Iranian American filmmaker, Yasmine Diba, remembers well the instant she learned of Trump’s travel ban on seven “dangerous” countries, including Iran. To make sense of the shock, she scrutinized her family’s history, finding eventual solace by making a film, “Far Off Land.”
“People call Iran a dead [contemporary culture],” she said at the Iranian Film Festival in San Francisco this past September, “but it is alive in me.”
Her response — turning toward film as a way to make sense of this new round of blockades and to protest them — is shared by many American Iranian filmmakers and artists of Iranian descent who have moved to the U.S.
When President Donald Trump tweeted, “Iran has been formally “PUT ON NOTICE,” Diba says she began worrying that Iranian American filmmakers would become easy targets for censorship.
Filmmaker Amin Haghshenas has not experienced censorship, but the ban has made its mark. Earlier this year, he uploaded his music video animation, “Trumpet,” online from his home in Tehran and, after several hundred re-tweets, decided to enter it in the San Francisco festival. This would be his third time as a participant. The video features a cartoon characterization of Trump sporting a swastika-embellished arm band. Trump’s ban hit after the festival’s submission deadline, and so Haghshenas was unable to be present.
By e-mail Haghshenas explained in Farsi that he wanted to “show the sick and idiotic behavior of President Trump that affects millions of lives. Only when I saw politicians and their silly policies that I decided to make fun of them.”
“I wanted to show Trump’s speeches and tweets as elegantly as possible,” he added with a note of sarcasm.
The film industry in Iran produces nearly 100 features every year and the number has been steading rising (by comparison, France annually produces an average of 200). The Iranian diaspora films, those created by Iranians living outside of Iran, are most notably increasing. Such films generally look at the country through a lens of nostalgic images of pomegranates and orange goldfish, while simultaneously critiquing the country’s political trajectory.
Nazli Ghassemi, a graduate student at USC Annenberg in the Arts Journalism Master’s Program, is also Iranian American, and has made a documentary, Baba Eiyni, which has more than 8,500 YouTube views. She spends half her time in Iran and the other in San Diego and Los Angeles — the latter of which is home to approximately 72,000 Iranians, the largest concentration in America.
When the travel ban first was announced, Ghassemi thought of her mother. “My mom probably now cannot travel because she won’t be able to get a visa,” she said. “She is the most unthreatening person you would want to ban from seeing her grandchildren.”
“The thing is that if it weren’t for the hijabs on women,” she added, “you would not know you are in a middle-eastern country because everything looks very modern. We have women bus drivers and taxi drivers. It is a weird place, anything goes in Tehran.”
Baba Eiyni, tells the story of Ghassemi’s 104-year-old grandfather (now 106, who survived the change in regime and built a thriving pharmacy, with a cosmetics counter that is pictured in the banner photo at the top of this story).
Ghassemi spoke with us about the travel ban and what exactly it means for Iranians — both those living in Iran and those who have established residency elsewhere.
AS TOLD BY Nazli Ghassemi, filmmaker and arts reporter
I think the travel ban is ridiculous especially for Iran being on that list. Iranians have not threatened American safety. Their name has never been among the names of terrorists around the world. If anything, Iranians have always contributed as immigrants and are at the forefront of many different industries.
The ones who work politically will keep on doing that. Iranians will try to prove that we’re good people, to prove there is no reason for Americans to go by what Trump says about immigration. Almost immediately after the travel ban was instituted, publishers were looking for Muslim, Middle Eastern voices from that region. Versus seven years ago, if your story wasn’t relevant they would not publish your work. It’s almost like immigration is finally in style. As a writer, this is the first time I’m really seeing publishers giving Muslim people a voice.
The artists are given a chance now … I don’t think it is trying to inspire people to be more political, but it is more personal now – to prove yourself and defend your origin, roots and background. I think artists will come out with more political views, not because they became more political all of a sudden, but because the country is giving them a chance to be exposed or express their views. I guess that makes you more political, and artists are responsible to come out and write about the injustices. As artists, we are all responsible to speak out.