of her passions, like filmmaking, whereupon telltale gestures and accents can sneak through. photo: D. Blair
Moghimi runs Dorna Films, a local production company, but she also directs
which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Iranian cultural traditions. To these ends, she has produced numerous award-winning documentaries including the Iranian segment of "The Power of the Game," (2007) for the acclaimed director Michael Apted; "Behjat Sadr: Time Suspended" (2006) by Mitra Farahani, various projects with Bahman Kiarostami (son of the famous director); and "
Our Summer in Tehran
" (2009) for Justine Shapiro.
Wishingrad started acting in her native New York but mostly in theater and turned to film in 2002. Since then she has become one of the hardest working women in Bay Area show business, appearing in numerous indie features ("Neon Sky," "Fell," "Sand" and "Hell House"), several television shows and innumerable commercials and industrials.
Wishingrad is also an avid networker, often attending Sundance to represent for her films and to report, including for this magazine (see "
Sundancing with the Kids of South Park City
CineSource's article about her
). Although she has not been to Iran, since connecting with Moghimi in March 2010, she has educated herself on that enigmatic land as well as producing, which she hadn't done previously. Indeed, Wishingrad recently advanced from co-producer to producer on "Rumi's Kimia."
Considering Moghimi and Wishingrad's professionalism and ambition, it seemed like just a nice touch when they asked to do our interview at Berkeley's old Fantasy building, now called the Saul Zaentz Film Center—that was until I noticed our appointment was for the main conference room and Paul Zaentz (nephew of Saul but also great producer in his own right: "The English Patient" 1996, "The Talented Mr. Ripley" 1999, "Goya's Ghost" 2006) was their prior meeting. We started there.
Is Mr. Zaentz becoming involved?
Paul [Zaentz] is already involved, he is our executive producer.
When did that happen? Is that how [the film] started rolling, or has it been rolling for years?
It's been two years. It is based on an Iranian novel, 'Kimia Khatoon' [by Saideh Ghods] which was a best seller in Iran. Then it was published in Turkey and was a bestseller. Now it is being translated into English. I read the book, fell in love with the story, and optioned it. I was in Iran at the time so I met with a few directors. [Dariush] Mehrjui was always my first choice [he studied at UCLA and directed over 20 often critically-acclaimed films, starting with "The Cow," 1969]. I met with him—he had read the book—and he decided to come onboard.
This so funny [referring to the photographer shooting her], this is all new for us. [laughs]
That is fantastic. So it really is an Iranian-American co-production?
MM: Exactly. The film will be in English [Mehrjiu speaks English well] and we are hoping to get an international cast. For the role of Shams, Mehrjui's first choice is Jeremy Irons.
Considered one of the harder working actresses in the Bay Area, Kari Wishingrad was featured in a
in 2009. photo: K. Wishingrad
KW: We are working on that right now. His agent has the script [but] we don't know if he has read it yet. But we do have Golshifteh Farahani already attached to the film.
MM: [An Iranian actor] she lives in Paris now. She was in 'The Body of Lies' [Ripley Scott, 2008] with Leonardo diCaprio, his love interest. Now she is in this upcoming film—
KW: 'There Be Dragons' [spring 2011].
MM: That is by Roland Joffé. He has had a few big films ['The Killing Fields,' 1984, 'The Mission,' 1986]. Paul really likes him. [Farihani] is in that film, she is trying to make it as an international star.
Is most of the production money coming from here or is it a full co-production, with some other investors in Paris or—?
MM: So far, it is all from here.
From the Iranian community, Silicon Valley?
MM: The lump sum is from Silicon Valley.
Of course, everyone is quite familiar with Rumi.
KW: Not everyone! I found that at Sundance. It was like 50-50. Some people were right on it—'Oh, I love his work!'—other people didn't have a clue.
Is Kimia a historical figure?
MM: Yes, it is based on historic facts. The author [Ghods] spent four years in Pakistan [where] there is a shrine for Shams, Rumi's mentor responsible for his transformation. There is a huge library dedicated to Shams. That is where she first heard/read about Kimia. She influenced Shams, married him, and changed his whole life. Then she got really curious and did more and more research and wrote the story in Pakistan.
