The Making Of
Director/Producer Marjan Tehrani reflects on the difficulties of filming in Iran, her multicultural identity and her family’s reaction to her film.
What led you to make ARUSI PERSIAN WEDDING?
The moment my brother Alex told me that he was intending to take Heather to Iran to have a Persian wedding, I knew that I had to follow them on their journey with a camera. Tensions between the United States and the Middle East had heightened and I was constantly being asked by Americans to speak for Iran, but I myself had very little understanding about this country. I saw an amazing opportunity to make a personal film that explored U.S./Iran relations from the past and present.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
There were many logistical challenges that I faced making this film. In order to film in Iran, one must obtain a film permit, which is incredibly hard to do. I was very fortunate and worked with an excellent production manager, Tahoora Abolghasemi, who helped me obtain this permit. Beyond actually having a permit, you still have to deal with getting stopped and questioned by police and security in Iran. On a couple of occasions, I had my tape taken away on a shoot, but for the most part we were very lucky.
How would you describe Iran to an American in one sentence?
Iran is an extremely complex country full of smells, colors, drama, anger, contradictions, warmth, hospitality and pride.
In the film your brother Alex says, “I come here [Iran] and I don’t really feel like I can fit in with all the Iranians, but in America I represent something that’s a little bit different from most people.” Do you share this same sentiment?
I completely share this sentiment. When I was on this trip with Alex and Heather, I too did not feel like I was accepted as an Iranian, nor did I really want to be. Although I could identify with so many aspects of the culture and felt an immediate closeness to the people, there was a part of my American identity that I was holding on to strongly too! The truth is that I am not 100 percent Iranian; I was born and raised in the United States, making me Iranian American. Both Alex and I have limitations with the Persian language, which makes communicating very difficult, but we also grew up with a strong sense of the culture from our father’s upbringing, which makes up a big part of who we are. As far as fully fitting in as an “American,” this is also hard to say. Like Alex says, I have always represented something outside of what it means to be an “American.” My name, my features and my foreign father have always separated me from fully identifying as an “American.”
Did your trip to Iran change your personal perspective of the country? If so, how?
The trip to Iran definitely changed my personal perspective of the country. Although I never fully bought into the propaganda that the American news has reported all of my life about Iran, there is no doubt that I have been influenced by it. But having the opportunity to be with family members and friends in Iran and to speak with everyday people on the street allowed me to see a whole other side of Iran. I also would have never imagined the beautiful sites and architecture that I would experience in Esfahan and the Caspian Sea. Iran is full of so much more than the religious and political rhetoric that fills our ears.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I think from the very start of making this film that Alex and Heather gave me the full benefit of their trust concerning my intentions with the camera. I have always had a very close and straight-up relationship with my brother, which obviously helped a lot.
Both Alex and Heather were really open and committed to me capturing life as it unfolded. I will never forget when Heather was having a meltdown shortly after we had arrived in Tehran. Alex called me in the middle of what was clearly a very intimate conversation so that I could film. I am sure Heather wasn’t thrilled to have me film her at that moment, but she didn’t stop me from filming.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There is so much that didn’t get included in the film that my editor and I both loved! There were many “man on the street” interviews with people in Iran that I would have loved to include, but they had to be trimmed out because of time. We had also cut two beautiful archival segments that continue to tell the history of Iran/U.S. relations up to present day, but the film started to feel too historically heavy and took away from the personal love story.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
The major technical challenges we faced mainly had to do with filming on the streets of Iran. It is not common to take a camera out in public and film, so we were always at risk of getting stopped or having our footage confiscated. I managed to get 95 percent of my footage out of Iran, which isn’t always the case.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The overall response for the film has been very positive. I think what resonates with people the most is the love story and watching the dynamic between Heather and Alex unfold as they take this blind leap of faith in going on this journey together.
Alex and Heather have seen the film. I was very nervous to receive their call after their screening, but they both were very excited after they saw it. They thought it was pretty accurate portrayal of their experience, though they wanted to know why I didn’t include certain scenes.
My father Reza and his wife Parvin also had the opportunity to screen the film. They both seemed to really like it, but I was asked why I didn’t include more footage of the sites in Iran—this is what they are very proud of and want to show to the world.
I have also given a copy of the film to Heather’s father, Duane, and his wife, but I have not heard back from them. I would love to hear their thoughts and reactions.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
That is a great question! It is a very difficult business and there have definitely been a bunch of moments that I have questioned why I continue to do this work.
But I have taken each project step by step. When I have felt truly inspired to make a film, it is almost this feeling of having no other choice but to just do it! Once I am immersed in a project that I am passionate about, there is nothing else that I want to do. I love every part of the craft—the research and the planning, the production and then the editing process. It is incredibly satisfying to watch an idea come together—even if it takes four years to do it!
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I can’t imagine a more appropriate place for this film than public television. When I came up with the initial concept to intercut the verité footage with historical footage, I thought that PBS would be an excellent home for this film. Also, I wanted to reach a diverse audience that could identify with being of a mixed identity or in a multicultural marriage. I also thought that a PBS audience would be open and receptive to seeing another side of Iran.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A?
Many people ask me if the scene that occurs between the two families [Alex’s parents and Heather’s parents] was staged, and the answer is not at all. This was a very awkward scene to capture on film but a very real moment that occurred.
Although this was an unfortunate first meeting for the families, it couldn’t be clearer in demonstrating the deep divide that exists between many Iranians and Americans today because of political policy and past relations.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I put many projects aside to complete this film and left a television show that I had been the supervising producer on. The second I received co-production funding for this film, I buried myself deep into it and would have not done it any other way.