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Q&A: UCLA Film & Television Archive, Farhang Foundation host Iran film celebration

A still from “The Sealed Soil” is pictured. The restoration world premiere of the film will be screened as part of the “UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.” (Courtesy of The Sealed Soil / UCLA Film & Television Archive)

By Puja Anand

June 5, 2024 11:46 a.m.

This post was updated June 5 at 8:36 p.m.

Long-lost Iranian cinema jewels are being pulled from the archive this June.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive annually joins forces with the Farhang Foundation to put on the “UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema.” Screening films from June 14 to 30 at Billy Wilder Theater, the event aims to bring films from across the Iranian diaspora to the Los Angeles landscape. This year’s program features the restoration world premiere of “The Sealed Soil,” the earliest complete surviving feature film directed by an Iranian woman.

Before opening night, the Daily Bruin’s Puja Anand spoke with Farhang Foundation’s executive director Alireza Ardekani, UCLA Film & Television Archive’s senior public programmer Paul Malcolm and director of featured film “Joonam” Sierra Urich about their hopes for the upcoming event and why Iranian cinema is special to them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

[Related: Q&A: Poet and alumnus Diana Khoi Nguyen talks depicting Vietnamese American experiences]

Daily Bruin: Could you tell me about the vision behind the event and what specific aspects of Iranian cinema you want to highlight?

Alireza Ardekani: Its (Farhang Foundation) mission is to celebrate and promote Iranian arts and culture for the benefit of the community at large. It is a great privilege to support the UCLA Film & Archive and we applaud them on their commitment in celebrating Iranian cinema. The films selected by the archive never get to be distributed in the United States so this is one of the only chances for the audience members to watch these films or experience them in the United States, so it’s a great opportunity, and we really believe in the space.

DB: Why have you chosen to present your film at the Iranian Cinema event?

Sierra Urich: I live in Vermont still, and I didn’t grow up with a very big Iranian community outside of my immediate family, and I know there is a really big Iranian diaspora in California, particularly in Los Angeles, so it’s really important for me to bring this film to the Los Angeles community. I’m excited to partner with UCLA and the Farhang Foundation because they have such a history of deep and meaningful inroads with the Iranian community in Los Angeles, and Iranian cinema is some of the most poignant, poetic, metaphorical, incredible works out there. It’s a real honor to have the Los Angeles premiere amongst other incredible Iranian filmmakers as a celebration of Iranian film. As someone who sometimes struggles to even consider herself Iranian, on a personal level, as a director, it’s very meaningful for me to be part of a presentation of films from a very specific Iranian perspective.

DB: What is your film “Joonam” about, and where did you draw inspiration from?

SU: It’s the story of myself, my mother and my grandmother and each of our relationships with both each other and Iran. The film starts with wanting to understand who my grandmother was when she was a young girl growing up in northern Iran. But it takes a different turn part way through the film. Much of the process of gathering these stories from my grandmother started to bring up a lot of my own feelings of this fractured Iranian identity that I have and this tension that also exists between me and my mom because she’s had a very different experience in leaving Iran and experiencing that traumatic separation, and I have this real longing to understand more. The film began from curiosity and wanting to know more about my family members, and it turned into wanting to understand myself and my Iranian self better and see Iran from my own lens.

DB: What do you hope audiences take away from Iranian cinema?

Paul Malcolm: One thing that’s so extraordinary about Iran and Iranian filmmakers, particularly those filmmakers who want to work independently and artistically outside of official government sanctions, the ones who want to express themselves freely, the challenges and obstacles they face are enormous, and yet we see that year in year out, Iranian filmmakers are some of the most interesting and exciting filmmakers working today. The thing that this series and that cinema does is what we hear about, what people read about Iran in the news is almost largely focused on the actions of the Iranian government, and then that is often distorted by the agenda and etiologies of the media that are reporting on it. Most of the films that we show are focused on Iranian people trying to live their lives as best they can within the conditions in the context of their situation, and it’s incredibly powerful to be connected to people in that way. It’s the difference between learning about something through the news and learning about something through the eyes of an artist.

[Related: UCLA Juneteenth celebration honors Black history through music, dance, spoken word]

DB: What makes this year’s event special?

PM: I think that one of the things that’s really exciting about this year’s selection is that we are screening the world restoration premiere of “The Sealed Soil,” which is a film directed by Marva Nabili in 1977. “The Sealed Soil” is very special because it is one of the few pre-revolutionary feature films directed by a woman in Iran. It was never screened in Iran, and Marva had to smuggle it out of the country. It’s very much a feminist story of a woman’s resistance against the patriarchal pressures that are placed upon her, and it’s really exciting to be bringing new voices – we have some first-time filmmakers in the lineup – and putting them alongside a filmmaker like Marva, whose career was obviously cut short by the revolution and by her need to flee the country. The backstory for all the films is really interesting as well.

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