CHALLENGE WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW ABOUT A PARTICULAR RACE, RELIGION, ETHNICITY & GROUP OF PEOPLE: Not all Persians are doctors, lawyers, landlords, insurance agents, rug store owners. Not all Middle Eastern people work in convenient stores. Our work title is not our identity. It is just a job and all people of different ethnicities will take any door that opens for them, so they can make money to live. People of all ethnicities have a pastime. Not all Middle Eastern people are linked to terrorism. There are good people of all religions. A good person is a good person and a criminal is a criminal. Do not single out a good person who looks different from you and make an example of scapegoating.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Armin Nasseri.
Armin Nasseri is a first-generation, Iranian-American filmmaker. His last two shorts “Seeking Valentina” and “The Carting Call,” have garnered world wide acclaim, winning over 30 awards at film festivals all over the world. His newest film, “The Central Authority,” is a socially-distanced project featuring an inclusive cast and is currently in post-production.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I am a first-generation, Iranian-American. I was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My parents migrated to North Carolina in the 80’s after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. I spent part of my childhood in Falls Church, Virginia before moving back to Winston-Salem with my family, where I lived throughout the rest of my childhood and adolescence. I was always a fan of stories and visual arts since my early childhood. I got my inspiration from my father, who is a proficient painter and I would always be exposed to his paintings in our household.
Although I loved art, I was mainly involved with sports at a younger age, primarily basketball. My love for the arts grew when I entered high school and took a drama class. I started writing poetry and performing on stage as well as painting and drawing.
During my adolescence, my oldest brother introduced me to movies by Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock. It changed the way I view cinema. My interests for camera, writing and directing began to evolve. I started going to the video store frequently and I would, rent, watch and study movies that were made by auteur directors. Sidney Lumet, Brian DePalma, Jonathan Demme and Francis Ford Coppola are some examples.
After I finished high school, I was spending time with some of my family friends during a holiday. My childhood friend was there and he showed me a short film that he acted in. The short film was directed by Ramin Bahrani, who went on to direct HBO’s Fahrenheit 451. I met Ramin when I was eight years old. Ramin and his older brother were old friends of my older brothers back in their high school era. It was inspiring to see someone from my hometown make a movie that looks and sounds like me. That gave me the courage to pursue a career in filmmaking.
I started my film career in Wilmington, North Carolina before moving to Los Angeles. I went to acting school and studied film and production at Los Angeles City College and West L.A. College. After I graduated, I have done almost everything you can imagine on a film set from storyboard images to editing and everything in between.
I wrote and directed a short film called “Seeking Valentina.” It’s a psychological thriller that my collaborator Kristin West co-produced and starred in the title role. Kristin West and I showcased an inclusive, gender-balanced movie that eliminated all stereotypes that have been perpetuated by Hollywood. I’m very humbled that the film went on to win many awards, including an Honorable Mention from Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards.
Following up on the success of Seeking Valentina, I directed another inclusive, gender-balanced short film titled “The Carting Call.” A horror-comedy that I also wrote and produced with Candice Callins, who stars in the lead role. The film has screened around the nation, including the Hip Hop Film Festival in Harlem, New York. We are proud that the film has garnered several awards, including two awards for Best Ensemble Cast. “Seeking Valentina” and “The Carting Call” have both gotten distribution deals and will screen worldwide on multiple platforms.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I have read a lot of great books. There are a lot of great stories that I connected with, but the one book that made an impact on me was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The book deals with racism and police brutality as we continue to face those issues in our society. The book resonated with me because I saw myself through the protagonist of the story, who deals with race and identity. I struggled with identity as an Iranian-American in Southeastern, United States. I had to deal with people’s perception of me based on the negative stereotypes from the news coverage, which perpetuated ignorance, fear and discrimination. It was difficult to navigate the world of the US-Iran tensions in my generation. I am proud to be born and raised in America. America is my home. I am also proud of my Iranian heritage and it has shaped the person that I am today and I want to help bring representation in the American and international world. This way it will help pave the way for the Iranian-American generation behind me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
When I was in acting school, my teacher gave us a paper of a quote by Don Miguel Ruiz.
“Don’t take anything personally. Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.”
