Having found success in U.S., Iranian Jews turn to show biz


LOS ANGELES –The generation of Persian Jews who escaped Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution with their parents and traded a fearful existence for lives in New York and Los Angeles are now emerging in the entertainment industry.

Whether it’s producing Oscar-winning films, appearing on prime-time network television series or performing stand-up comedy, young Jews of Iranian heritage have been breaking with their community’s traditional norms and leaving their imprint on Hollywood.

Perhaps the most notable success came this year when Iranian Jewish film producer Bob Yari’s independent film “Crash” won the Best Picture Oscar and generated $93 million in worldwide sales.

“I had a gut feeling that it would be something special, but you never know, so I was hoping and my hopes came to fruition,” said Yari, 44, whose four production companies have backed 25 films in three years.

Yari made his fortune in real-estate development, but he’s no novice when it comes to Hollywood: After receiving a degree in cinematography, he directed the 1989 film “Mind Games” for MGM. The litigation involved in the film and its lack of success drove Yari away from the industry until four years ago, when he began producing.

“I’m always interested in telling stories that I think touch people and mean something to people,” he said. “One of the things that’s always attracted me to film is its power to influence people to put aside their prejudices or judging people based on their heritage or color of skin.”

Yari is not the only Iranian Jew doing well in Hollywood. Nightclub and hotel entrepreneur Sam Nazarian, 30, is financing and producing films through his L.A.-based SBE Entertainment Group.

His production company Element Films has produced five films so far and anticipates producing up to a dozen a year, each budgeted at less than $15 million, according to the Internet Movie Database Web site.

Young Iranian Jews also have been writing and directing independent features. Prior to forming her own production company, Azita Zendel worked for four years as an executive assistant to Oliver Stone and collaborated with him on films including “JFK,” “Nixon” and “Natural Born Killers.”

“I guess I have stories inside of me that need to be told, and I just love the work,” the New York-based Zendel said. “God knows it’s not an easy route but I really couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

The movie she wrote, produced and directed, the 2003 independent film “Controlled Chaos,” won rave reviews upon its theatrical release as well as best feature awards from Winfemme Film Festival and the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

Some Iranian Jewish filmmakers are trying to parlay their success to tell their own cultural narratives. Soly Haim, a Los Angeles-based independent producer, is seeking financing for a documentary about how Iranian Jews helped Jews flee Iraq in the middle of the 20th century.

“Documentaries are hard to get financing for because, unlike films, documentaries usually go for television broadcasts, and the revenues generated do not match the revenues generated from feature films,” said Haim, 44.

In the meantime, Haim’s production company, Screen Magic Entertainment, recently completed shooting the independent film “When A Man Falls In The Forest,” starring Sharon Stone and Timothy Hutton.

Slated for release in early 2007, the film revolves around an unhappily married woman who shoplifts to relieve the suffering brought on by her boring marriage and to find excitement in a small Midwestern town.

Yari, for his part, said he’s looking to develop a feature film about the events that led to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the collapse of the shah’s regime.

The acting bug has also bitten a number of young Iranian Jews. The best-known to emerge in recent years is Bahar Soomekh, who made her film debut in “Crash” in the role of a young Iranian woman named Dorri.

“It’s really scary with acting because there is no guarantee,” said Soomekh, 31, who lives in Los Angeles. “It’s so different than anything else because in the corporate world you do something and you see your success, but with acting you could go to audition after audition and 90 percent of the time there is rejection.”

Since “Crash,” Soomekh has landed roles in other major films including “Syriana,” opposite George Clooney, and “Mission: Impossible 3” with Tom Cruise.

Another Iranian Jewish actor, Jonathan Ahdout, 16, was a regular last season on the Fox television series “24,” playing the role of a young Iranian terrorist.

“My biggest fear is becoming typecast as the Muslim Middle Easterner because I think society today has their sights set on the Middle East, and it’s become a much bigger part of American culture,” said Ahdout, who lives in Los Angeles. “I don’t want to necessarily fuel any type of stereotype.”

Ahdout made his acting debut three years ago in the acclaimed film “House of Sand and Fog,” alongside Oscar-winners Jennifer Connelly and Sir Ben Kingsley, a film about an Iranian family in the United States.

New Yorker Dan Ahdoot is another Iranian Jewish entertainer who defied his community’s traditions. Six years ago, Ahdoot almost entered medical school, but — to his family’s chagrin — decided to take a shot at comedy first.

“My whole family was basically against it, but I used that as a motivation to prove them wrong,” said Ahdoot, who hails from the Iranian Jewish enclave of Great Neck, Long Island, New York. “Life is too short and you have to take risks. That’s basically what I did, and thank God it’s paying off.”

Ahdoot’s routine about life as a second-generation Iranian-American landed him a spot as a finalist on the 2004 season of NBC’s reality show “Last Comic Standing,” as well as awards from national comedy competitions. He’s currently touring the country doing his routine at various colleges and universities.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in our community. After my TV appearances I’ve received e-mails from other Iranian Jews saying ‘I’m a lawyer or a doctor and I don’t want to do this anymore,’ ” said Ahdoot, 27.

Ahdoot said many Iranian Jewish families push their children toward higher education and conventional careers rather than entertainment. While that’s common in any ethnic group, Iranian Jewish parents are particularly concerned about financial security because so many were forced to leave behind their life savings when they fled Iran, Ahdoot said.

“Education is almost as important as money in our community because it’s something no one can take away from you,” Ahdoot said. “Most parents in the community believe that ‘we came here with nothing and we built this, so you’re supposed to carry the torch and don’t go down.’ “