Iran can gain influence in entertainment worldwide through delivering constructive films of Islam to a multicultural background, a filmmaker says.
In 2012, the movie Innocence of Muslims, which insulted Prophet Mohammad, sparked outrage across the Muslim world. The $5-million film was financed by more than 100 Zionists.
Press TV has conducted an interview with filmmaker Reza John Vedadi to further discuss the issue of film industry. The following is a rough transcription of the interview.
The question of arts and media and movies it’s very important today. When it comes to politics, when it comes to understanding a religion, when it comes to spreading around opinions and perceptions about the other, about religion, about Islam today, or about the reality of the world, what is happening and history even. What is coming from film makers and film making it’s tremendously important and critical. It’s as if we have a very-very important industry and sometimes the budgets are so huge that are more than the [planned] budget and even what is done and what we can find in very poor countries in southern countries.
When it comes to Hollywood, as we know now as Bollywood and what is coming from some African countries and the Middle East, we know the power of movies and the power of entertainment in shaping the opinions of the people.
It’s as if everything is coming from the West. Things are coming from the East, but not so many things are coming from the Muslim majority countries.
Should the Muslims or should the Muslim majority countries put more money and invest in film making and producing more and spreading around things that have nothing to do with direct politics or direct religious thinking that are shaping perception and helping the people to get a better understanding of what Islam is and who the Muslims are and what are the challenges in the Muslim majority countries.
These are questions that are so important and to answer all these questions I’m joined by film maker Reza John Vedadi. Thank you so much for being with us today.
As we saw in the clip, what could be the question today is what is the state of affairs because we are talking about one movie [that was] about the Prophet, peace be upon Him, and very often when it comes from Muslim majority countries it’s as if, what we think is [that] as Muslims we should have a movie on Islam and Muslims and not other things dealing with life and dealing with politics and sometimes dealing with civilizations and daily life.
So what is the state of affairs, you are in the business, you live in the US, but you are connected with your own country and other countries. What would be your assessment of what is done and not done today?
In the West filmmaking was used as a form of entertainment and form of education and in our society, so the Middle East and Muslim societies, people frowned upon entertainment that could have been risqué or not according to the teachings of Islam, because of the cultural society that they lived in. So it prevented the development of film and media.
It’s only recently since the last 30 or 40 years with changes in the Muslim world in different countries like Iran and Egypt and places like that. They decided to think, ‘Well. Why can’t we mix the form of entertainment that we have from film and TV in an Islamic context?’ and it’s only recently that they’ve decided to do this.
So if we take that into context, we have 100 years of Western working on the media or films and TV. Then we have 30 or 20 years of it working in the Muslim world.
The hub of the Muslim world, where they make a lot of films and TV [programs] is Egypt and is Iran and Turkey.
If we look at the context, in Turkey a lot of the stuff is very Western and very entertainment-based, without education, without Islamic influence.
Egypt may have a little bit more of the conservative Islamic tone, but it’s still a little bit more about entertaining in a Western context.
Iran is the only one that has that combination of having Islamic and cultural and conservatism inside the film making of it. So because of that the people have… a little bit, at that time up till now, found out upon filmmaking.
But you also have people in the West celebrating one type of movies or productions that are coming from Iran, that are not very much connected to religious things.
So you have this kind of celebration of something that could be a kind of alternative movie business or production.
Now, what you are saying is also very interesting. What you are saying is that because the Muslim majority countries the perception was that movies were about entertainment, so we were preventing this industry to produce in order to protect the [ideals of] people.
But yet, if we see what was happening in the twenties, in the thirties, in the forties in Egypt and mainly in the forties, fifties we can see that lots of movies were - it was a big business - were produced with no real Islamic reference and were very much a Westernized type of understanding.
Is this still the case, can you see it as when we talk about film making we very much think about Western style and Western parameters.
Well if we look at it again in the way you laid it out, there is the different quality or different standard of filmmaking.
There’s also the power of the distribution that the West has that we don’t have in the East.
So as much as Egypt, Iran or any country [wants], they can make the most amazing films, but if it’s limited by the language of how many people can understand information technology… the story, the context, the power of distributing it.
If you look at Warner Brothers and all the other companies that have massive production facilities, they also have massive distribution arms. They go as far as China and Russia and all these other countries.
It’s like a product for them. They want to make money out of it, so they sell it.
We look at it in some respect that we want to make money out of, but also we look at it as an art form.
So for us it doesn’t matter if ‘X’ number of people see it, as long as it’s a good film. That may be wrong a little bit.
It has to be commercialized and it has to be successful on its own feet, so then if it’s commercialized, other people want to go and see it.
Then we have to adapt it for the East for the Muslim countries for it to be acceptable by people who are not from that culture.
Then we have to have a system in place where it can be distributed to those places.
