Group finds buoyant Iranian film biz

AMPAS delegation unfazed by flap over Arab gov't's criticism of Hollywood portrayals

During the first week of March, a delegation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, led by president Sid Ganis, traveled to Iran to meet with filmmakers at the invitation of Iran's House of Cinema. The group — Ganis along with Annette Bening and Alfre Woodard, writer-directors Frank Pierson and Phil Robinson, producers William Horberg and Tom Pollock, the Academy's director of exhibitions and special events Ellen Harrington and documentarian James Longley, who already was in Iran working on a project — met with their counterparts for a series of seminars, screenings and Q&As in Tehran and took time for excursions to Shiraz and Esfahan.

Just as the cultural exchange was beginning, though, it was thrust into the international spotlight when Javad Shamaqdari, the art and cinema adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, issued a statement demanding an apology from the Hollywood contingent for "for insults and accusations against the Iranian nation" in movies like "300," which depicted the Persian defeat at Thermopylae, and "The Wrestler," which included a character called "The Ayatollah." "Representatives of Iran's film industry should only have an official meeting with representatives of the Academy and Hollywood if they apologize for the insults and accusations against the Iranian nation during the past 30 years," Shamaqdari said. Although it seemed a dramatic development, it had no effect during the days that followed. Their hosts, according to the Academy, asked for no apology, and none was given. Ganis and Bening, who returned to Los Angeles last week, discussed the trip.

Sid Ganis: About five years ago, Frank Pierson and Phil Robinson had an idea to create an international outreach program with other film communities around the world. We're an international organization — we're not an American organization; we're not a Hollywood organization. So the logic was, let's visit elsewhere. One of the countries they wanted to get to was Iran. We tried to put it together; it didn't happen. So we put it aside, and instead Academy members went to Vietnam. At the same time, the Academy kept working to work out the details of going to Iran.

Ganis: The House of Cinema is like the Academy — it's close to a sister organization. It's made up of artists from the various disciplines like we are, only they're guild representatives. There's a writers' guild that's part of it. There's a directors' branch, there's an actors' branch — only they're not branches, they're guilds. The House of Cinema is the gathering place for those guilds to come together to talk about the problems of making movies.

Ganis: There was no involvement. We informed the State Department, and they were pleased we were taking the trip, but that was all. There were no political machinations whatsoever.

Annette Bening: We heard about it, but it really didn't have any impact on what we were doing. We were there as a cultural exchange, so we had no connection to anything political, no political aspirations. We had all of our meetings scheduled with all of our counterparts there, and we just proceeded on schedule.

Bening: No, they didn't. We were just talking about movies. We started our screenings; we had our Q&As. One of the first guys we all met at our first meeting was an actor, who had his own acting school in Tehran. I immediately said, "Can I come visit your school?" He was thrilled. We had an incredibly interesting visit. It was an acting school that would look familiar to any American actor. They were working on improvisation, emotional truth. They were doing yoga; they were doing voice production, speech. They do emotional memory; they do all the things that we do. For people who know contemporary Iranian cinema, the remarkable thing about the great films is the reality of the acting, the naturalism. That was something we were all interested in learning about.

Ganis: They were surprisingly up on not just our films. They tend to see American cinema, whether it's underground or above ground. They knew all of us who were there. They knew "Kite Runner" from Bill Horberg. They knew Annette's body of work, Alfre's body of work. Sure enough, on the street, in an open-air market, there was a rack of DVDs and I found a bootleg version of "Mr. Deeds," a movie I did. Movies are very accessible to them, even though the government frowns on them and we don't send our movies there.

Bening: Totally, completely.

Ganis: I don't know about (who they were rooting for), but they saw the show. I think they were happy that "Slumdog" won.

Bening: Obviously, the Academy Awards was a big subject for them. And we wanted to say, as best we could, to our compatriots there that we want them to participate not only in the Academy Awards but in our film festivals in general. We'd like to be able to facilitate them coming here more easily.

Ganis: Four of us — Annette, myself, Phil and Frank are on the board of governors — so we met with them as governors of the Academy to talk about our process as it relates to their process. They were curious about how we do things, pretty much from top to bottom.

Bening: They were very curious about how one becomes a member, what the criteria are. Also the rules for foreign-language films. For example, one of our rules is a foreign-language film must play in its home country for one week and that poses obvious challenges in a place like Iran.

Ganis: That it's as buoyant as it is. They are making movies all the time, though they are not distributing them necessarily in Iran, but around Europe, Asia, and winning prizes all the time for it.

Bening: Plus, there is also a lot of documentary filmmaking there. My impression that among the directors in general, there is much more going back and forth between narrative and documentary filmmaking there. It is one of the virtues of their narrative filmmaking that it has a documentary feel to it.

Bening: They have lot of female directors, a lot of documentary female directors. One of the major forces at the House of Cinema was a producer who is very active in getting films made and giving them lives outside of Iran. So women are functioning on all levels. We want to facilitate all of the people in Iranian cinema coming to the U.S., and I think that's a particularly delicate subject when it comes to actresses. Less so for the very well-known actresses who have established themselves. They have more leeway in terms of what they can do than younger actresses, who are not known. We want to be very mindful of that and careful of it even as we talk of our trip because we want to continue our relationship to facilitate exchange. Some of the constraints they are under in Iran are elusive, so we have to be very careful what we say to make sure the future is one of exchange and openness, and we can get our colleagues here when it's appropriate — when they have a film or when there is a celebration of Iranian cinema.