When I was in Konya [Turkey, Rumi's adopted hometown] I found a lot of books where they mention Rumi's stepdaughter Kimia: How she was in this love triangle between Rumi's son and Shams; how she ended up marrying Shams; [how] she dies and Shams disappears. This was in many of the books.
MM: In reality, she dies but in the movie she doesn't.
There was a lot of tension in that family since, supposedly the son killed Shams.
MM: You always hear Rumi's son kills Shams but now it makes sense.
KW: Out of jealousy.
There is another possible reason. The Sufis became institutionalized in the 12th and 13th century and it was only natural that a son take over the family business [which Shams was ruining]. The son set up the Whirling Dervishes that live to this day.
MM: No, no—that was Sultan Valed, Rumi's older son. This is the younger son, Aladeen. A lot of what we have is from Sultan Valed's diary. We show him taking notes through out the film, so we know it is from the diary.
That is a very rich story. I also love Rumi's father Bahauddin.
MM: So you are a fan?
I have been to Iran, Afghanistan, India, where I was turned on to Sufism. I was interested in the Sufis because they were connected to the arts.
MM: Is that why you are so interested in this story?
I know Kari but not only that. This is a major production and it is tied into mystical alternative stories. It could be a Hollywood film but it is interesting you are choosing to make it here.
MM: Actually our ideal location would be Konya [but] now we are thinking of shooting in Mumbai [India].
But you are from here. You could take the script down to Hollywood and pitch it.
KW: We are also doing that. Right now it is Marjaneh and I, pretty much—Paul comes in, here and there, with his support and knowledge. We need someone with a little more experience and [who] may have connections to Hollywood and funding. We are putting out the call right now for someone who can work with us as a team. Whether they are part of a studio or an independent, we are open, [although] we want to still have our creative input.
MM: We want this film to be made!
It is sort of a commercial project?
M: The whole point of [director] Mehrjui wanting to do this in English is he wanted to make it commercial and introduce Rumi to a bigger audience. That is why we found this entertaining story. Not a lot of people would want to go see a film just about a Sufi poet but if you have these other elements—
A big drama.
MM: When I read the book I thought [Kimia] was totally spiritual from the start—a born Sufi. She is the one who had the connection with nature. She knows where she is; others come and go but she follows her path. An amazing character.
Sometimes they glue in the love interest but to have it so imbedded—that is beautiful. Of course, most of us assumed that Shams was Rumi's love interest.
MM: Shams did marry Kimia—that is a known fact. You hear all these stories—who knows?—in those days men and women were so segregated. It was almost impossible for them to have a love, a physical relationship, but at the same time people were so close. Men were so close emotionally, they would spend days and days together. Maybe it was just a spiritual love.
I don't think women were that segregated back in the 13th century. Rumi's father writes these stories about love affairs.
MM: Believe me, right now, even with all the segregation, there are all these love affairs now. [laughs]
Rumi's father's writing shows a pretty tolerant society compared to today: women composing music, playing in the market, poets, painters. Anyway, it's a fabulous story.
KW: We are excited about it. We really believe in it. I am learning so much. As an actor, it's a whole new world for me. I think it is a good skill to bring into my career so that I can produce films for me, as an actor. There is no role for me in this movie. I am totally dedicated to this movie because I love the story and my relationship with Marjaneh—we work very well together. It sort of fell in my lap and I went with it.
[to Marjaneh] You have produced before?
MM: I have produced eight documentaries. This is my first feature.
A scene from Moghim's 'Our Summer in Tehran' about a Jewish-American women and her son and their adventures in Tehran. photo: Promises Films
KW: Her more recent film is '
Our Summer in Tehran
' by Justine Shapiro and about a Jewish-American women who spent two months with her son in Iran. It is a wonderful film and is hitting the festivals right now and being screened all around. Marjeneh is in the movie. It was in the UN Film Festival, at Tiburon [Film Festival], in Berkeley, a couple of times. It played the Amsterdam Film Festival.
You work mostly out of the Bay Area?
MM: Yes. My company [Butimar Productions] is based in the Bay Area but we shoot in Iran. This is first time we are shooting in Mumbai.
