Pars Arts: Iranian Diaspora Life / Culture / Identity
First published August 23, 2009
Amir Motlagh is a writer, filmmaker, and musician who recently released “Whale,” a feature film that follows Cameron, a young, unpublished Iranian-American novelist (played by Motlagh) who has just returned home to Orange County. We interviewed him about “Whale” via email.
Pars Arts: Your new feature, “Whale,” is about an unpublished Iranian-American novelist who comes home to the OC to find his friends haven’t really grown up, and neither has he. Where did the idea for this story come from?
Amir Motlagh: The story is really my sentiment towards a generation of people who are lost in a sort of middle-class vacuum. I had been noticing a mass of mid- to late-twenties people moving back to their parents’ homes, without a concrete sense of direction, with financial problems, somewhat disillusioned, without the family responsibilities that, say, my parents had when they were my age. Maybe they’re educated, maybe not, but they’re frozen because of circumstance. There is a certain belated sense of growing up that might be a generational zeitgeist. At first I thought that this might be somewhat related to Diaspora, but I think that might not be the simple explanation.
So I wanted to present a story based in that type of backdrop, but without placing importance on those talking points. The film is really about the characters, with the region serving as a backdrop and possibly another functional character.
PA: The dialogue in this film feels really spontaneous and natural. Since your actors were also your friends, was there a lot of ad-libbing in the film?
AM: Whale is both scripted and improvised. Also, there was a mix of both professional and non-professional actors (predominately amateurs), some of whom I have known for a long time. I cast the film in a way that would create a comfortable and safe setting, enabling a sort of realism to emerge based on personal history, and that way I could maneuver the fictional elements in a less constricted way. But the film is first and foremost a fiction, so the truth lies in fiction. Which elements are “real” and which are not is not a pressing concern as far as the film is concerned. And the ad-libbing that was done all came out of a script and was staged in a way that served the story being told.
PA: You play the main character, Cameron, and your real-life parents play Cameron’s parents in the film. I loved hearing them speak Persian. What was it like working with them?
AM: They have had to deal with their son carrying a camera around for many, many years. But as actors, my mother was very difficult. She is the biggest sweetheart and one of the biggest influences on my own cinema, as she introduced me to many independent and international cinemas early in my life, but nevertheless, our working relationship might be over. As far as my father, he took direction very well. It was a funny experience, but I think they thought of it in a very innocent way, and maybe, they didn’t really feel a movie was being made. I feel that the process of the film allowed me to get into places and use people that would otherwise freeze in front of a larger production.
PA: How do you think the Iranian-American background of your film’s main character colors the film, if at all?
AM: This is a very good question, and a difficult one to answer, but the main character’s heritage affects the film in what it doesn’t do or show. This film is about a type of ethnic assimilation into a suburban setting. You are only aware of Cameron’s ethnicity from one scene in the film, and maybe from some off-handed remarks made throughout the film. I’m not sure if I have seen this treatment of cultural elements in a fictional narrative film that uses an explicitly Iranian-American lead, but maybe the culture itself will start to dissect the process of identity in a more subtle way.
Cameron is certainly “whitewashed,” and this in itself colors the notion of the film on a subterranean level. And the film’s cast is a mix of races, something that you would certainly see in the suburbs of Orange County. Suburban culture leads to a type of homogenization, which in some ways is an American ideal. In that regard, Whale is a completely American film, in the context of a melting pot type of scenario.
PA: I have to be honest – I was a little wary when I read the description for “Whale” because I thought it was going to be like Garden State. It has a similar basic premise – failed artist coming home – but “Whale” is not like Garden State at all, and I think what really surprised me about “Whale” were Cameron’s interactions with his friends – I think viewers would really get the sense that these guys, who are all kind of lost and floating through life, really care about each other. I don’t think men are ever depicted this way in films – at least, not earnestly. Is this something you were thinking about consciously?
AM: Oh God, Garden State, I didn’t even think that the synopsis would elicit a memory from that work. But now that I think about it, I can see where the inference comes from. This might just be a vocational hazard. This film is as far away from that type of cinema as can be.
I was thinking heavily about the relationships in this film, which was largely a reason I cast the way I did. And since the work is largely based on a realism paradigm, there is a large sense of objectivism present (not fully, of course); the viewer has to decide how they ultimately feel about these people, but the men in the film, no matter how disillusioned, share a camaraderie and brotherhood with their fellow “homies.” Certainly, it’s not a mainstream ideal to present male characters in this fashion, but historically it has been done on the independent level.
PA: We recently posted an interview with Shaghayegh Azimi, a young Iranian who distributes Middle Eastern films. Can you tell us a little about your experience with distribution as a filmmaker?
AM: Well, since my function is filmmaker, my interest is in film production, and I’m trying to get my next project of the ground. Someone else should handle the distribution end. My job is to get people interested in the work, so that someone hopefully comes and acquires the work.
I only engage in distribution when its my only option, since independent film is a fickle business, and in today’s state, in many ways jeopardized, and many filmmakers will be forced for better or worse to function as distributor as well, but this is not a sense of joy for me. I would rather make movies, build an audience, screen to an audience and engage. As far as Whale is concerned, since it’s a new work, I will approach the film festival as its first route, then take it from there. As far as my other work, some titles are handled by a distributor, and others are not. Eventually, my goal would be to release a DVD of those neglected titles soon – hence, taking over the distribution by necessity. The hope is that by that time, I would have generated enough interest so that the process wouldn’t feel excessively painful.