TV

Independent Lens: Arusi Persian Wedding

While the wedding provides compelling visuals and some minor melodrama, Arusi Persian Wedding is most interesting as it integrates its personal stories details within a broad historical context.

Independent Lens

Airtime: Tuesday, 10pm ET
Cast: Alex Tehrani, Heather Tehrani, Duane Weeks, Reza Tehrani, Parvin Azimi, Marjan Tehrani
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: Arusi Persian Wedding
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-03-17
Website
Trailer
Amazon

"I wasn't ever on a mission to marry an American woman or a woman who looked like Heather. It's just what happened." On its face, the romance of Alex Tehrani and his wife Heather (nee Weeks) seems storybookish: equally charming, pretty, and willing to articulate their feelings, they embrace one another's different backgrounds. When they decide to travel to Iran in order to have a second, Muslim wedding, their goal seems simple, as Heather phrases it: "I think the really important part of this trip," she says, "is for Alex's dad to have completion of our wedding."

Alex's father is Reza, his mother an American, Sharon. Though she's deceased, Sharon appears as a kind of nostalgic marker in Arusi Persian Wedding, Alex's sister Marjan Tehrani's documentary of the journey, preparations, and ceremony, airing as part of PBS' Independent Lens. Snapshots show Sharon and Reza in their optimistic youth. "In 1968," Marjan narrates, "Our dad took our mom to Iran to have a Persian wedding." Back then, she recounts, Iran and the U.S. were "great allies," the U.S. having supported the coup d'etat that ousted popular Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh and installed the Shah, the latter willing to hand over large portions of Iran's oil profits to the Americans, reversing the process toward independence that Mossadegh had initiated.

While the wedding provides compelling visuals and some minor melodrama (concerning Heather's decision to convert, on paper, to Islam from her vague Christianity, as well as her dress, as the one she brings along from the States must be replaced, according to her new relatives and family friends), the film is most interesting as it integrates its personal stories within a broad historical context. If Marjan's account of shifting U.S.-Iran relations is cursory, if critical of the U.S., and the archival footage familiar, the layers of background this provides for the wedding are complicated and subtle.

Midway through Arusi Persian Wedding, Alex and Heather arrange for their fathers to meet -- both residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, they have never made the effort themselves, despite their children's eight-year relationship. The encounter is alternately tense and superficial, as Reza does his best to smooth over political disagreements between Duane Weeks and Reza's current wife, Parvin. "So," she asks her guest, "How do you feel about the policies of this [American] government in the Middle East?" the camera shows Heather sipping her drink on the sofa as her father responds, "I agree. I think President Bush was very wise in doing some of the things he has done in Iraq and Afghanistan." He pauses, "Iran is a whole different situation, it's not clear." Reza steps into the film frame, suggesting, "You should try some of this fish."

Parvin persists, filling in details about Saddam Hussein. "The U.S. supported him during a period of 10 years," she points out, "When he was using the weapons of mass destruction. The Americans helped him fight the Iranians. Now that he doesn't have weapons of mass destruction, they decide all of a sudden to attack him." Duane, whose son was deployed to Iraq, is feeling nervous about Heather's upcoming trip -- the American news about Iran suggests the place is dangerous. "I disagree," he tells Parvin, "He had the capability to threaten the United States." Reza smiles, "Looks like everyone needs a drink!"

The scene ends on a not-so-reconciled note, as Duane observes, "We're all fortunate to be able to live in this country." This much is confirmed, mostly, by the ensuing trip, which ends up a celebration of the beauty and tradition of Iran as it simultaneously suggests that cultural, legal, and political limits on personal freedoms can be at least inconvenient. The film uses Heather as a stranger-in-a-strange-land sort of guide -- she is briefly troubled when Alex suggests that she needs to replace her pink head scarf with "a simple colored scarf." After all, he assesses, "You're not Jackie O at the bazaar." Heather smiles weakly and agrees to go with Reza to the market, where, he promises, they will find all sorts of scarves for 15 cents each.

This episode goes nowhere (no blow-ups, no looming doubts), but it does point out the anxiety Alex feels being back in his native country following 25 years away. Worried about what people think, he's disinclined to hold Heather's hand on the street (she points out that another couple is doing it, though they are not interracial). At the same time, Heather is impressed by the warmth and friendliness of all her new relatives, while Alex and Marjan both recall the "nastiness" of comments about Iranians in the States, beginning during the hostage crisis and carrying through to now. Even as he tries to recover his past -- he's lost the Farsi he spoke as a child, but offers a local newspaper his services as a photographer for free, hoping to contribute and feel "part of" the current culture -- Alex comes to understand that his own, mostly western experience makes him as nearly as strange in Tehran as Heather.

Alex worries that his wife will feel out of place, but comes to realize he is also strange here. "I want you to like this," he says, "but I'm not even sure if it's working for me. I can't communicate and everything in this country is about talking to people." A road trip -- marked unimaginatively by a map on screen -- takes the couple and film crew out into the country, where they appreciate the beauty of the landscape and the more relaxed attitudes of non-urban communities. Here they feel less pressured, more like tourists. Their sense of relief away from the wedding preparations per se seems less specific to Iran and more generally applicable to how weddings create all kinds of impossible expectations.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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