I’d love to start with the cliche ‘Look what came in the mail today’, but that’s not usually how it works in Iran. However, we still receive delightful surprises from far away lands. In this case, it was a photo that marked a remarkable time with my Liebling German film crew.
So how did I end up a bloodthirsty Qajar prince? It all started when my friend, Reza, decided to help a British tourist in Tehran. There was only one problem: Reza didn’t speak any English! Fortunately, I did. That’s how I got involved in a series of unlikely friendships that eventually led to me becoming an actor.
The Cyclist, Jonny
Jonny ‘English’ Stockwell had cycled all the way from home, the UK, through Europe to the Middle East. He wasn’t about to stop either. His final destination was China where he planned to stay and teach for a while. Before he could do that, however, he’d have to find a place to stay in Tehran. There weren’t too many parks where he could camp and getting directions was proving troublesome . Fortunately, he bumped into Reza who was soon bent on helping him, despite the language barrier.
When Reza called me, I was in a taxi in Rasht. When he explained he was trying to help a tourist, I put aside my dislike of long phone calls in favour of his noble intentions. Basically, I was their interpreter; clarifying the situation and relaying Reza’s resolution to find Jonny a suitable place. By the time Reza walked around the city with Jonny and his bike and succeeded in his quest, I had arrived at the other end of the city too, except in Rasht. You should have seen the puzzled look on the taxi driver’s face as he overheard my bilingual backseat conversations, only half of which he could understand.
A few days later, I returned to Tehran and finally met Jonny face-to-face, alongside Reza. We spent the next few days together, going around town and even spending a night at my place. Jonny also made a trip to Alamut Castle in Qazvin with two Germans; an adventure he retold fondly. One of the girls had pretended to be his wife because they weren’t sure if they could rent a room as singles. Ironically, foreigners can. But ignorance had made for a great story and also, the perfect introduction to one crazy loveable German, Anna.
The Actress, Anna
Anna had travelled to Iran with her friend where she’d met Jonny by chance. Their trip to Alamut might have been in the guise of a fake couple, but it sparked something special. I got to meet her when she tagged along with Jonny for a visit to Farahzad, Tehran. She was down to earth and cool, so we had no trouble connecting over ghelyoon (shisha) and tea.
She was an actress/carpenter! Strange combination, huh? We thought so too. But one look at Anna and you’d have no trouble believing the two could co-exist in one person. Most of the time she was booming with energy and laughter. Then there were those rare moments when you’d realise you either back down or risk being carved by a master!
The Director, Jessica
I kept in touch with Anna after she left. After a while, she emailed to say a friend of her’s was in Tehran for the International Fajr Film Festival (IFFF). Any friend of Anna’s was a friend of mine, especially one that came so highly recommended, so I went to see her. I searched the venue high and low until I found her in the restaurant. There she was: a delightful German lady with a warm smile and blonde hair hidden under her red scarf.
Jessica was once as adventurous as her friend, possibly even more. Except she’d become a mommy a few years back and now she was more cautious for her son’s sake. She’d often talk about little Juri and show pictures of the adorable blondie, then feel she’d been blabbering on and apologise. So cute! But her stories weren’t limited to motherhood and family. She’d also travelled the world, rode on top of buses, attended Rainbow Gatherings and done so much more back in her hippy days.
She submitted her film to the IFFF and invited me to the ceremony. I wasn’t used to front row seats, so I was excited to be sitting beside her. The night became all the more special when they announced her name. She won! That night we went out to celebrate and that’s where we decided to take a short trip; one that turned out to be one of the strangest I’ve been on. It also gave Jessi the idea of coming back to shoot in Iran.
The Illustrator, Felicitas
Jessi was a woman of her word! After months of coordination, she finally managed to assemble her film team for a trip to Iran. Anna was keen to come back and meet up, so we had our actress. But even a low-budget film like ours needed more than that. It needed someone who could collaborate on the creative process and preferably work the technical equipment. Fortunately, Jessica had her long-time classmate and partner in art for that role. Enter Felicitas.
Felicitas was too hard a name for most people to recall, so we opted for Fe instead. In a way, you couldn’t fit anything about her into a box, her name included! Though born German, her manner had a French air to it and her English more fluent than either nationality. She was an illustrator working on her children’s book, but making time to tailor her own dresses too. She was a peculiar bundle of joy. One minute she’d be skipping around peacefully, the next she was scribbling away furiously as the film progressed.
The Cameraman, Maik
Not that I had anything against it, but the crew would’ve been all-female if it weren’t for Maik. Jessica had told me she was happy to have this ‘pro’ onboard, but I had no idea what he was like. That was until he and Fe arrived in Rasht where I and the rest of the gang were waiting for them. As they approached, I could tell from their style alone that I’d like ’em and Maik’s deep dude-like tone verified it.
As we later found out, back in the day Maik was a rockstar in his own right. He blew us away by playing some of his tracks. If that wasn’t impressing enough, this guy had a way with cameras and microphones – a true A/V master. Though he was mostly behind the camera, his vibe was ever present.
The Guide or the Actor? Both!
You can’t get a foreign crew together to shoot a short film without someone local to fill in the gaps. That someone was me. First came the visa process which wasn’t without ‘complications’ – as Anna and Jessica could testify. In the end everything worked out fine and the team assembled in Iran. Then there was the issue of when & where to go for shooting. My travel experience helped of course, but a good portion came from spontaneity and going with the flow.
The part that scared me most was the acting. Seeing how Jessi was trying to make the most of what we had, she’d decided I could take on the lead actor’s role. The only experience I had of that sort was back in uni where I starred in a short amateur clip for our graduation ceremony. This time it was serious. Would I be able to handle it? Well, there was only one way to find out.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone. Everywhere we went I had people come to my aid. In Guilan, my home, old friends joined for various scenes: Komail singing his characteristic song, Mehran & Mohammad stealing Anna’s purse, only to be thwarted by me moments later; and even Hani with her cute pet bunny. In Kashan, Taher, my old uni classmate, lent us his home. I simply can’t leave out Roozbeh and Mohammad who accompanied us for most of the trip, doing whatever they could to facilitate things.
A Picture Worth a Thousand Words
This picture was taken somewhere along our film production. We were in Tehran, taking a stroll in the Ab o Atash Park when this set caught our eye. Couples would dress up as Qajar figures and reenact their alleged ‘style’ for the camera. We stood by to watch and slowly, it dawned on us that we want to be part of this ridiculous masquerade. Though we filmed it, it was one of those moments that belonged more to our fun time together than the movie. Hafez, the Persian poet, has the perfect words for this:
اوقات خوش آن بود که با دوست به سر رفت
باقی همه بی حاصلی و بی خبری بود
Good times were those spent in the company of friends
All else was but futile and in the dark
transliteration [oghaat-e khosh aan bood ke ba doost be sar raft
baaghi hame bi-haaseli o bi-khabari bood]
It’s funny how a single picture can have such a long and complex backstory. Actually, I only skimmed it here to go into details later. What I love about this story is how one person’s act of goodwill had such a strange ripple effect. Dude sees a biker and offers help, years later a team of people come together to make a movie because of it. Friendship works in mysterious ways.
P.S. A big thanks to Mohsen & Kimia who did what the postman would’ve done elsewhere, i.e. get the picture to me. And thanks to our dear ‘Herr Direktor 😀 ‘ for sending this picture and bringing back so many great memories. You’re always welcome back here with us, film or no film Jessi.