Q&A: Sid Ganis, Annette Bening

Duo discuss their recent AMPAS-sponsored trip to Iran

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 himself "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 appeared to be a dramatic development, it had no impact 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.

The Hollywood Reporter: How did the trip come about?

Sid Ganis: About five years ago, Frank Pierson and Phil Robinson had an idea to create an international out-reach 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.

THR: How would you describe the House of Cinema, which served as your host?

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.

THR: Did the trip involve any sort of coordination with the State Department?

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.

THR: Just as you were arriving, the Iranian government's arts adviser demanded an apology. Were you aware of his statements?

Annette Bening: We heard about it, but it really didn't have any impact on what we 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.

THR: Did the people you were meeting with mention the demand?

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 on 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 in terms of what they were doing. 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, how do they do that.

THR: So in a way the demand was like some of the statements our own politicians make when they find it useful to attack Hollywood.

Bening: You're absolutely right. Which is why internal people, Iranians, really didn't pay a lot of attention. The relative impact of one comment or another to them isn't that significant.

THR: How familiar were the people you met with with each of you and your work?

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.

THR: Were they aware of the recent Academy Awards? Had they been rooting for anything?

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.

THR: What surprised you about what you learned about the state of their cinema.

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.

Ganis: When we got home, we discovered that a movie that we had seen, "About Elly," happens to be playing at the (upcoming) Tribeca Film Festival.

Bening: It won (the best director prize for Asghar Farhadi) at the Berlin Film Festival. It's already had a splash in Western Europe, and it is superb. Sid and I were just talking about how it's such a great gift because it will give people a sense of contemporary Iranians.

Ganis: It hasn't played in Iran yet. And who knows if it will or it won't.

THR: How were the films you screened received?

Bening: All of the films were fantastically received. For us to be able to be in the middle of Tehran, showing American films, I can't overemphasize how remarkable in itself that was. That was a big step, and the people who were there were all cinephiles and they were thrilled. They had a lot of interesting questions, a lot of practical questions for all of us about how we made the movies that we made, and how they were put together. I talked about how ("Julia") was actually an English/Canadian production. Frank Pierson and Phil Robinson talked about the process of writing and how they put together their films. There were a lot of questions about how it works, what the artistic struggles were. That was really what we focussed on.

Ganis: There were questions that filmmakers would ask here about how to get movies going. They were just as curious about the spectrum of filmmaking and distribution as well. More than once an Iranian film guy asked about censorship here. It's a natural thing for Iranian filmmakers to think about censorship and they were surprised that there is absolutely no censorship here.

Bening: There were also a lot of people who were very sophisticated about the world of filmmaking in L.A. that while we don't have those constraints, our constraints are constraints of commerce. What's the status of women in the Iranian film industry?

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.