An Interview with Amir "Whale" Motlagh

As he mentioned last night at Indie Features 06, Amir Motlagh is at work on a feature film titled "Whale" and one of his short films will be playing in San Francisco soon. I interviewed Amir last year re: his prolific yet for the moment relatively unknown career in indie film (that'll change when "Whale" gets done).

Interview from February 2005. First published in Sujewa's DIY Filmmaker Webzine.


Amir Motlagh's filmography as writer/director includes the films "Dino Adino", "Lover @ 11:47" and "Still Lover". In 2004 he added to this output by finishing two beautifully hand crafted documentaries titled "Pumkin Little" and "My Break Ups Into A Million Pieces", both set for release in 2005. The first three films have played in over 30 festivals and film related shows, winning five awards including an Audience Award at DancesWithFilms 2003, Best of the Fest at YardFest 2003, Outstanding Lead Actor WestFest 2003 and two Audience Awards at Friday Night Shorts. His film "Still Lover" was also named Top Ten AtomFilms of 2004 and is going on an 18 city world tour in 2005. Motlagh recently released a lo-fi 6 part video series titled "Lessons in Self-Destruction". This filmmaker is a trained actor and holds a BA degree in Psychology from UCLA. As a part of his 2005 tour Motlagh will make a stop at Washington, D.C.'s Capital City Microcinema on April 21 to present his film "Still Lover" and offer a special preview screening of "My Break Ups Into A Million Pieces". Interview conducted by DC DIY filmmaker Sujewa Ekanayake in February 2005.

Sujewa: Hi Amir, thanks for doing this interview. Why did you become a filmmaker and how did you become a filmmaker? What formats do you use, 16 MM, DV, etc.?

Amir: Well, that's a tricky question. I can't really answer the why to that question. Maybe I can reply with a why not? I've had an ambivalent relationship with film for many years. Some films and images have stayed in my head, and have always hurt me emotionally, or caused a deep understanding of my own struggles. Sometimes I can't escape the cinema, and feel that my own life has really turned into a film of sorts, a beautiful one, that's slow moving and has a pretty young man, isolated, and affected who thinks he's going nowhere as his social anxieties climax to a bitter revelation with a soundtrack that I performed, and then during the ultra late inciting event the character meets this enigmatic woman who destroys his heart by drinking every night at the local bars and destroying both their lives with her devil may care attitude. That sounds good doesn't it, but it's sad, no ? The other side being that I can barely watch most movies these days. The insincerity in most films is a disease. In terms of format, what suits the film first, what is realistic, and how fast I want to create the piece, meaning, the aesthetic consideration of the project is the first consideration for format and then, the reality and costs of production. Artists generaly shoot with anything they can get there hands on, while professionals will wait for exactly what they want, although they compromise the urgency of the film. I tend to side with the artists. To deem DV as soulless as many still do is laughable. DV has aesthetic merits and potentials yet to be realized in full and is damn beautiful.

Sujewa: How many movies have you made so far? Can you give a synopsis of each one, or as many as you feel like talking about at the moment?

Amir: I have made five films ranging in length from 5min. to 40min. and a six part video art series, and a feature fiction in development and a feature treatment in the future. Barely anything but a whisper in the wind.

And here are their obligatory synopses:

"Dino Adino": Dino is turning 23 and his friends decide to document it. Although he dreams of a life as a graphic artist, much is revealed about his conflicted character as the night goes on in the growing suburb of Irvine California.

"Love @ 11:47": A film about the obsessions that drive three characters into uncontrollable action as the clock turns to 11:47 PM in a place and time like any other.

"Still Lover" : A man, a woman, life and love one shot at a time.

"Pumkin Little": "And we shall dance to see another day", A documentary about a young Filipino American searching for himself, as a sea of labels (gangster, break dancer, student, boyfriend, son, Asian, American) proves his struggles and hopes.

"Lessons in Self-Destruction" #01-#06: A six part epic into things that lead to joy and hypertension.

"My Break Ups Into A Million Pieces": A short documentary about the daughter of the Filipino Fine Artist Santiago Bose, as she tries to escape the memory of her father after his death. She ventures to a strange new land (Southern California) and copes with the myth of Americana, while rediscovering all the beauties of life.

"Whale": My first fiction feature. That you will have to wait to hear about.

Sujewa: Which general area of the world do you live and is there an indie film scene there in your town/city/village? How about an indie/punk rock scene? Is it easy or difficult being an indie filmmaker where you live? Is it easy for you to find collaborators to make the movies & also is it easy for you to get publicity for your screenings?