All your documentaries are shot in Iran?
MM: Yes. One was for Michael Apted 'The Power of the Game' about soccer in six different countries—I didn't even know we had a soccer team for women until I started working on this film. I have worked with Americans who were making films in Iran and then Iranians. I have produced five of Bahman Kiarostami films [son of famous director Abbas].
Kiarostami, wow! Do you ever have trouble going back and forth?
MM: We did have some problems with our last shoot there. It has become much more difficult for foreign press or crews to shoot there in the past year and half since the election.
You have made eight, so it is possible. It is so interesting, the tolerance of the Shi'a regime to art, when right across the border you have the Taliban. I have another friend who was telling me how many museums there are in Tehran.
MM: There are a lot of art galleries, a lot of contemporary stuff going on. The museums aren't that impressive any more but the gallery scene is very impressive.
Is it equal to the filmmaking or is the filmmaking still dominant?
Right now the art scene has surpassed filmmaking. My god, all these young Iranians are selling art! They all have solo exhibitions in Paris, London, Dubai. Sotheby's Christy's were selling really interesting work. Sachi and Sachi is representing some Iranians now.
A Persian miniature painting featuring Rumi (right) and Shams of Tabriz, his teacher. photo courtesy: R. Moss
Does it have a distinctive style, realistic, abstract?
MM: No, they do different styles.
Do you think the [Iranian] filmmakers will do a push to become a little more universal or commercial?
MM: There was a ten year gap at the big festivals. In the past two years, they started doing really well [again] at Berlin and Venice. At both, they won the best director or best film—so they are coming back. Asghar Farhadi has another great film at Berlin which is screening this week.
But there was a gap, a kind of exodus of filmmakers? I know [Mohsen] Makhmalbaf left when Ahmadinejad came in [2005—Makhmalbaf directed 'Kandahar,' 2001].
MM: I would rather not talk about the politics because I was banned from leaving Iran for a whole year.
It is a time of great change, pretty fascinating what happen today [Mubarak's speech, 2/10/2011]? I always think of the Iranians as the greatest Muslim filmmakers. Is that a fair assessment or are the Turks or others also pretty good?
MM: The Turks are really good. Their films, that go to Cannes and other festivals, are really interesting. With the Iranians—they love the arts. In Iran, half the population is going to film school. It's amazing, every young Iranian you meet is either involved with the film industry or watches films on a regular basis.
KW: [laughs] Right.
MM: But not like in the Indian way, into Bollywood. They all watch independent films.
MM: He's huge there. Or like all these films from Cannes or Berlin. Even before [they come out], they have the DVDs at the black market in Iran.
It seems like the Iranians have a distinct style, more contemplative in their scene structure.
MM: You have to only because the censors in Iran are so tough, you can't really do anything. So you have to be like structured, or poetic, say things behind [the obvious].
KW: At Sundance I was at a panel that focused on the youth culture of Iran. One of the filmmakers there, Ali Samadi Ahadi, said [the censorship] forces them to become really creative. There are so many restrictions on what you can have in the film— such as men and women can't touch. It has forced them to become very creative. That is such a wonderful way of dealing with that oppression.
They seem very metaphor minded. There is also this 'string of pearls' [scene system], letting scenes unfold, slower pace...
MM: Exactly. That's also Kiarostami's influence on many Iranian filmmakers. He started that whole 'slow, letting things unfold' [thing]. He's a legend who has influenced many, many young Iranian filmmakers.
But it also must have something to do with the audience?
MM: Interestingly enough most of the films that you see out here are not that popular in Iran. We have our commercial [films]. Most people like comedy and romance—those films are huge in Iran. But those films are not necessarily exciting for festivals.
Are they a little like Bollywood?
MM: No because we can't have dancing. It's different [but] there is always a woman and man and car chases and stuff like that.
A little overacted?
MM: It is very commercial. Mostly, [they have a] beautiful girl and beautiful guy who you know are going to end up together but who are playing hard to get, or who have to overcome all this stuff. Or there are two guys going after the same girl. A lot of them are copies. A huge film, that was a box office hit in Iran—what was that film with Michael Douglas and Glen Close?
