Picture: Americasobeautiful.com

"The American Dream dissected in Babak Shokrian film début "
Babak Shokrian's bitter sweet look on the American Dream
By Darius Kadivar

"Why do all films in this country end with a kiss ? Does it mean they will live happily ever after, when most probably they will get fed up with eachother?"

-Houshang ( played by singer Mansour )watching an old American Movie in Babak Shokrians first film

I have just previewed an opening of "America so Beautiful" in Paris UGC Cinema. To this date, rarely has any Iranian movie caught my attention or moved me as a truly cinematographic experience. Babak Shokrian's first movie however has all the ingrediants that make up both an entertaining and thought provoking movie, and I could not help sit through the whole film hoping to see more. This is what I call a movie that is for the first time, in the iranian category with a comprehensive dialogue and a good plot supported by excellent professional actors. We are far from the nevertheless Great Abbas Kiarostami and his metaphoricla abstractions accessible only to a cultural elite.

As much as the Iranian Director ( thanks to whome genuine interest was drawn on our National Cinema) focuses on Iranians back home. This movie tries to draw a picture of a generation which shortly before and shortly after the revolution had to struggle to survive. Shokrians early film influences from Scorcese, or Elia Kazan are apparent, in some scenes and particularily the recreation and setting of the LA of the Seventies and Disco years Particularily looks authentic.

Spanned over the 444 Days during which over 52 American diplomats were took Hostage in the US Embassy in Teheran. Excerpts of the radio news, and TV images of the Revolution and the fall of the Shah sets the Historical and political context of the Time. "America so beautiful" fortunately avoids cliches which could have been easily the case in trying to draw a strict line between the Good and the Bad. The Racial comments made by a middle aged bartender ( An attentive ear allows you to hear her pronounce Iran "Eye Ran" and Iranian as it should be that is "eeeranians") is a result of their lack of education, social standards and the repetitious news reels showing the US Hostages humiliated and the Hostile revolutionaries shouting "America Go Home".

The same hateful looks also appear when Houshang having met Lucy ( Diane Gaidry) an American Bartender who works in Sahmi's ( Houshang Touzie) Disco, joins her at her party flat. Unlike Lucy the other young people invited look at Houshang with angry looks as they here more of the News on the Hostages being badly treated in Teheran.

The movie does not try to say who is right or who is wrong but simply shows those who are caught in between Political rivalries that surpass them and oppose their down to earth realities. Ironically it is in trying to fulfill their American Dream that the protagonists are actually confronted to the same prejudices not to say racism for which they have left their own country.

The Sad if not tragic aspect of their predicament is that for the most, the protagonists come from educated families, they are intelligent, cultured and humane and probably more qualified than the jobs they are meant to hold. One wanted to be a Doctor, then an Actor and ended up a Taxi Driver. Another holds a Grocerie shop. Maryam, Hamid, Parviz, are all perfectly in phase with the American language, culture and mindset and although attached to their roots they are hoping for a better future but in realistic terms and in that are certainly the most stable and positive characters in the movie. It is not the case for Houshang. Strangely by holding on to his Dream so strongly Houshang is probably the Most American of all the characters in the movie. He is down to earth and entrepreunial enough since he contacts elders for help, tries to convince people to believe in his project, but he is constantly faced with a cultural wall he cannot climb over and doesn't seem to realize the consenquences of the events in Iran have on his own life in America.

The Cultural Gap is also shown among Iranians themselves, At one point Parviz the cab driver trying to make a deal at the grocery is interrupted by a younger Iranian with glossy hair and dressed up like a gigolo who hides his real name Darius with a nickname "Danny Disco", only to be reminded in a humourous dialogue that His Real Name is that of one of Persia's Greatest Emperors, without whome he would not be who he was and should be ashamed to have abandoned his real name for Danny Disco.

The scene is quite representative of the educational standards which were forced upon the last Iranian Generation most of whome were sons or daughters of Doctors , Engineers or any other middle class family (thanks to the Shahs educational programs and financial support to the most rewarding students who once sent to the US became politicised and came back as revolutionaries to topple the regime) could not always live up to the same ambitions of their parents leading to a Cultural Gap which since the revolution of 1979 has not quite been filled.

This is shown in a wonderful and tense scene in the Persian Restaurant, where the young friends realize that they belong to a lost generation. Not quite Iranian and not quite American, it ends in a fight because of particularily jealous husband who refuses to see his wife dance with the bald Parviz and the whole group is kicked out of the Restaurant. The Persian Cabaret scene allows glimpses of some of our forgotten artists like Aref, which I thought was dead long ago, but was very happy to see he had not changed a bit. And of course Sattar and actress Shohleh Agdashlou who make small appearances.

As Houshang wants to make his dream come true by building a discotec on the advices of an unscrupelous Sahmi a "2nd Class Godfather" like character played by the excellent comedian Houshang Touzie, He finds himself lured into stealing money from his own cousins grocery earnings. On the other hand Sahmi is also luring ex Ministers and Generals making them believe that with their money he is preparing a counter coup against the Mullahs. The Older generation truly comes across through an unflattering and rather comic portrait some of whome seem to come straight out straight out of "Uncle Napoleon" which Babak describes as virtually Mad Characters who have been" frozen in Time" and that their way of thinking does not allow evolution or critical thinking which is so necessary for any community to thrive." The director certainly has a true point here and I share it, however from a chronological point of view he falls into a minor trap and that is that most of these generals or ex ministers were in power shortly before the fall of the Imperial regime and many had either fled the regime, or were executed, some may have turned mad after having been tortured by the IRI, but the image depicted in the film is more closer to a generation long since retired and still sticking to a lifestyle which is long over than to the generation of exiles immediately after the revolution. But they provide a comic counterpoint necessary for a story like this one which has many tense moments.
As mad as they seem thay turn out indeed to be dangerous after realizing that they were being manipulated, and this combined with Houshang's decision to put an end to his relationship with Sahmi at the discotec will lead to a viscious circle of violence and confusion which will leave no one particularily intact in the end.

