For Iranian-born actors, Israel’s first Farsi movie carries echo of lost home
AYANOT, Israel — An Iranian-Israeli director and a group of Iranian-born actors are making a movie in Farsi, the language of Iran.
“Baba Joon,” a story of familial conflict between three generations of Iranian Jewish men set to hit theaters next year, is the first Farsi movie ever to be made in Israel.
Set in an Israeli agricultural village settled by Iranian immigrants, the film tells the story of Yitzchak, a Persian Israeli who, like his father, tends a turkey farm in a rural village in the Negev Desert. Yitzchak’s brother, Daryush, has moved to the United States to live a freer life. Their father, Baba Joon, wants to maintain the family’s traditional values while Yitzchak’s son, Moti, struggles with his family’s religious and patriarchal limitations.
“I hope that people start putting their differences aside and accepting their differences,” said Navid Negahban, the Iranian-born American actor who portrays Yitzchak. “I think the film will help. It’s opening a window into a life that most people are unaware of.”
Director Yuval Delshad said he prioritized authenticity in casting “Baba Joon,” choosing actors whose personal stories mirror those of their characters.
David Diaan, who plays Daryush, is an Iranian-born Jew who lives in Los Angeles. Faraj Aliasi, 73, who plays Baba Joon, is a Persian Israeli who, like his character, has lived much of his life in a small Israeli agricultural village. Asher Avrahami, the 13-year-old who plays Moti, is from the same village, the largely Persian town of Zerahia in southern Israel.
“I looked for actors who would be Iranian and would share something in the characters I created,” said Delshad, who also wrote the film. “The world they come from is the world of the story.”
Diaan and Negahban, who also portrays Abu Nazir in the acclaimed Showtime series “Homeland,” worked together on “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” a 2008 film about a woman stoned to death over allegations of infidelity that turned out to be false. Both actors expressed hope that the Iran-Israel conflict would cool down and emphasized the importance of intercultural reconciliation.
“Israel, Iran, Arabs and Jews, Sunni and Shiite [say], ‘We don’t get along, let’s fight,’” Diaan said. “Today it’s a different time. It’s a different age. I’m a good person, you’re a good person, let’s party.”
No one involved with the production admitted to being concerned that tensions between Israel and Iran might affect the movie. Producer David Silber, who worked on the Oscar-nominated 2007 film “Beaufort,” says the film is meant for a wide audience and could even reach Iranian viewers illegally should the regime ban it.
“Like a Greek myth, it’s relevant to every culture,” Silber said. “Maybe there will be a way for [Iranians] to see it. The second it gets to a streaming site they’ll see it, unless the site is blocked.”
Despite being of different religions, generations and nationalities, the actors said they connected with each other over their common Iranian heritage. When Delshad put on a cassette of an Iranian folk song during filming, actors said several members of the cast began crying.
“There is a deep connection that you don’t lose,” Negahban said. “It’s not that you’re still connected 100 percent to where you came from, but you have the place you came from in your heart.”
Negahban and Diaan appear alongside Aliasi and Avrahami, neither of whom had acted before joining “Baba Joon.” Delshad said neither had trouble on the set because the film is set in a village meant to mirror Zerahia.
Much of the movie is now being filmed at Ayanot, a youth village a half-hour north of Zerahia. It’s a tawdry place, with faded brown stucco buildings and patchy grass. Aliasi said the film gets the details of life in Zerahia “exactly” right.
For the actors, many of whom left Iran at a young age, working on the film has been an opportunity to reconnect to their homeland and portray Iranian culture in a warm, if complex, light.
“I grew up in America, but when I do something in Farsi it’s so natural and so second nature to me,” Diaan said. “I lived in Iran until I was 16. We still keep the language alive. It’s still my first language.”