By Joei Villarama
Every night Hossein tucks his three children into bed, he asks them for a word each which he would then weave into a story, all the while recording it on his iPod. Amassing quite a collection of impromptu tales, he and his wife plan to publish it someday in three languages: Persian, English and Chinese. After 34 years in Iran and 13 years in America, Hossein Khandan has just recently come to China to live here for a planned five years or more, soaking up the culture and continuing his full-length love affair with filmmaking.
It’s unusual to hear somebody say outright, fresh from the plane that he’ll surely be staying in China for more than five years as people state one or two years but for the Iranian-American director, anything less than that wouldn’t suffice to deeply absorb the abundance of the place.
Merely six months living in Tianjin, he has already started filming a documentary about Tanggu’s Shine Home which is a center for mentally and physically handicapped children. He is editing a short film about a calligraphy artist who elegantly, with sweeping power, writes Chinese characters on the pavement using water. Last weekend, Hossein was introduced to the fast-disappearing Hutongs in Beijing and with passion, raves about capturing on film what could be demolished tomorrow. Next week, try talking to him and he’d be sharing a video about another uniquely only-in-China experience for future generations to appreciate.
Shine Home was introduced to Hossein by a long-time friend from Chicago who is teaching in China and he was immediately drawn to the story of Mr. Wang, the Home’s founder who has a son afflicted with Down syndrome. When his son was three years old, Mr. Wang couldn’t cope with the pressure and hardships that came with being a parent of an abnormal child that he attempted to jump off a building together with his child. At that moment when he was about take the plunge, the life-changing epiphany came and he eventually vowed to establish a center where parents like him can get help in caring for special children like his son.
Another dream project he’d like to work on in China is a feature film on two cousins, one living in Beijing and the other in Kashgar and as the story unfolds, the gap in lifestyle between East and West is highlighted. The stark comparison becomes the organic background for a simple love story. To prepare for this major undertaking, Hossein is speeding up learning the language, taking two-hour private Chinese lessons three times a week.
As a young journalist in Iran, Hossein has always been drawn to stories where people serve as an inspiration to others such as the Japanese woman who excelled in Persian calligraphy even without speaking the language. By telling her story, Hossein hopes other people will also find in themselves the courage to pursue and master a craft despite the obstacles.
When the world of film opened up to Hossein, he found in it a way for his voice to be heard, for him to reach more people than the published word can access. In Iran the circulation of books was quite low and so when his first film, made possible by a summer workshop, was screened and seen by 5,000 people, he got hooked on a medium that he wisely chose to study over Hydrology.
Following his passion took him to Chicago as he participated in a festival of films from Iran and decided to stay in America where he met his wife. In Iran, he proposed some scripts which were rejected by the Minister of Culture but in America, the challenge was getting funding for non-commercial releases. He would sustain himself by making wedding videos on the side but he never stopped creating films that drew people’s attention to certain problems of society and issues on identity and culture. In a film called Chrysalis, an Iranian woman is forced to hide her language and culture to avoid alienating American customers in the beauty salon where she works.
Probably, easily the most talked about film that Hossein has done is called the American Burqa where three women living and working in Chicago were videotaped going about their daily activities while wearing the unwieldy attire, inviting stares and glares from people during a culturally sensitive time only months after 9/11. The Burqa is a piece of cloth that conceals the entire body including the face and is usually worn by women under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
One of the women who wore the Burqa was a painter who said of the experience, “You can’t see the world in its beauty and clarity.” She was caught by the police while driving too slowly because she couldn’t see where she was going through the blue veil. Another was denied the simple right of eating in a restaurant while another struggled bravely to teach the Flamenco dance to students who couldn’t see her arms and legs.
Hossein said that he wanted to use the medium of film to “express the suffering of these women.” Watching the docu drama, gives people only a glimpse and a minute morsel of what the women who actually have to wear the burqa go through their whole life. However it is a glimpse of discomfort and pain that makes us think about violations to the human spirit.
Hossein’s dream in China is to start a film festival on the theme of immigrants that would showcase works about or by immigrants and since he lives in TEDA, he thinks this is something the special economic zone can hold to give it a cultural shot in the arm. Viewing himself as a global citizen rather than an American-passport holding Iranian, he sees the places where he has lived and is living in as contiguous neighbourhoods in a single village. Whichever neighbourhood he’s situated at, he will aim his eye and train his camera on stories that cannot deny our shared humanity.
By Joei Villarama