KW: 'Fatal Attraction,' .
MM: An exact copy of 'Fatal Attraction' but in an Iranian setting—that became huge!
Well, everyone copies. Soderberg remade 'Solaris,' .
Moghimi was disabused of the notion she never looks good in photos after the photographer showed her this example. photo: D. Blair
MM: But they don't give any credit when they copy [laughs].
Is the business in Tehran or is there a film town?
M: In Tehran. We don't have studios. We don't have Bollywood. Now they are starting to build sets but it is usually actual homes. You can see filmmakers shooting throughout Tehran when you drive.
There's a cop standing around with the street closed off?
MM: Exactly. They need all sorts of permits but then your film gets stopped in the middle of the shoot anyway. People come and check your permit. [Sometimes] you have to bring the person [to the set] who gave you the permit.
Getting back to your film, 'Rumi's Kimia,' are you going to be building a set because it looks like you will get the budget for it?
MM: That is one thing we've been talking about. There is this Indian production designer, Nitin Desai, who did 'Jodha Akbar,' a huge Indian film three years ago, about a Muslim king who falls in love with this Indian princess. It is exactly the same time period. You know Tom Luddy? He called me to say, 'Go watch this film, they have the exact same setting that you want and maybe you can get involved.' I went and: 'Oh my god, this is perfect!' So we got in touch with them. If we do shoot in Mumbai, we are hoping to use his sets with a minor adjustment.
Is that a studio situation or out in village?
MM: Half an hour away from Mumbai, a studio.
Is script is done?
KW: The script is done. We have Angus MacLachlan; he did 'June Bug' [2005, directed by Phil Morrison]. His more recent film is 'Stone' with Edward Norton it premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival. So he is our associate producer and has already done quite a bit of work on the script. There is still some tweaking involved, especially when actors come on, because they might have some input. But for the most part, it is complete.
MM: It was written by Mehrjui, the director. The author [Saideh Ghods] was a consultant. She would come and read it and give us input. The original script was written in Persian and translated into English by Dorna Khazeni.
Theoretically, you could start shooting?
KW: As soon as we get the money.
Is there a good time? You don't want to shoot in the summer in Bombay.
KW: Ideally, it would be wonderful if we could start shooting this fall—that would be a good time to be in India. At this point, if we got the money really soon, with preproduction, we could shoot in the fall. It all depends when the rest of the money comes in.
And how is that looking?
KW: I have to say we are very optimistic. We have a great project [and] we have a lot of people who are interested. We have been casting a line out and it is just a matter of reeling in the people who have expressed interest. That is why we felt we need more help.
[turning to Marjaneh] Can we talk about Coleman yet?
MM: We can say he is very interested in the project.
KW: Coleman Barks [famous translator of Rumi]—Marjaneh and I met him in December. He came to the Freight and Salvage [Club, in Berkeley] to do an interview. We met him and sent him the executive summary and the script and he is very excited about the project. He wants to know how he can help.
MM: He's a huge fan of Mehrjui!
KW: He and Mehrjui met in Washington DC several years ago. [Barks] has offered us to use some of his poetry and he is making some contacts who might be in a position to bring in money or get us connections to actors. That is only a recent development in the past weeks—
MM: Past three hours!
KW: Just today we got a very nice email from him.
How do you go about making these presentations?
MM: We have a package. It is mostly on the Internet now.
KW: An executive summary.
MM: We did have a book we used to give out but we don't have any more. But we have a fan page on Facebook, 'Rumi’s Kimia.' [Please friend them, it show popular interest in the project.]
KW: And we have an edited reel of Mehrjui's films. We are also editing interviews with Ghods, the writer, Mehrjui and Golshifteh [the actress] and when that is all together we are going to put that on the Facebook page as well. And we started a
Kickstarter, for donations?
KW: Yes, Kickstarter is a do it yourself crowd source funding. A lot of people are getting their projects on there as it is a great way to introduce your film, create buzz and to get some financing going. We are launching our page within a few weeks once this video is completed.
[They start a promo video about Mehrjui and talk over it.]
MM: Bahman Kiarostami made this reel. .
