Filmmaker Jasmin Mozaffari ended the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sunday with her short film Motherland named the best Canadian film in the festival's Short Cuts program.
Motherland is a captivating story set around the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, when a man named Babak (Behtash Fazlali) goes to meet his fiancée's parents and must face the harsh reality of what it means to be an Iranian immigrant.
The idea for Motherland came from a personal place, based on the story of her parents.
"My dad came from Iran in late '78, '79 to the U.S.," Mozaffari explained to Yahoo Canada. "So it was a very tumultuous time for my father and then eventually he left and came to Canada, ... partly because there was so much threat to Iranian people on the ground in the U.S. during this time."
"They were facing threats of deportation. They were getting assaulted. The FBI was raiding their dorms. My film just touches on a very small part of all the chaos that was happening for them. ... But my mom, ... her parents wouldn't speak to my mom for two years when they realized she was marrying an Iranian person. So there's all this to draw upon from that was the inspiration."
Mozaffari added that as an Iranian-Canadian filmmaker, she's aware that there isn't a lot of representation in North American films.
"Iranian films are amazing, ... but in terms of what stories affect us on the ground here, there's not a lot yet," Mozaffari said. "So I wanted to make a film that had representation about us that wasn't from the same perspective Ben Affleck took when he made Argo."
"I wanted to make a film by Iranians, for Iranians, and also for Canadians and North Americans to realize this is what happened."
'These are the representations we have of Iranian diaspora, and they're terrible'
In November 1979, Islamist students seized the U.S. embassy in Iran's capital city, more than 60 hostages were taken, most of them held for 444 days.
The root of the crisis stem back to the 1953 coup. Orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence service, prime minister Muhammad Mossadegh was deposed because he was going to nationalize the oil industry. The new leader, Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, benefitted U.S. and British oil industry, in exchange for foreign aid, including the Shah going to the U.S. for cancer treatment.
"1979 is where this misinformation about Middle Eastern people began, with this hostage crisis," Mozaffari said. "This was the moment where the North American media villainized Middle Eastern people and that has continued to this day."
"It was that, then it was after 9/11, then it was Trump with the Muslim ban. ... For me it was really important to upend and reclaim the narratives that have been told by other people. Some of the worst representations of Iranian people on screen are films like House of Sand and Fog, which won multiple Academy Awards and honestly is quite offensive when I watch it. I can't believe that got made. Then same with Argo and same with Not Without My Daughter, which is an older film, but these are the representations we have of Iranian diaspora, and they're terrible."
When it came to making Motherland, Mozaffari and the rest of the film's crew had an "extreme focus" on authenticity for the 1970s.
"So we decided to shoot on 16-millimetre film, first of all, because I wanted to capture that era properly," Mozaffari said. "We were referencing '70s American cinema first and foremost, so films like Serpico, which is referenced in the film, Coppola films."
"The costume designer I worked with, Mara Zigler, she was very adamant about not looking at movies, but looking at real people. So she looked at my father's photographs, my mother's photographs and just pulled from there and said, 'What are people actually wearing?'"
Gap in Canada's financial support for filmmakers
In terms of any plans Mozaffari has to extend the story of Motherland into a feature film, the filmmaker shared that she's been writing a feature since 2019 that touches on this topic, with the timeline starting in 1979 but moving in time until 2003.
Mozaffari said that Canada has a great grant system for making short films, but when it comes to feature films, she noticed that things are a bit different.
When Mozaffari made her 2018 film Firecrackers, she had for $250,000 for 18 days on a Telefilm Talent to Watch program. She said it's great that Canada has strong support for first-time filmmakers, but that's not the same when it comes to a second feature.
"When it comes to making your second feature, the money and the funding for that, there's not a significant difference between the first and the second," Mozaffari said. "So it gives me a bit of pause because I'm like, I want to make something that feels like growth, ... but also I need the financial support for that."
"I don't know how easy it is to navigate that landscape and actually get enough money to make something that feels different than your first, in terms of scale. I haven't ... gone out and tried to finance a second feature yet, that hasn't happened, I've got development money for my second feature, but not production funds. But I do worry about how minimal the funding is."
Mozaffari actually won a Canadian Screen Award back in 2019, but highlighted that even with that notable award in the country, she still feels like she was "left in the dark" in terms of funding for a second feature.
"My question is, so what do awards mean?" Mozaffari said. "It just makes me lose faith in the industry.
"What I am hopeful for is the amount of people who are BIPOC or queer making films now, there's a lot more voices now than there ever has been before. That excites me. But I think we're going hit a wall because all these filmmakers who make first features, that's great, but what about their second? Are they going to be able to get the right financing for that?"
So what do awards mean? ... It just makes me lose faith in the industry.