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Sundance 2014: At ground zero for U.S. film, a Persian wave

January 15, 2014|By Steven Zeitchik
  • Sheila Vand plays a chador-clad vampire in "A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night."
Sheila Vand plays a chador-clad vampire in "A Girl Walks Home Alone… (Sundance Film Festival )

The teenage girl Sepideh only wants to look at the stars.

A student of astronomy and worshipful devotee of Albert Einstein, she dreams of joining the young men who trek out nightly in the desert south of Tehran to gaze at constellations. But such ambitions worry Sepideh’s traditionalist Iranian family members, who issue her ominous warnings -- which, of course, only further fuels her desire.

“We use the sky," Sepideh says in a new Farsi-language documentary, also named “Sepideh,” that premieres Friday at the Sundance Film Festival, “to vent the frustration that society has given us.”

Sundance, which kicks off its 30th edition Thursday in the mountains of Utah, is largely known for unearthing new domestic voices. Modern indie (and quintessentially American) hits such as "Beasts of the Southern Wild” and "Winter’s Bone" were discovered there in the last few years, and over its history the confab has been the launchpad of filmmakers including Steven Soderbergh, Michael Moore and David O. Russell.

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But at this year's edition all of that comes with a twist: Some of the most notable entries are from and about Iran.

"Sepideh," from the Danish-by-birth, Iranian-by-marriage documentarian Berit Madsen, explores a young girl's clash with parental expectation that, though intimately told, is emblematic of a larger generational struggle in the country.

Also premiering is "Appropriate Behavior," a kind of lesbian Iranian American "Girls" written, starring and directed by the tart young Brooklyn-based filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, who had previously become something of a viral sensation for her semi-autobiographical Web series "The Slope."

And in "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night," the Los Angeles-based Iranian American director Ana Lily Amirpour investigates themes of Iranian female outsiderness and empowerment in the garb of what might be a cinematic genre first: the black-and-white Farsi-language western vampire movie.

That’s in addition to a short titled “More than Two Hours,” a drama from the Iranian Ali Asgari about a young woman and her male companion in a series of Iranian hospitals, as well as a pair of Iranian filmmakers currently in the Sundance Institute's Lab program who are preparing to shoot the feature they developed at the Utah nonprofit, titled “Avalanche,” in their home country.

At a time when Iran dominates the headlines with diplomatic and political news, these films, their creators say, offer a more accurate glimpse at the experience of Iranians both in the Middle East and abroad. And increasingly the filmmakers, young and  often female, come with both a complex post-Revolution story and the urge to tell it.

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"There's a sense that we Iranians and Iranian Americans who were raised after the Revolution are coming of age and hitting our stride," Akhavan, 29, said. “You had a previous generation of people like Kiarostami and Panahi,” she said alluding to some of the country’s best-known post-Revolution directors. “And now you have us.”

Raised in the northern suburbs of New York City by parents who fled after the Shah was overthrown in 1979, Akhavan said she was sometimes caught between her family's conservatism and her American education (she attended New York University film school) and cultural exposure (she watched a lot of "The Brady Bunch" and Mel Brooks). That tension intensified when she came out as bisexual.

Akhavan channeled the conflict into the new dramatic comedy, which examines her character Shirin’s relationship with another woman both as it flowers and falls apart, in a movie that might be described as a Sapphic “Annie Hall” with a dose of intergenerational Iranian tension. When Shirin finally tells her mother she is in love with a woman, the traditionalist older woman says "No, you're not" and coolly goes about her business.

"I love my mom, but that was pretty much how she reacted," Akhavan said, laughing. "It's so Iranian."

Amirpour -- whose parents also fled Iran in the 1970s and who grew up in Bakersfield's small Persian community before attending UCLA -- was motivated to make her edgy black-and-white vampire western, which is filled with pimps and hustlers, not only to mash up genres but also to mix and match her own background.

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“I think it’s political and it’s not political,” said the director, who shot the movie in a ghost town outside Bakersfield using Iranian musicians and a mix of Iranian, European and American actors. “I wanted to make a film that’s as much about David Lynch or ‘Gummo' as anything in Iran. But those ideas are in there."

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