By Edit Jakab
In the last few years, the Film Division has been graced by the presence of three talented filmmakers from Iran. We introduce them to you here in their own words.
Nazgol Kashani (3rd-year MFA)
How did you end up at Ohio University?
I am from Iran. I was moving from London to the States, and I wanted to go to film school. I had been working at a job that I didn’t like so I quit.
What did you do?
I was a cultural coordinator for the Iran Heritage Foundation in London so we were doing exhibitions in British museums and we were funding fellowships. It was a bit pretentious. I worked with very elitist and very rich people so I got tired of it.
I worked with some broadcasting, at BBC Persian a couple of times, and I liked the process of making a reportage. I was working on a cultural mini program. I did one on fashion photographer Tim Walker, and one on architect Richard Rogers, and I really enjoyed the process of making it. They gave me a couple of cameras and sound people, and I sat with the editor and edited it. I didn’t have a very strong portfolio in film so it was kind of OU to accept me here.
My first impressions of the program were that it was completely different from anywhere I had ever lived. I like that it is community based; people are very supportive. I was kind of surprised to learn that my fellow film students were unfamiliar with world cinema. Many had never heard of several of international masters. I was kind of shocked. I was also surprised by how supportive the culture is in the program. They don’t force you to do anything and you can choose the stories you want to tell in pretty much your own style.
Except for the first year.
Right. But for me it was good because I came here without any experience. People hated working on film, but I enjoyed it, and if I get the chance I’d do it again. It's really stressful but I learned a lot from it. And I really enjoy editing now because I have learned so much. I might not do everything that Tom [Hayes, post production professor] says because I know my own taste, but I’ve learned some really interesting tips and I do apply them. Then we have Rafal [Sokolowski, 2nd year filmmaking professor] who is more international in scope. Honestly, all of the professors are really supportive. As long as you know what you want to do they will just support you no matter what. For example, I am making this really long, slow and boring film, but they support me in making it.
Exactly. We international students, since our reference is broader than Hollywood or Sundance films, our experience is nothing like the American industry. Sometimes we receive influences that push our work to more of an American feeling and you just have to dig into yourself and know what you want to say. The professors can be very helpful and supportive, but you have to find your own language, your own voice. I don’t think you would get such openness in any other school.
We also have very good film studies teachers. My first year I had Erin [Schlumpf, film studies professor] who was so inspirational, and I took independent studies with Ofer [Eliaz, film studies professor]; he referred me to directors and films that changed my view on how to make my thesis film. Louis [Schwartz, film studies professor], also, is very close to what I am interested in. You come up with great ideas, as though a light turned on in your head in their class. We have a variety of people who can be helpful. So overall I am very happy.
What is your voice in cinema, now that you have found it?
I haven’t found it yet. I do love Antonioni. Or Chantal Akerman.
In my first year I chose to screen my documentary. But I am not a documentary filmmaker. For my thesis, I’ll choose a new realist style. It’s kind of soon to say that I’ve found my voice though.
Do you write all of your scripts?
I do. I am not a good writer, but I am a good director. As long as I am in school I want to do my own stories. Rafal said that what I want to say doesn’t come across on paper, but on canvas it does, so I suppose I have a vision.
Your plans after you get your MFA?
I’ve been working at the Athens Film Festival with David [Colagiovanni, film festival director], and I really enjoy it. I have an MA in Art Mediation so if I can work at a festival or in a museum or archival films, I would love that. I would also enjoy teaching a lot though I’m not comfortable with teaching any technical aspect of filmmaking because the students will probably know it better than me.
Will you go back to Iran?
The ideaI for me is to be able to go back and forth. For now, I think I will stay in the US, but I am making my thesis film in Iran. I’d love to have the experience of making a film in Iran; I left Iran after high school so never got a chance to work there. Iran has a very interesting and smart art cinema and I would like to be able to find my way into that arena.
Reza Entezamimehr (3rd-year MFA)
Why did you choose this program? Why didn’t you study in Iran?
I wanted more challenge; I wanted to experience new things. I also wanted to expand my knowledge, this was the main idea. I was studying film back home, but I wanted to study it in a different environment that might bring more challenge to it.
How did you choose OU in Athens, in particular? Why not NYU or other universities?
I was accepted by Rochester University of Technology as well as Florida State University; however, OU gave me the best financial package. That was one of the reasons. My other motivation was that I wanted to experience a more independent mechanism for filmmaking. At Rochester University of Technology, they teach primarily Hollywood-style filmmaking, whereas at OU, the emphasis is on independent methods.
I had made movies for ten years as a cinematographer and editor before I came here. So making more films is not interesting to me. Making better films, being sure that my next film is better than the previous one, that is essential to me.
Practice makes perfect: The more movies you make, the better you get.
I do think that practice makes perfect, but only if you become cautious about the mistakes you made in your previous work. My message to everyone in the world is: Don’t try to be Lionel Messi, don’t try to be Spielberg, don’t try to be Orson Welles. Just be ten percent better than your previous work.
Where do you see yourself after defending your thesis film and having your diploma in your pocket?
I will go to Chicago to work for a company.
Congratulations! What company?
Thank you. I am negotiating with two companies now; for one, I make music video clips, actually. I was in Chicago this weekend. It is not a big company.
And the other one?
The other one is The Mill, a huge Hollywood-type advertising company, with whom I am still applying. And Chicago is my favorite place so I would like to work for them.
So you are not going back to Iran?
Not for the near future, no. But later on, I will go back.
Shahriar Shafiani (MFA graduate)
Why did you choose this program? Why didn’t you study in Iran?
