Iranian Diaspora Spotlight: Bay Area Filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani and His Mission to Tell the Stories of the Marginalized, the Vulnerable, and the Resilient

By Shahriyar Najafgholizadeh 

Unlike some Iranian immigrants who moved to the United States in the aftermath of the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, with wealth or a plan for higher education, Mohammad Gorjestani’s family left Iran abruptly and with very little. Gorjestani’s parents, both artists with humble beginnings, fled Iran as a result of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, when he was four. They spent a year in Turkey in a small room before receiving asylum to the United States and ending up San Jose, California. Gorjestani, now a successful filmmaker (evenoddfilms.com), vividly remembers, as a small boy, watching his parents “taping up windows” and his family taking shelter with their neighbors in their apartment complex’s communal basement to wait out the airstrikes. Gorjestani’s childhood was marked by his family’s struggles of leaving Iran and finding the support of friends in another country. After eight months of living in a spare room of their family friend’s home in San Jose, Gorjestani’s parents “worked enough odd jobs to afford their own apartment in the same complex where they had been staying”—the locally notorious San Jose Gardens. Gorjestani recollects his childhood with a smile, “like most kids from my neighborhood, I did not know I was poor until I got older in life” he says. Gorjestani says those experiences shaped him as well as his view of US society, and were a big part of his identity. They have influenced the kind of stories he wants to portray in his films and tell in his other media projects. 

Among the stories that were particularly powerful to Gorjestani are those about marginalized people in US society. His efforts to shine a spotlight on the stories of immigrants, refugees, and people facing economic adversity, has brought him national and international recognition and awards, including from the Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW Film Festival, The Cannes Lions, and he was names to Filmmaker Magazine’s coveted 25 New Faces of Independent Film. That experience of framing the stories of the marginalized is depicted in his 2014 film “Refuge.” Set in 2020, ironically, “Refuge” explores the fictional story of Sonia, a young Iranian activist, journalist, and a refugee on the verge of deportation in the US, and specifically, in San Jose. Cyber-attacks on the US Immigration and Naturalization database result in questions of the validity of many green card holders, including Sonia and other Bay Area Iranian immigrants. Troubled and fearful of her future, Sonia finds herself at a critical juncture. To avoid deportation back to Iran, where she would be in danger of persecution for her political activism, she is forced to consider a biomedical research institute’s bargain to maintain her residency. Targeting her vulnerability, and her need to remain in the country, a Silicon Valley biomedical research group seizes on the opportunity to exploit Sonia for its technological interests. The film is an eerie conflation of issues that Gorjestani must have foreseen for this moment—the economics of science, biotech, and the vulnerability of immigrants and refugees used as rats by the system in experiments in this country. What Gorjestani depicts so well and almost foreshadows, in “Refuge,” is the particular ways that Iranian Americans are an ongoing target because of the larger situation of US-Iran relations. One scene in the film depicts a confusing and alarming San Jose city council hearing in which Iranians, like his father (who actually makes an appearance in his film), are sitting in a City Council meeting hearing about the rules and regulations that might result in widespread deportation. This short film is a must-see, and since its initial success, Gorjestani has chosen to expand it into a feature-length film (it originally aired on “Future States” on PBS).

Like his other various film and media projects, Gorjestani draws on and reflects his personal experience of growing up marginalized, among those who struggle and who sustain a kind of resilience and community. But he also turns a critical lens on some of the ways that assimilation and, the difficult choices immigrants have to make, overshadow their lives. His firsthand experienced growing up in the working class, immigrant neighborhoods of Silicon Valley, have shaped his view of US society, and they are integral to the stories he continues to want to tell. 

