When I found out about a Persian film festival in Toronto dedicated to young filmmakers exclusively from Iran, I immediately packed my bags and bought tickets with money from my savings. My aspirations for making films in Iran after college drew me to this festival, especially given that the judges were some prominent filmmakers flying in from Tehran. However, hours before my flight was set to depart, I was informed by Shahrokh Bahrololumi, the organizer of the festival, that the festival was postponed.
Some of the possibilities for why the festival was cancelled were that given the political situation of Iran this summer, the judges may have had difficulty flying in from Iran. When I spoke to Shahrokh after my arrival in Toronto, I discovered that the cancellation was due to a personal problem of one of the judges and lack of Iranian support in Canada.
Shahrokh was one of the two interesting young artists I met during my short stay. Shahrokh immigrated to Canada in recent years. He was an assistant director of Masud Kimiai, an internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, and a film critic in Iran. Currently he owns a production studio in Toronto, which also distributes and screens independent films from Iran.
As an artist, he was critical of social boundaries. “The struggles of being an artist in a foreign country is one thing, your own community tainting your work by connecting you to politics and imposing political and social affiliations on you is another,” he told me. “So, would artists from the previous regime belong only to that political era of Iran? Are they not artists of the whole Iran and Iranians?” he asked. I sensed anger and frustration in his tone.
A sensitivity to certain words and mindsets was also apparent in Siavash Shabanpour, a 28-year-old, who had dropped out of Tehran University’s law school, a top university in Iran, to study theater in Canada while continuing his poetry writing.
Siavash revealed frustration with his culture, the mentality of some Iranians whose taboos are not limited to the borders and laws of Iran.
“If I can be directly blocked in Iran for putting on an erotic play, I suffer the same extent of pressure here in a way that I’m forced into censoring myself by the cultural disapproval of the Iranian audience,” said Siavash.
The community was critical of his play. When he read his poem about such touchy subjects some laughed and some walked out. “Our artistic restrictions are cultural. Based on a poem, my character as a person is judged, and people make and break friendships with me,” he said.
Although their own cultural traits can still influence their works abroad, expatriate artists such as Shahrokh and Siavash can use the openness of Western societies to be creative, sometimes adapting to Western art to reach out to new audiences and simultaneously introduce their ethnic character.
“I admire artists such as Soheil Parsa, theatre director in Canada who puts on Persian fable plays in multiple languages and Mohsen Namjoo, who manages to skillfully introduce Western music along his Persian traditional/folk style,” said Siavash.
The merit in such creativities is in “telling tales from strange lands in a familiar tongue to develop art as a whole and familiarize cultures with one another without each losing their own depth,” according to Siavash.
To adapt to foreign ethos is challenging and Iranian expatriates who seek to create art in foreign countries face a multi-facet struggle; one, in seeking identity and two, battling native taboos.
I personally struggled with this identity crisis as I sought to find the right place for my filmmaking aspirations to soar. My passion for Persian cinema has driven me to want to work in Iran, one because as an artist I feel more accepted there, and two because I like to contribute to the culture there.
The beauty of art, however, is whether you create it at home or in distant lands, it contains a universal language, which can, at its best, touch the human soul and transcend nationalities. The ability of art to also challenge new boundaries and cultural restrictions comes with a price that those such as Siavash and Shahrokh are willing to pay.