Mohammad “MO” Gorjestani is the first valley filmmaker to make Filmmaker magazine’s annual “25 Filmmakers To Watch” list—this, primarily, on the basis of his shot-in- San-Jose science-fiction short with political undertones, Refuge. The film debuted at the prestigious Tribeca Film festival. Gorjestani. Gorjestani’s earlier film Sayeh (“The Shade”) made him, at 23, the youngest director featured at the 2007 festival. Refuge has played at some 40 festivals since and airs as a staff pick on Vimeo.com this week.
Later this month, Filmmaker will take Gorjestani and three other filmmakers on a multi-city tour, to show his short film and meet college-aged audiences nation-wide.
Raised in Cupertino, this twenty-something Iranian-American high school wrestler turned filmmaker. Here, he was also a co-founder and creative director of the start-up Volio.com, which produced an app that combines speech recognition technology and video content. It was launched last spring with Esquire magazine so that content users can interact with several of the magazine’s columnists.
Volio is a version of a kind of technology that Disneyland assured us we’d have in the world of tomorrow. It allows readers a virtual conversation with a pre-recorded person. Online, the app is demonstrated by Esquire editor David Granger in connection with a “dialogue” with one of three of the venerable magazine’s lifestyle editors: Granger queries Esquire‘s cocktails maven David Wondrich on recommendations for a drink; the pre-recorded Wondrich suggests narrowing down the line from whiskey to Sazerac to an Old Fashioned with Dutch genever. “It was created as a new storytelling platform, but also something that brands and properties could use to create conversational content,” Gorejstani explained.
Gorjestani’s production company, MKSHFT/CLLCTV, offers a broad collection of services that include commercials, music videos and viral marketing campaigns and has produced content for clients such as HTC, Toyota and Facebook. “The focus of our company is to make great films, but we work on content from strategy state through delivery. We come on board projects at different stages, leading strategy and concept, shooting productions, and providing full editorial services for brands.” Gorjestani is signed to direct the music video for the new Deltron 3030 album, collaboration between Del tha Funky Homosapien, Kid Koala and Dan the Automator.
But Gorjestani aims to return to the Valley, to develop his first feature film script about a young man growing up in the 1990s. Its title: Somehow These Days Will Be Missed, and in a Metro interview Gorjestani claims that he hopes this first feature will be in the spirit of challenging, evocative European films such as Fish Tank, 4 Months, 3 Days, 2 Weeks and the Iranian classic A Taste of Cherry.
The script isn’t complete yet, but Somehow… has a producer, Malcolm Pullinger, who produced Gorjestani’s Refuge as well as the documentaries Winnebago Man and Following Sean. Somehow These Days Will Be Missed has grant money behind it from the San Francisco Film Society. The SFFS most recently put money into the development of Fruitvale Station and Beasts of the Southern Wild.
And Gorjestani has fans here. Longtime Silicon Valley-based filmmaker Sean McCarthy notes, “What I love about Mo’s work is his ability to confidently hold the frame, the various layers and textures he can weave in personal stories. What I love about Mo the friend and colleague is he approaches it with a certain grace and humility.”
A ’90s Tale
We met on a street corner in The Mission and walked to an outdoor cafe close to Gorjestani’s temporary headquarters during high summer, tourist season. Scandinavian travelers were nearby, chattering like starlings. He’s the watchful type, with close-cropped hair.
“The feature is getting lots of positive interest,” Gorjestani says. “It was a finalist for the Sundance labs, but because we were in production on Refuge I couldn’t get the materials in for the final submission. And by the time the labs started we were in postproduction. I’m back on track in getting the script done so I can make the feature film in San Jose. It’s a period piece and so it’ll be a bit challenging. I’d love to be able raise the money for it locally.”
The title of Gorjestani’s proposed feature film comes from an expression Gorjestani’s father always used. “I remember when I was a kid, that whenever we’d go through something rough, my dad would say ‘Somehow these days will be missed.’ Meaning: you think you’re upset now, but someday you’ll look back on this with happiness. It’s set in the early 1990s, and it’s a story about the American dream, betrayal, deception, love and loss.”