So he just edited this up on his home Avid.
MM: Well, he has an office in Tehran. There was a documentary on Mehrjui he edited so he had all these [clips]. Mehrjui is huge in Iran. He is more well known then any other director. He has been making films from before the revolution and his 'Cow' is the biggest Iranian film.
KW: You will enjoy the interview; Mehrjui is very colorful.
MM: He went to UCLA, he speaks English.
Will the exteriors be shot in Mumbai?
MM: We have a line producer in Mumbai who says that just a few hours from town is an area where we can shoot all the exteriors. Turkey would have been ideal—it is exactly where the story takes place—but it would have been real expensive.
The Turkish economy is exploding.
MM: It is the most beautiful country but there are no tax incentives—nothing. My first choice is Turkey and we have been trying. I met with a few producers. They told me: the Turks are not used to investing into films. Their government does not sponsor films like India or Iran. Even their box office for Turkish films is not that exciting. [On the other hand,] Iranians love film.
So my previous statement that Iran is the top Muslim film making society—unless the Algerians or—
MM: No, no. When I went to the Abu Dhabi film festival they were giving numbers of films made per year and Iran is number five.
In the world?
MM: The European countries weren't on top. I was so impressed. I have it somewhere, I will email. [Some say France, Germany and Spain are in top contention.]
What is your next step?
KW: Is to finish the reel, get it on Kickstarter, keep meeting people, getting leads. Today, we got an email from Coleman Barks with a nice lead.
Has the story of Rumi been made?
MM: All documentaries [aside from the 2005 'Shams and Rumi,' starring Sarkaut].
KW: Is there anything else we want to tell him?
MM: Our biggest superstar, aside from Kari and myself [laugh], we have Darius Khondji on board. He is the French-Iranian cinematographer who did 'Seven.' He is a huge fan of Mehrjui.
KW: He just finished shooting Woody Allen's film in Paris ['Midnight In Paris,' scheduled to open Cannes].
MM: We have a really good team. That is why we really have to make this film, we have such incredible people, such an incredible story. It just needs to happen.
And what would put you over the hump? One more big investor?
MM + KW: Yes!
KW: And getting another name actor attached—
MM: Jeremy Irons!
KW: It will be easier to get the rest of the financing. Mehrjui wants to work with name actors.
Do you feel any disadvantage being from the Bay Area trying to pitch this stuff.
MM: Not really. It is a historic epic about Rumi, it is not like a box office draw.
How did you get involved in film?
MM: I was actually working at MOMA [Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco] and they had a real good film department. I always wanted to do something that relates to Iranian film. I love Iranian classical music, setar and kamancheh and those instruments. Kamancheh is the father of cello, and it is the instrument that Shams introduces to Rumi. It was called 'rabab' in Turkish. When we went to Rumi's shrine in Konya and there are all these ancient kamanchehs. It is the father of violin and cello.
Turkey is also the father of rock [and roll] cymbals.
MM: Ah! My first documentary was about kamancheh. When I went to Konya and I saw these kamanchehs and I feel like I am going back. They ask, 'How come you became a filmmaker;' I say the kamancheh called me.
This is the piece we are working on for Kickstarter [Wishingrad starts video].
Moghim (left) and Wishingrad show their trailer about their director, the famous Iranian Mohsen Murjui, which was edited by Bahman Kiarostami the son of the equally famous Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. photo: D. Blair
[in the trailer]: What is the point of attraction of me as a writer and director for this film? It deals with love in different dimension. Almost five or six layers of love are introduced and analyzed and shown in this film.
Characters like Kimia or wife of Buddha or the wife of Cesar Chavez, they are characters that are keys that we can enter the real world, in a way.
I absolutely do not think that Kimia is a story of a woman who is living in Middle East, Turkey or Iran. I think the story is for today's woman. It is something that learns to all of us. It is not about the feminist thing at all. It is about the truth, the reality.
GF: Kimia herself is wonderful character, she has a lot of energy. She is positive, she goes through ups and downs in her life. I love her. When I read the script, I thought: 'This is something I have to do before I die!'
Posted on Feb 21, 2011 - 05:14 PM