“What you learn from the kind of neighborhood I grew up in is that you’re going to spend most of your time (when you don’t have money to go traveling or to shop) on the streets around your neighborhood. Hopefully, you have the opportunity to play some kind of sport or have a deterrent for trouble. I was pretty athletic and my dad encouraged sports as well, so athletics became a place where I found a lot of my identity.” Gorjestani eventually excelled in wrestling, a sport that drew him to some aspects of his Iranian heritage, and it gave him a certain pride in practicing such a traditional sport. However, “growing up on the margins of the Silicon Valley Iranian diaspora,” Gorjestani says, gave him “a critical ‘socio-economic’ lens onto Iranians in the community in the South Bay.”

Gorjestani’s worldview is that “we live in an economic world.” His work strives to communicate “what happens when you are not accepted; not only by the place that you’ve been forced to come to, but also when economic status makes you not even accepted by your own community. And, it all goes back to capitalism; the idea of the caste system. The idea that your status is tied to your wealth, which decides where you stand in society and what opportunities you have and what risks you can take.”

Instead of making documentaries about successful Iranians in the US, and those who are often singled out for their contributions to the technology sector, Gorjestani wants to show some of the ironies and challenges that confront those who are marginalized, but don’t fully understand what it does to them and to those in their communityBy choosing this storytelling emphasis, he says, he does not want “to trivialize any individual’s accomplishments. But I want to do what I think art should do, and that is to speak for those who have the least amount of power, whose voices are cut off,” Gorjestani says. “I wholeheartedly believe(s), as a culture, that Iranians have a legacy of making art for the underrepresented, and that we make art for the marginalized. We speak, we create. What is poetry? What is dance? What is culture? It’s a wealth created often by who don’t worship money. I mean, that’s how I’ve always seen it,” he adds. That message, and those influences, Gorjestani’s hopes, are interwoven and projected into his body of work. Gorjestani points to the success of many Iranians as a kind of indicator of their resourcefulness and energy to do and make things, but he also is critical of the tendency of some to view themselves as “exceptional” or the “model minority.” He adds, “A person can also be poor and has the right to be here, and to become an American.” Gorjestani feels strongly that an immigrant’s class background must not be the means to judge, marginalize, or reject. One inevitably draws parallels between the current state and concerns about immigrants in our society as a result of policies by the Trump administration—it’s almost uncanny. Immigrants fall victim to the larger ongoing geopolitical conflicts. They are a part of the society, yet they exist in the shadows and on the margins.

Gorjestani is critical of model minority myths that have followed the Iranian community over the decades. “I’ve had more support, especially when I was starting out, outside of the Iranian community for my work than inside. There has been some great support from the community, but also an equal amount of ‘haters’ and resistance,” he says. Some of his discomfort with the Iranian diaspora is a reflection of the idea of being an ‘obedient minority.’ He sees himself more aligned with working people of color in US because of where and how he grew up. “For a lot of reasons, rooted in wanting to be accepted, status, and, honestly, trauma, there are a lot of Iranians who don’t challenge the racist origins in this country and the continued discrimination born from the legacy of oppressing people both domestically and abroad for capitalist gain.” To him, “it’s a more natural progression for us Iranian Americans to be much more aligned with the black and brown communities, because the origins of why we are here are rooted in the same oppressive political and social mechanisms.”

For Gorjestani growing up in the Iranian diaspora community has been a bit of a “love-hate” relationship. He says he has observed marginalization within the Iranian diaspora community firsthand. He believes such divisions come from the collective traumas that Iranians have gone through, but have not fully processed. “We tend to compensate for our pain, our hurt, or marginalization by trying to achieve social and financial status.” 

Gorjestani encourages young Iranian-American filmmakers to pursue the stories that “crack any monolithic ideas of our community and to explore all facets of identity, even beyond just heritage and culture.” To learn more about Gorjestani and his acclaimed film “Refuge,” as well as his other film projects, visit his film studio’s website: evenoddfilms.com. We are so grateful to Mohammad Gorjestani for his participation in our conference, “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” in March 2019. You can view several interviews with him on our YouTube channel as well as view the film panel on which spoke at our March 2019 conference, “Forty Years & More: International Conference on Iranian Diaspora Studies” 

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