To this day, I still have that paper with me. It’s all crumbled now. I was told by others from my past, that moving to a big city to pursue my dreams was going to be difficult and that I was wasting my time. “You have no experience and no connections” is what they said. It was hard not having a support system and I felt alone at times. At the end of the day, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. If you have found your true calling in life, it doesn’t matter what people think. Even if it’s your childhood friends or members of your own family. They only know a part of you. The only person who knows the full you is yourself. Nothing in life is easy. Ignore the naysayers. They are afraid to fail and you should not be afraid because success comes from increasing your failure rate. Go for what you love and do it for yourself and yourself only.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
People should take into account that there is a difference between “leadership” and “authority.” Leadership has nothing to do with rank. There are people in high positions that are in the leadership position to lead, but are not leaders. They just have an authority over others. However, there are people at the bottom, who do not have authority, but can make the choice to look after the people around them and lead by example. Leadership is a skill. Leadership is about motivating and inspiring a group of people to strive for a common goal. Good leadership is about having a calm demeanor. That’s how you set the tone when you are in a leadership position. Good leadership also includes confidence, problem solving, honesty, trust, great communication, accountability, understanding yourself and other people’s perspective around you as well as being a good listener.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Breathing exercises is the main key. If you do not have a chance to take a walk or do cardio exercises in your spare time, I highly recommend that you do some deep breathing exercises. I always have water with me. That’s my advice and also advise others to not get consumed by the news coverage on television and the internet. It will increase your anxiety. Puzzles, card games and word searches are some positive outlets that will help relieve stress.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
Let’s be very clear. Systemic racism in the United States has been an ongoing issue for centuries. The only difference is that it’s getting filmed. Racism and police brutality have been documented due to the age of internet, social media and camera phones. It’s obvious that the American system is flawed and it has only worked for the people that it was designed to work for. Everyone else that has been marginalized, are fighting for diversity, equality and inclusion. They have faced discrimination in their lives and their voices are getting louder and louder as they are completely fed up with hate, inequality and the senseless killings of unarmed citizens in America. There were already a number of unarmed black citizens that were unjustly murdered by police officers: Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. The list goes on.
We are also living in a global pandemic. We are seeing the best and worst of people. Everyone that was personally not affected by police killings and discrimination, are now facing a deadly virus that does not discriminate. People are losing family members and friends to this deadly virus. All over the world, we are facing a public health crisis that’s leaving others jobless, frustrated, uncertain and stuck inside their homes. Now, it’s giving time for people to reflect and examine the tragic truth of America. The education system needs serious reforms.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
When I started Polar Underworld Productions, I didn’t just form a production company for creative control, I wanted to give a voice for the voiceless. I worked on several film projects, where there was diversity behind the camera, but no inclusion in front of the camera. I made it an ultimate goal as a filmmaker to create a diverse, inclusive community both front of the camera and behind the camera. I kept my word when I made “Seeking Valentina” and “The Carting Call.” Both short films have received nominations and awards. The success looks great on paper, but it wasn’t necessarily easy communicating with some of my cast and crew members about the clear vision I had for Seeking Valentina, which was portraying Iranian-Americans as everyday people. No matter how many visual references I was making to Alfred Hitchcock, Ingmar Bergman or Stephen King; there were no major movies out there that people can grasp on about the point of view of Iranian-immigrants and their American-born children living in America. Most of the major American movies that featured Iranian people, would always be linked to politics, or their ethnicity was the character, instead of having a character arc.
When my co-producer sent me the first draft of “The Carting Call,” she killed off her character in her own story. She thought that’s how a horror movie was supposed to be made. Throughout the history of the horror genre with regards to American-produced horror films, minorities have received very little representation. I wanted to break the ingrained stereotypes. I was adamant that I was not going to direct a horror movie, where people of color would die at some point of the movie. I’m proud to make the film with Candice Callins, where minorities are not a subject to “tokenism.’ The film went on to achieve greater success and that’s a testament to movie viewers, who want inclusion.