I did my undergraduate studies in mechanical eengineering. Because in Iran, you have to make your academic decision in high school, and in high school I was a math major, so I studied engineering. But since I did not want to do engineering, I did everything else: theater and any art-related stuff that I could get my hands on. I just did the minimum I had to do for my degree, which was not difficult for me since I was good at physics and math. I have always been attracted to the arts: I started writing short stories when I was seven. They were terrible, obviously, but the idea was clear to me what I wanted to do. However, because of my family’s encouragement, I started engineering.
On the side, I was teaching English. I started listening to heavy metal and rock music early on, whenever I could (I am also a musician; I play the lead guitar), and watching movies, especially Hollywood movies since I had access mostly to those. During those days, I saved money working as an English teacher, and before I graduated from that program I started making movies. One of my friends was a photographer, and he bought a 5D camera, and I was messing around with the menu and realized that it also shoots videos. From my saved money, I rented gear and hired professionals, for example, sound people, and I made my first film, after which I decided that I am definitely doing this for the rest of my life. I finished my mechanical engineering program, just for the sake of finishing it but I told them that I was not going to become an engineer. After graduating, I started working full time as a translator and English (ESL) teacher. I would play music in cafés to save some money and make more films. That time, I made four movies altogether. The last two years, I started reading a lot about cinema and took workshops, so in the end I taught writing at an Art and Cultural Institute.
How did you choose OU in Athens?
I made four films and made a name for myself, and started submitting my movies to film festivals. One of the festivals I submitted my films to was Athens Film Festival, and one of my films was accepted. I then realized that there was this awesome film program here so I applied. I also applied to other programs such as UT in Austin, Florida State, University of Utah, and another one in Wisconsin. I was going to apply to NYU and Columbia, too, but I had a limited budget for fees. The great thing about OU was that the application deadline was one month after that of other schools. So OU was the last school I applied to, and I did not expect to get in because I had not researched OU’s profile as I did for the other programs. I only found out there was a program here because of the festival. I got into all these programs except for the Wisconsin one, so I had three offers, but then OU offered me a tuition waiver and a stipend, which, in comparison to other schools was great. Based on my finances, OU was the sanest option. Also, I lived in a city all my life so the idea of seclusion, calm and quiet, lots of trees and green, it was something that appealed to me.
You don’t miss the urban setting?
Well, the first year was tough. I remember I had a lot of conversations with Fernanda from São Paulo, and we would talk about traffic over beers; we actually longed for being stuck in traffic. And I realized that all my thinking was designed around urban life. For example, I thought about traffic, about the subway. In Athens, you are out of the house and ten minutes later you are in the classroom. There is almost no boundary between school and home; most undergrads look like they just got out of bed. So the first year was an adjustment.
Did the program, the teaching, the professors meet your expectations?
I have to say that in my first year I was kind of on defense; I just told you what I had to do to become a filmmaker. You just kill yourself and make the best film possible and change the world. I had these kinds of idealistic or romantic ideas about how a film school would operate in the US. But after we started shooting on 16 mm, I realized that this is it and nothing else matters, pretty much. So I realized that I loved this place, that it filled me with inspiration, especially when I made my Film 2. I kind of missed out on my Film 1 and documentary because it was my first month in the US, and it took some time to adjust.
So you didn’t find the first year incredibly intense?
Not the first semester. It was not about the schedule, it was about what you do. For me it all kicked into gear when we made our Film 2. I worked with some of my best friends in my class, and we developed ideas out of nothing; people from different cultural backgrounds: Semih is from Turkey, Fernanda is from Brazil, Viviana is from Columbia, and Meredith, Dusty and Patrick are from the US.
So you didn’t find Film 1 challenging? Because we are totally freaking out about it.
I also freaked out about Film 1, but then you realize that you have access to free equipment, free actors, free crew, free everything, just to mess up and learn things. That is why I consider my Film 2 a great experience because I went for something totally out of my comfort zone so after my first year I realized this is why you go to film school, not to believe that you are great, but to break down your knowledge and rebuild it.
What did you do for your Thesis film?
For my Thesis film, we shot a feature film; it was a huge thing, and it is not done yet, unfortunately. I am still editing it. We have a cut that is currently about 100-105 minutes; we have to make it ten minutes shorter.
Are you going to submit it to festivals?
Absolutely. After the editing is done.
Do you have a favorite festival?
I am in love with Berlinale.
Nice. It is a great one. I lived in Berlin for a year. And Nouveau Cinéma in Montreal is an excellent one, too.
I have heard of that. And I also want to submit it to the Venice festival.
You can try Estonia and South Korea, too.
Great, finally there is someone who knows about festivals. This is one of the problems I had in my first year that there was no outlet defined for film students. If you are not submitting your stuff, and this is the only screening you have, which is guaranteed whether your film is good or terrible, it is just not sufficient. But in the second year, Rafal started preparing us for festivals; he taught us how to approach the premieres so from then on, people started to think about these things. Our class, for example, realized that we were not just students who take notes, but we are filmmakers.
You mentioned that now you are in a Ph.D. program. Tell me briefly about it. Why are you doing it? Do you want to stay in academia?
First I’ve got to say I enjoy writing for film, both creatively and academically, and there is more I want to do. I have a lot of connections here; I know a lot of professors. I have been in approximately twenty film projects here so you kind of get to know everybody in town, because you have to. The other reason is that my partner is in a Ph.D. program here, and she has two more years left. But I am in favor of teaching and making movies; I have been a teacher pretty much all my life starting when I was 17 and began making movies a few years later so I am going to do both until I can’t. The program is cool; it is a scholar-artist program so you get to do the practice as well as the theory.