By Danielle Reid
After winning Best Director at the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards for her debut, Firecrackers, Jasmin Mozaffari’s emotionally gripping film, Motherland, took home the Short Cuts Award for Best Canadian Film at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
Drawing directly from her family’s personal history, Motherland is about a young man who must contend with the realities of being an immigrant in the United States (U.S.) amid the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis.
The protagonist, Babak (Behtash Fazlali), based on Mozaffari’s late father, takes a trip to meet his white fiancée’s parents for the first time — a story inspired by the director’s own parents’ experience in the late 1970s.
In an interview with The Eyeopener, the filmmaker and Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) film school alumna, spoke about the emotions involved with writing and directing a film so closely tied to her family. “I think there’s some catharsis in exploring stories that are connected to your personal experience,” she said.
Mozaffari said that, for her, Motherland was a way to honour her father who passed away 10 years ago.
“Writing about him and his stories feels like a way to get closer to him even in his death,” she said. “He was such a mystery to me. He has gone through all this stuff… but we didn’t talk about it a lot in detail.”
“His motherland of Iran was a source of pain and love at the same time, ” she said.
The inspiration to create a film that truthfully portrayed the Iranian immigrant experience in the U.S. stemmed partly from a letter her father wrote to her which she opened after his passing.
“He said, ‘Remember, you are Iranian and be proud of being Iranian’ and I really always remembered that to this day,” she recalled.
Mozaffari touched on the lack of accurate representation of Iranian people on screen, especially in major Hollywood blockbusters. After looking into past movies that attempted to portray Iranian immigrants, she found the existing examples were “horrible.”
Mozaffari referred to films such as Argo (2012) starring Ben Affleck, House of Sound and Fog (2003) and Not Without My Daughter (1991), stating, “These are the examples we have of our narrative and they’re terrible.”
“We need to see more stories about West Asian people that are not terrorists, that are not stereotypes and I just want to be a small part of dismantling that narrative in North American media.”
Mozaffari explained that Motherland is not only a retelling of her parents’ experience, but also a way to talk about what was happening around the U.S. with the Iranian Hostage Crisis. The film explores “themes of assimilation, feeling uprooted from your home and losing your identity,” Mozaffari said.
According to Britannica, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was a diplomatic conflict between the U.S. and Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. On Nov. 4, 1979, a student militant group in Iran seized 66 American citizens at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and successfully captured 52 for a turbulent 444 days. The hostages were released in 1981 following negotiations between the two countries, however, the ordeal would go on to sever Iranian-U.S. relations for decades to come.
In a patriotic, post-Vietnam America, the crisis ignited widespread moral panic in the U.S. towards Iranian immigrants, including Mozaffari’s father.
“It just became this sudden fear where on billboards, on TV, in magazines and on the radio, there’s this hatred towards you,” she said of the experience of Iranian immigrants at the time.
“On campuses there were deep clashes between American students and Iranian students and some resulted in violence,” she said. “I learned my dad was involved in a violent confrontation in a campus pub, where he was almost attacked by a group of mostly white men.”
She said the research involved with creating Motherland got her even more “fired-up” to write the film. “I didn’t show that [altercation] in the film, but my research was so fascinating.”
Research was a crucial part of the filmmaking process to ensure she was accurately portraying the story. “I think because I grew up in Canada and I’m mixed, I said ‘I have to make sure I’m doing this right. I can’t just be assuming that I know [what it was like] just because it’s my father.’”
The month-long research process took on many forms including going through American journalism archives, particularly in the New York Times, to find out what life was actually like for Iranian [immigrants]. “It was much worse than I portray in the film.”
Stylistically, the writer/director made very deliberate choices in the creation of Motherland, shooting entirely on a film camera which she hadn’t done since her TMU short, Firecrackers.
According to Mozaffari, shooting on film allowed her to visually capture the time frame of the late 1970s. “I didn’t want it to feel like a cheesy period imitation and the ’70s is really hard to get right.”
The soundtrack was also an essential part of capturing the authenticity of the time. The music was heavy with Persian influence and incorporated the work of well known Iranian musicians such as pre-revolutionary folk musician, Kourosh Yaghmaei.
While her movies have received significant awards and acclaim, as a student, Mozaffari had to work hard to stay true to her vision.
She recalled her experience as a film student in 2013 where she felt, at the time, that there was a general misunderstanding towards the stories she and some of her classmates wanted to tell, especially stories from a queer and racialized perspective.
With the majority of her classes largely dominated by white men, she had to remain true to what she wanted to create and honour her own voice. “I had to be like, ‘film school is my environment to try things, it’s not an environment to please professors or get certain grades because that’s not what matters right now,’” she said.
When asked about the advice she would give to current film students, Mozaffari wants to encourage them to worry less about a number grade and to see school as an opportunity to try new things and make mistakes.
“Just try to make the best film every time you’re given an assignment,” she said. “Think about character pieces…and learn how to direct actors. It’s not about how much money you have, it’s [about learning] how to work with individual actors and make something interesting.”
As audiences watch Motherland, Mozaffari hopes they will continue to become more curious about the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which is not often spoken about in modern society.
“Think about what it’s like for West Asian people as they’ve come up [in North America], as they’ve faced prejudice…and challenge the stereotypes they may have grown up hearing about us.”