In a later phone interview, producer Malcolm Pullinger cautioned that Somehow… is still in development, subject to changes of focus and emphasis as it is created. But the way Pullinger sees the film is as a story similar to Call of the Wild, in that book’s scenes about the force of change during the Gold Rush. “We shouldn’t lock it down to any elements,” Pullinger said. “But it’s a gritty family portrait. You’ve got these fish-out-of-water characters coming to the Valley with optimism. But then there’s all this stuff happening in the shadows. It’s a story of a downward spiral happening to the lead character, due to the circumstances that he’s thrown into. There are elements you could compare to Breaking Bad, in the sense that matters are getting more and more slippery even as the characters think they’re getting more and more in control. The backdrop is the birth of the Web, back when things were first really starting to open up.”
As the epicenter of Apple Inc., Cupertino has changed perhaps the most startlingly of any one city in the valley. San Jose grew huge, but the city’s boosters had always intended that to happen. San Jose had ambitions to be a big-shouldered city since before the 1920s, back when the only apples in Cupertino were at the roadside fruit stands. Now with its hulking towers, malls and unbelievably trafficked streets, Cupertino is a different place than Gorjestani’s family found it.
The director grew up in the San Jose Garden Apartments, Section 8 housing near the intersection of Stevens Creek and Lawrence Expressway, hard by vacant lots margined with rundown strip malls and gas stations. Gorjestani says, “It was all about manual-labor there, a blue collar area. I’m proud to be from there, but there were drugs and there was violence.”
Gorjestani’s family were Iranian immigrants. His father, Mahmood, is an artist and graphic designer. His mother is noted painter Mahvash Mostala Gorjestani. The elder Gorjestani had been to the Valley in the late 1960s for a time and then moved back to Iran. There, Mahmood Gorjestani was the head of the art department at the University of Tehran. Mahmood Gorjestani left before the Iranian revolution and the Iran/Iraq war, and then immigrated to Turkey with his son Mo and his wife. “We waited there a year for our visas,” Gorjestani recalls. “We came to the valley because Dad had friends here.” His mother took ESL classes, and Mahmood started various businesses. After some setbacks, in 1991 Gorjestani’s parents opened Connoisseur of Los Altos, a custom jewelry and fine art gallery.
As the captain of the wrestling team at Cupertino High, Gorjestani was more focused on athletics than culture. He didn’t face a lot of discrimination for being Persian. “It was a pretty diverse area, but I do remember than when 9/11 happened, things got very different. I don’t want to make it sound like I got picked on, but some conversations really started to take me aback. I suddenly felt that I didn’t really want to wrestle any more. This was time when I started to do a lot of creative writing.”
Before the terror attacks, Gorjestani had given some thought to joining the military.
“I was thinking of joining up just to get the education, which is what a lot of the guys I knew were doing. The Marines wanted me—the recruiters came to my house. But then the attacks happened, and I realized this wasn’t going to be a situation of just going to West Point for a year or two and then going home. I had a real identity crisis—one of those ‘oh, shit’ moments. And what I ended up doing was going to Vancouver for film school.”
Gorjestani hadn’t been a film geek by anyone’s standards. “I didn’t go to a lot of movies. I could count on one hand how many movies I saw before I was 18. I saw City of God on DVD”—the crime drama shot in the Rio de Janeiro favelas—”and that may have been a turning point. There’s an actual benefit of not having seen everything: less stuff to rip off.”
Film school was an adjustment. “I can talk movies with anyone, with those people who have seen everything. What I do is that I just listen. At film school, I only did what I know how to do, which is to work hard.” What Gorjestani liked about film school was the accessibility—”they had every single movie you’d ever want to see. I saw two movies a day for a year and a half, and I guess I caught up on 600 movies there.”
His first film Sayeh (“Shade”) is the work of an already accomplished director: a parable about destiny in Farsi with English subtitles. It unfolds on a roadside somewhere outside of Tehran. A newspaper vendor and the vendor’s son who has a small clutch of balloons wait for business … a mile or so down, there’s a group of women selling tea under a blanket canopy. Lives are changed irrevocably by the breakdown of a city man’s truck, and by a farm woman’s impulsive gesture of generosity.