So once a year we get one film that does really well and that’s amazing Iranian or Egyptian cinema, but they’ve made hundreds of other films.
So that’s quite interesting it’s just the whole mindset that should be changed because at the end of the day it’s a market and you have people who have demands and you have to offer something which is at that level.
So it’s also connecting this with not only ethical quality, but something which has to do with entertainment.
There is nothing wrong with entertainment in Islam by the way and we have to repeat this.
Having said that now, if we go a step further now the situation is this one, it’s as if we are far behind [because we’re] not promoting or producing.
In fact, I think from an Islamic perspective our contribution is very very weak on that field.
What should be done in order to change this? In which we have to behold. You said something at the beginning which was to change the mindset first.
Now what we can produce that can in fact be something which is a contribution, not only to do as good as the West is doing, but something which is special, specific and also shaping.
Just so that Oscars and Caesars and all those in front of us in the States are promoting even very very ideological movies. It’s not about entertainment, it’s about war on terror, it’s about hostage [taking] in Iran and they are getting the votes.
So how could you produce something different?
Well we have to look at the context that we’re in as if we’re Muslims living in the West.
Can we make a lot of changes to filmmakers in the Middle East? Not really, because we’re here, so we have to change the mindset where entertainment is forbidden, it’s Haram or whatever, well no.
If it’s [in an] Islamic context [of] entertainment, then there’s nothing wrong with it because it educates as well. So we have to educate ourselves and our parents.
So if we have a youth and they want to become a filmmaker, they want to work in media or they want to become a journalist. The first thing they say is that I didn’t come to this country for you to go and do that. I came to this country for you to become an engineer, for you to become a doctor and a dentist. I worked hard for this.
So you already have that pressure from the family, which is the strongest pressure. If your own father said what’s your intention to become a filmmaker, he goes, ‘I want to educate the world about our religion about our culture, our faith and he [the father] goes I will support you.’
How much difference does that make to the number of people that will then go into the media to study it become good at it and then come out of the influence?
If I listen to you, which is very true is that for Muslims very often first it’s not serious enough, second is [that it comes] from a perception that they don’t understand.
We are talking about professionalism. This is something that is very serious.
It has to do with education, but it’s as if there is a disconnection in our mind between education and entertainment - anything which is entertaining cannot be educative.
So how can you change this because the parents are coming and very often they just direct their sons and their daughters towards what you said, computers, sciences, medical sciences, being a teacher, but not in that field.
I think the people who are getting through that crack of being able to do the studies in degree, Masters and PhD of cinema, of filmmaking, of journalism is to be the best that they can, so then their parents can look back and say actually, ‘You know what? He is doing something constructive.’
So when the second generation child comes and says I want to follow this person, they have a point of reference and their parents say actually you are right because that person is doing a good job, that person is professional, that person is having an income, they are making a change to society and the change from society does not come just from scholars, does not come just from teachers, it can come from people who are working in the media like you mentioned the film they made about the Holy Prophet.
Now when they talk about an issue, they do not go to an engineer or to an architect or to a dentist and say what is your opinion about the media? They go to someone who is in the media. They are the ones who counter that kind of negative ideology about Islam.
And again about the film they made about the Iranian Revolution. You need people in the media to counter it with positive images not just protesting, not just burning things, not just making noise. There has to be constructive response.
And then also you start setting benchmarks and then you start leading people behind you. There is another way of being in this society instead of just keeping quiet, having like you said engineering jobs or medical jobs and stuff like that and hoping that some other person, then a Muslim will come and defend us.
But just one thing about this. First you know I talked to young students and people who want to be involved in this area and they are saying it is a closed world. You come and the fact that you have a Muslim name or an Arab name, people are very powerful and it is a world with codes and it is very difficult.
So how come can we enter into a world where the very essence of it is not to let us in? This is one and the second, the question of money because you need money, you need to have some budget to do something because we are talking about very powerful movies with millions of dollars while you are coming and sometimes you want to do something educative--no money and no networking within. How can you do it?
You need a number of elements to be able to be successful, any subject be it media or any other subject. Now if you are in the media you need first of all in any subject to have educated and skilled individuals so we can still go to universities. They cannot close the universities to Muslims or non-Muslims. So you have to educate yourself and that was the first thing we discussed, getting support from your family to be able to do that.
Once you have done that then the individuals have to come together with the support of a number of people. So it could be the centers. It could be the Islamic centers. It could be institutions. It could be scholars. It could be any of those groups that support and then you start with a small grassroots base.
You do not have to have a million pound to be able to set up a big budget studio, TV channel. The technology that exists now, the access to cheap cameras, access to editing you can put it in any computer system now and be able to stream your ideas online, on YouTube or having a channel set up that would cost only thousands of pounds, not millions of pounds or hundred thousands of pounds to set up.