I’m also very lucky to team up with Kristin West, Dana Olita and Matt Chassin, who share the same values as me. We are all working on a socially-distanced project called “The Central Authority.” I will tell you that this socially-distanced project is not only thought-provoking, diverse and inclusive, but the majority of this project features women. Women from all different ethnicities. Their characters are strong, multi-dimensional and very funny. This story is Kristin West and Dana Olita’s brain child and we are taking this project on a whole another level.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
It’s important to have a diverse team because it puts everyone in the forefront to be innovative. A diverse team will bring a variety of perspectives. No voices will be discounted. A diverse team will also showcase an attractive brand that will lead to a great reputation with increased profits.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
- CHALLENGE WHAT WE THINK WE KNOW ABOUT A PARTICULAR RACE, RELIGION, ETHNICITY & GROUP OF PEOPLE: Not all Persians are doctors, lawyers, landlords, insurance agents, rug store owners. Not all Middle Eastern people work in convenient stores. Our work title is not our identity. It is just a job and all people of different ethnicities will take any door that opens for them, so they can make money to live. People of all ethnicities have a pastime. Not all Middle Eastern people are linked to terrorism. There are good people of all religions. A good person is a good person and a criminal is a criminal. Do not single out a good person who looks different from you and make an example of scapegoating.
- MAKING SURE THAT ONE GENERATION MENTORS ANOTHER. THAT WE CREATE OPPORTUNITIES IN OUR COMMUNITIES: I was very fortunate to have a father, grandfather, older brothers and uncles as male figures in my life. They all raised me to be a man. However, I wanted to make art and they didn’t know how to help me because that was not their field. I didn’t have a mentor to show me the ropes. The filmmakers that were in the generation above me, were out of reach. I am the first person in my family to make a movie that achieved great success. I have an American-born nephew, who is very young. I hope one day when he’s older, he will see people who look like him achieve big goals, so it will give him the confidence and courage to strive for success. It’s important that we pave the way for each other.
- WE NEED TO DISRUPT THIS IDEA THAT WHITE AMERICA IS THE “NORM”: First of all, I am just as American as someone, whose family has been in America since 1776. Second, the demographics in America are changing and we need to better reflect that demographic shift.
- WE NEED TO COMPLICATE NARRATIVES. THE COLOR OF YOUR SKIN DOES NOT MAKE YOU A VILLAIN OR A HERO AUTOMATICALLY: We need to write more complex characters. For example in “Seeking Valentina,” the character Benjamin is not only an Iranian-American, but an everyday man. He’s an English teacher, who is still grieving after the death of his wife. He meets a woman, who is eerily similar to his wife and she disappears. He goes out to find her and multiple viewers had their own interpretation on whether he was a hero or not. We are all human and the choices we make in life have nothing to do with the way we look.
- WE HAVE TO CHANGE OUR EUROCENTRIC VIEW OF HISTORY: As an Iranian-American that attended the American school system growing up, there was never a discussion about the Persian Empire, which is one of the oldest civilizations in our history. The Postal Service, sulphuric acid, algebra, refrigerator, guitar and chess were all invented by Persian people. They didn’t hesitate to address that Christopher Columbus discovered America. How did Columbus discover America when there were already people living here? When I was a ten year old kid living in Winston-Salem, my parents took me to the movies and we watched “The White Balloon” directed by Jafar Panahi. If I hadn’t come from a Persian family, I would of never heard of that film or any Iranian cinema. When I got older and took film classes, we only watched movies made by European and American male directors. A lot of the movies we watched that were made by both European and American male directors, were influential and significant. However, Iran cinema was never mentioned in my film classes as well as movies made by women and people of color. Abbas Kiarostami and Bahram Beyzai were pioneer filmmakers. Alice Guy-Blaché was the first female director. Oscar Micheaux was regarded as the first African-American man to make feature films. These are prominent figures that should be discussed in school by the educators.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m optimistic that systemic racism will end when white people step up and condemn the discrimination on black and brown people. I’m optimistic that white people will join forces with black and brown people and together will hold the elected officials accountable by creating laws that protect all citizens equally. I’m optimistic that there will be reparations for black Americans. It won’t get resolved if you don’t fight. Take action, have a loud voice and be part of the movement.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Jane Elliott. I have nothing but admiration for her as a diversity educator. She has spent her entire teaching career promoting the notion that there is one race in race relations and that’s the “human race.” It’s something that has been lacking in our human society. The world would be a much better place if everyone took a page from her book.
How can our readers follow you online?
You can follow me on
You can also follow my latest movie THE CENTRAL AUTHORITY and get updates on it
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!