Gorjestani recreated a small piece of contemporary rural Iran on a roadside in Richmond, British Columbia. “We shot the whole film on a stretch of road about a half mile long,” he noted in an email. “We really had to be cautious of the framing. North America was hugely visible if we angled anything more than 30 degrees. ”
Such composition makes the road look longer, hotter, more separated from the rest of the world. “It actually gives the film an interesting theater/stage-like feel,” the director observes. “As far as the roots of Sayeh, it started as a love story I had written when was around 19. I had gone through some personal transformations and had some heartbreak and wanted to get whatever was inside of me out there. I was watching a lot of Abbas Kiarostami’s films at the time, and that made me think about cinema in a brand new, more allegorical way. I also wanted to incorporate a layer of existential commentary around the idea of serendipity, chance and luck … our different degrees of acceptance and interpretations of those ideas which I think are real, ideas that have been chastised in the Western world.”
Gorjestani’s open-ended Refuge is what he calls “a reimagination of World War II in 2020 terms.” It is, simply, the kind of calling-card film you want to celebrate. Set seven years from now in downtown San Jose, Refuge chronicles the narrowing choices of an Iranian SCU journalism student, Sonia Elhami (played by the talented Nikohl Boosheri). The Islamic Republic is as intransigent as ever, and has repaid U.S. cyber attacks with attacks of its own. This means increased surveillance and pressure on Iranian immigrants who are being rounded up by the NSA. Sonia faces deportation and reprisal, and the kind of experiences outlined in the short story “White Torture” by Farnoosh Moshiri, collected in Tremors, the new Iranian-American fiction anthology co-edited by SJSU’s Persis Karim. The desperate Sonia is approached by a too-friendly representative of the defense industry, Reza (Camyar Chai).
Everything in this short shows rare skill. Gorjestani focuses on Boosheri’s face during a TV broadcast of the bad news about a cyber attack, instead of going to the newscaster. Young filmmakers always go for the shot of the TV reporter and it rarely works; by keeping the focus on the woman-in-peril, Gorjestani deepens the mood and mystery. The proposal given to Sonia isn’t insanely different than the eggs-for-sale business that struggling female college students are recruited into, as per Patricia J. Williams’ column in The Nation of Oct. 14. Gorjestani films in the futuristic San Jose City Hall dome and on the VTA transit lines, amped with a touch of hologram, a little kid extra wearing a San Jose Athletics t-shirt. This future, our future, is poorer, drier and more crowded: from the groups of people summering in the driveways escaping the summer heat, to the inside of Sonia’s one bedroom, three roommate apartment.
Gorjestani describes his writing process: “I write a lot of treatments first, and then I tend to write for my own directorial process. The actual dialogue, at first, is much more rigid and on the surface. When I work with my actors, I want them to be very clear what the context is. Ninety percent of the time, I don’t care what they say word for word. I want them to be very clear on what the scene is about, so they’ll add their own text. I write in spurts, write for about 20 minutes and then walk around—there aren’t any rituals.”
Beyond Somehow…, Gorjestani hopes he can help revive a San Jose film commission to go to festivals and recruit filmmakers to bring their productions here—perhaps with the help of the kind of incentives that are currently drawing filmmakers to Louisiana and Michigan. Gorjestani knows the work will be cut out for him, just from having lived in San Francisco: “Ninety percent of the people I meet have never been to San Jose.” He’s looking forward to getting back to the valley. “I’m a big San Jose advocate. It’s a good spot. I hope they can stop in San Jose what’s going on in San Francisco, where no one but the big money can afford to live anymore, driving out the creative people.”
Mo Gorjestani may be just the director to find the beauty and the sadness of the valley, with his dual roots here and in a nation whose cinema is one of the best in the world. I quoted for him the famous comment that Iranian cinema is naturally excellent because it has 4,000 years of storytelling behind it. “Seven thousand!,” he replied.