The most interesting aspect of Shokrians first feature film is that you forget after a while the Iranian conotation of the story. It is present, you are reminded of the events several Times and cannot look through it without remembering personal souveniers. However it stays first and foremost a movie, which you can follow regardless of the political message or social and national context. For once I was happily surprised not to feel the heavy chest I get usually when I go to Iranian films and feel that some kind of philisophical or political metophor is going to be pushed down my throat. Sorry for the comparison, but it has been true evene when it comes to any film Persian or Western regarding Iran or related to the Revolution. It is not the case for America so Beautiful

Also the dual culture alternating the dialogue between both english and Persian is interesting and even gives to the film a particular flavor as in many American films on the Italian or Mexican communities totally assimilated to the American Way of Life yet keeping their own catch phrases and idiomatic expressions. In the same scene in the American restaurant, one of the characters an Iranian who has arrived to the US after the death of his father ( natural death or execution the cause is left unanswered ) says for me Iran is Dead you hear ? and Houshang replies ironically welcome to San Francisco ! Anyone familiar to Parviz Sayyads playboy Character in Uncle Napoleon series of the late 70's will understand the allusion. Unlike the characters of Saturday Night Fever, where John Travolta had his way paved for him on a red Carpet , Houshang and his friends are systematically trying to get into the Disco and refused entrance, this forces them in most cases to avoid direct confrontation but increases their feeling of humiliation and frustration, and the Hostage crisis does not help either in calming the brutality of some war mongering Americans. .

Also I must say there is a true on screen chemistry between the actors in this film. All in their share bring to the surface all the emotional contradictions, the brotherly and sisterly love between old friends which sometimes flirts with emotional incestuous feelings. Canadian Actress Diane Gaidry, and Alain De Satti, Fariborz David Diann, all create characters with a great deal of depth, sincerity and truth. As much as this film is about us Iranian exiles ( at least in LA but you find the same components in Europe or elsewhere ) it is also an American Film in the true sense of the word. The actors share the same narcicism required for such James Dean persona characters this is especially true for Houshang played by Mansour, but also for Alain De Satti and Fariborz David Diann. All have a very Actors Studio approach to their roles which I think does justice to the film and gives it the necessary balance between "Hey we are talking about you out their but look it is still a movie so stay positive". At the same time they make the mixture of Farsi and English look attractive for a foreign ear, which has not always been the case. The comparison with the Italian community is also pertinent, although, I hope the Godfathers example won't be seen as a role model except maybe in movies.

Although "America so Beautiful" is supposed to be about the generation at the Time of the revolution it is clear it is about the generation of Iranians Today. The set and clothing may be that of the 70's but the questions and preoccupations which hunt the protagonists are much more in phase with the way Iranians feel today. the number of Iranians in California truly increased with the exiled community after 1979. The majority contrary to the depiction in the film were quite well off financially and professionally to be able to leave the country and settle down in the US. Most were doctors, engineers, architects who had been already educated in the US or Europe. They did face difficulties but they were less concerned by following the American Dream than by reasserting their situation in the US. The children however had to face the contradictions of being both American by birth ( this is even more true for those who were half Iranian), education or upbringing and yet Iranian. This new generation is probably even more attached to Iran and Iranian values than the previous one in a sense. The fact that the director of the movie who is in his mid thirties and left Iran in 1971 is also an indication that proves this point. I was also quite happy and proud to see Mr.Shokrian insist that he wanted to speak in Persian in front of a crowd of French and Iranian film enthusiasts of all ages.

As much as an artistic accomplishent such a film certainly deserves to be shown as an educational movie be it in schools or Universities as an introduction to the Islamic Revolution and its consenquences on the Iranian and American communities. It is a historic movie so to speak which says more about the problems faced by our community than any Epic film so to speak would be able to do. Shokrian indirectly also pays a tribute to the older generation of artists who have paved the road for Iranian artists and actors in the west such as singer Aref ( I didn't even know he was still alive and in good shape), Sattar or the enigmatic looks of the beautiful Shohreh Agdashlou ( Who will soon Co- Star with Ben Kingsley in The House of Sand and Fog produced by Dreamworks SKG )

In an All male movie a special credit should go to the female roles of Lucy played by Diane Gaidry and the natural composition of Attossa Leoni as Maryam. By all means Babaks Shokrian's directorial début proves to be visually mature and his carreer and that of his actors deserves to be followed closely in the years to come.

The film additionally shows also that the passage of time more than 23 years after the events allows the Cinema to revisit this tragic periode for both Iranians and Americans and it is all the more to the credit of an Iranian American Director to have taken the initiative in doing so. Had the film not been present at the Berlin Competition it would have certainly caught some attention in Caanes, lets just hope that Shokrian's next film will soon enter that arena where his talent deserves attention.

Authors Note:

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