Filmmaker in Exile

A director explains how she escaped Iran to screen her first movie at Bumbershoot.

Whenever Iran's in the news, it's generally a bad thing. Developing nuclear weapons. Backing Hezbollah in south Lebanon. Its president denying the Holocaust and vowing to wipe Israel off the map. Conversely, all the acclaimed filmmakers of the Iranian New Wave—Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, etc.—are basically ignored in their home country despite being acclaimed at foreign film festivals and in art-house cinema here in the U.S. So it's doubly challenging to be an Iranian-American filmmaker, educated locally at Cornish and Evergreen, trying to create a short film that addresses both her own immigrant experience and politics back in Tehran. Yet that's what Ladan Yalzadeh has done, quite successfully and suspensefully, in her 20-minute short The Florist, one of several titles at Bumbershoot's 1 Reel Film Festival to have Seattle roots and connections. In the film, a young Los Angeles woman returns by herself to Tehran, the city she left at age 7. Though her cab driver warns her against searching a seedy, run-down part of town, she insists on looking for a certain shop, even as it gets dark and the streets become more menacing. Finally she finds a florist's, but it's closed for business. Inside, two men are conducting a tense negotiation—little of which actually concerns flowers—which she interrupts, briefly defusing the situation but thereby putting herself in jeopardy. What's her errand? What's so important about the shop? Does anybody get out alive after a gun is pulled? I'm not going to tell you, so you'll have to see the movie. Rather, I recently telephoned Yalzadeh in L.A., where she's joined its large Iranian-American community ("Tehrangeles," she calls it), to learn how she arrived in Everett in 1986 at age 16, knowing no one and without any ambitions of becoming a film director. "We left everything there in Iran," she explains. "Money was really tight." First to Everett were her older sister and mother, who found work as a nurse. Two years later, one of her mother's patients turned out to be the mother of Everett's mayor, William Moore, who helped pull strings with the INS, bringing over Yalzadeh and her retired father. "It was one of those miracle stories," Yalzadeh recalls. Having studied abroad—at a Catholic girls' school in India, no less—she spoke English well and was a good student eager to live in a bigger city. Accepted at the UW, she instead chose Cornish "much to my family's dismay. I wanted to be an actress." Yalzadeh detoured from Cornish, however, and from Seattle, before returning here in 1995 to study at Freehold Theatre, where she transitioned into choreography and directing. "I had an incredible creative life in Seattle," she remembers of productions at On the Boards and 12 Minutes Max. At the same time, she adds, she would sometimes feel herself to be a token Middle Eastern woman of color in the theater community. "I always felt isolated in some way. I wasn't meeting people of my own kind. There was a lot of stigma." A few years later came a filmmaking program at Evergreen, then a scholarship program at the prestigious American Film Institute in L.A., where she wrote and shot The Florist. Developing a script about the Iranian exile experience "forced me back to the community," says Yalzadeh. "The idea had been percolating for a long time." The two-year separation of her own family, once privileged by the Shah's old regime, is "partly reflected in the film," she notes. For this reason, she found the recent House of Sand and Fog painful to watch: "Honey, I've lived it." Yet regarding The Florist, she cautions, "I never really set out to make a film about politics." Although her extended family—Zoroastrian, not Muslim, and therefore a minority in her native country—has almost entirely left Iran, she has been back to visit. (The Florist does include some Tehran street scenes, but it's stock footage, Yalzadeh explains.) And she hopes to return to film there, provided strict government censors approve her next script. For this reason, she's reluctant to criticize the postrevolutionary regime too much, and she hasn't screened The Florist widely within L.A.'s more vehement political expatriate community. "I have made the decision to keep it on the down-low," she concedes. In Tehran and Tehrangeles both, Yalzadeh notes, Iranian art-house auteurs aren't wildly popular. "These films are made by intellectual filmmakers. It continues to show that culture as an exotic culture." She points to the recent success in Iran—before clerics changed their minds and banned the film—of The Lizard, a satirical comedy about an escaped criminal masquerading as a mullah. "Iranians love to laugh." In L.A.'s active Farsi-language theater scene, she adds, "all the plays they're doing are comedies." She also points to a whole new generation of Iranian- American kids raised on Comedy Central and HBO. She hopes next to film a feature comedy, Persian Pride, which she's currently developing in Los Angeles, where her family has relocated. Still, she says, "I come to Seattle all the time," and she'll be attending Bumbershoot with The Florist. Whether it's seen in Tehran, of course, may depend on regime change, satellite TV, and bootleg DVDs.

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