Once you have that and then you commercialize it. So we have so many Muslim businesses. You say to them, ‘Look, I have access to Muslim youth. They are watching our programs why don’t you come and sponsor us? Commercialize the whole system.’
You have to start from the basis. You cannot say okay, I want to compete with the Big Boys in Hollywood without even doing something small. But once you do something small, it may even come to a point where you realize that the stories that we have, the things that we want to make is a crossover with non-Muslims.
There may be non-Muslims who are interested for example in Prophet Jesus. He is a great film personality in the Christian world and in the Muslim world. Why can’t there be a Muslim film about Prophet Jesus that crosses over and then when non-Muslims see this they realize there is more to us and then we can work more to build more films that are relevant for both.
But still we have two problems here. The first one is how do we reach people of other faith because it is as if when we are doing things, it is as if we are talking to one another. So it is not counterproductive but it is not productive in contributing to the business, very difficult as you said to compete with big corporations in the filmmaking process, but very often also difficult to reach out people.
And the second is exactly what you just said now is when we talk as Muslims, very often our vision is we are going to have a movie on the Prophets, we are going to have a movie on religion, we are going to have movie on religious matters but once again is this going to work? Do we have as Muslims to produce only religious movies?
No we don’t. We have to accept the society we are living. That is the first process that we are for example non-Christian, non-Anglo-Saxon, but we are living in England, we are born in England, our children are born here, we speak the language, we were brought up here, we have to accept this.
Okay, a lot of people live here but they do not accept that that this is my home. In the back of their head they think they are going to go back to some country that they originally came from two, three generations ago.
Once we accept this is my home, I am going to live and die in this land then I realize I want to make a change in this land and I have connections to different things in this land. And then there are as I said crossover stories, crossover issues that affect us and affect people from outside the Muslim religion that is shared - you know problems with the economy, problems with families… These are universal issues that affect everybody.
Why can’t we make a film about it from a Muslim perspective? It doesn’t have to be only Muslims or about only Islam, it is from a Muslim perspective, it has that Muslim flavor. We can do that.
I want you to tell me about the Muslim flavor. What is the Muslim flavor?
Muslim flavor could be like instead of having a character who always demonizes a Muslim, doesn’t represent the true ninety-five percent of the Muslims, it is showing an extreme characteristic of one small zero-point-zero percent of Muslims around the world who are extremists.
So this is the other side but a positive Muslim flavor would be what exactly in a movie?
A positive Muslim flavor could be for example actually being made by Muslims or containing a lot of Muslim crew or Muslim actors or Muslim scriptwriters or something like that. Automatically the flavor comes in. Automatically you have a talking about the description of the scenes, for example, or the way that the character speaks or the place where the character is from.
You have to start to trickle in and slowly, slowly you can crystallize it more but unless you have that, we cannot expect non-Muslims to come and make a beautiful story about the issues that affect Islam or Muslims. It is not fair. Do a non-Muslim expect a Muslim to make the most beautiful story about Christians for example or the Christian faith? No.
But I have a question on this. Why can’t we as a Muslim filmmaker or filmmaking division talk about values and universal values without referring always this obsession that we have to show that the Islamic reference are all. We can talk about all this values in something which is much more universal, can’t we ?
Yes I agree with that. When I say Muslim, it is because we are discussing the influence from Muslims. But you are right. You don’t always have to say, ‘Let’s make a movie and as soon as there is something positive, put a little explanation that this is about Islam or this is about Muslims.’
No as I said it could be universal issues to do with anything, family, death, life, and it could be just made by a Muslim but it looks beautiful. It doesn’t even have to have for example any reference to Islam or Islamic character or a name, something that says from here to [heaven] it could be anything but universal issues and it has to have the universal issues for us to be able to connect with the society, cause we could be an American and have the same issues.
Last question, and it is a very, very difficult one in fact when it comes to the people, you know we had some people who were in music, other in filmmaking, other in arts and entertainment, it is as if when they become Muslims or they are Muslims or they come back to the Islamic principles, there is a lack of creativity. Some of the singers and some of the movies as soon as we look at it through the window of Islamic reference and ethics, more ethics less creativity and this is a problem because you are competing with people who have no specific ethics and very creative. How can we solve this?
I think we have to be smart. We have to balance what our ethics are with what we think have beautifully. We can artistically show this.
So don’t forget in the time of the Ottomans, in the time of the Safavids, when there was great Renaissance in arts, there was a lot of money spent, lot of resources given to artists, paintings, music, lot of new musical devices were created, lot of plays, things like this. So it is about gaining the resources and also speaking to those who we look up to, say scholars, and say ‘Look, I want to work in the arts. I want to be creative. Advise me what my boundaries are.’ And then once you know your boundaries work within those boundaries and be creative.
So it is a matter of education and the desire to be able to produce.