Amir: Right now I live in Orange County, California. Did you say an indie film scene? I also lived in Los Angeles for five years. Everyone makes movies there, lots of shitty films and there are lots of egocentric people running around talking about getting so and so signed on their project and how everyone is in pre-production and so and so is financing the film. Just general bullshit, so yeah, not much else but hype. Of course, there are lots of really talented people doing interesting things, but they don't get much press. Those are the types that unfortunately resist making the calling card type of film. Everything in this area is a little tougher because of the shear volume of productions. In terms of an indie scene in music, yes in Los Angeles, particularly the east side, many many good bands. In Orange County, a few good bands. Orange County has always been a hub for punk rock. The surf, skate punk. When I was growing up, I was the only Persian kid skating, surfing and snowboarding it seemed and so it was pretty amazing. Before that I was a B-Boy in a crew called OSB (old school beats) going to West Coast Roc Steady Crew practices and battling all the local crews at house parties, in the streets and malls. I was always looking for my identity. Music was big in my life and still is.

Sujewa: I saw your movie "Still Lover", liked it a lot, how did that movie come about? Who is the actress in that movie and what were some of her thoughts about the movie - the process of making it and reaction to the finished product? A short film made up of still photos is relatively unusual, but after a while I felt that the still photos were kind of moving or alive, full of moving people who spoke, like a scene in most movies.

Amir: Thanks, it generally is the film most liked out of my catalogue for some reason or another. I guess it has the most universality to it, using the phrase, "personal to universal". But when most people like something, you have to be suspicious, so I feel somewhat reluctant to accept the praise. That film is somewhat difficult for me to revisit. It was practically a response to my own relationship with the subject in the film. The actress, if she could be called that, was a girlfriend in the making. One day I showed up at her house at 6 AM armed with my old Nikon 35mm SLR, some slide film, a soft light, a tripod, and a hi8 camera and started shooting photos without telling her what I was doing. I followed her around and shot a day in her life from sun up to down, limiting the location to her house. I few weeks later, drinking at a bar by myself, I scribbled the narrative on a napkin and I had a film. Next I composed the music and recorded it with my sound man Reza Pormansor and production was done. The film moves fluidly I believe. That was really one of the goals. She was my first real love, and I think it's strange to have that captured for both her and I. It creates an extra dynamic. I thank her for the openness and trust, letting me examine those feelings in a time before we really knew each other. I can only wish her the best now, since we don't talk anymore. I edited that film at a small studio space at Cal Arts that was lived in by my friend Tuan Andrew Nguyen. I lived in this tiny space for a few weeks, with no air conditioner, it was about 100 degrees everyday in Valencia, CA. It was a wonderful time because all the students were playing music and partying like crazy with these art punk bands performing in small studios all night long. It was chaotic, and frustrating at times, but we finished it and all the kids would come in and check it out.

Sujewa: What's the full & official title of the movie that I keep referring to as "...Thousand Pieces...", and tell us about that movie - what's it about, why did you make it?

Amir: The title is "My Break Ups Into A Million Pieces". The film was partly made because I felt I needed to finish the migration pattern first questioned in my documentary "Pumkin Little". In that film, my main subject was a Filipino who was born in the US, and was a male, and in "My Break Ups" the main subject is a Filipina who was born in the Philippines and migrates here to discover a new life. Instead of delving head first into my own situation, these films were a mechanism to make some sense of my own perspectives while observing others, capturing their joys and struggles. What I love most is that I constructed two films about relatively normal people. They aren't famous, and there is nothing sensational. Its all about aesthetics, honesty and intimacy. Maybe I was in a proletarian phase, who knows? My next film is about an Iranian American and these film experiences help that. But the making of the film came about in a peculiar way. I was recording an EP with my two man band Shanks and the Dreamers at Bassland studios in Santa Ana, CA. There, I meet Lilledeshan one late night after her ex-band was rehearsing, and we got into some argument about literature (I didn't know she was a writer). Well, my "Tentative Years" DVD was in the studio and she watched it one night, (because she lived there) and called me about getting some help on making a film of her own from a short story she had wrote and published a few years back called "Break Up Stories". After spending some time and hanging out, she invited me to this vigil she was doing for her father. When I went and saw what she had organized, the work of her father Santiago Bose and her sincerity and intelligence, I was going to make a film. And it so happened that it would complete my documentary cycle as well. I see myself working in the fiction mode for some time though.

Sujewa: What do you think about the current relationship between the US & Iran (since you have roots in Iran)? If you've been to Iran, tell us about it, do we get a full & accurate picture of that country through our media coverage?

Amir: I was born in New Mexico and immediately moved to Iran. I lived there until I was 6 or 7 during the Iraq-Iran war. I remember the sirens going off in the city and running into the bomb shelter at the bottom of the apartment building. We could see explosions like fireworks. The elders would try to laugh it of and amuse us, telling us that it was just for fun. I thought "shit, then why did we have to run to the bottom of the building with the cockroaches"? I also went back about 10 years ago to visit my grandmother. My head was shaved for being at a party by some rough neck type police with a bunch of other kids that were only trying to enjoy their sex drives. What's wrong with being young and horny anyway? These experiences are always enjoyable in hindsight. I believe that we get as accurate a view as we can from any media. Media operates under a set of beliefs implicit to the place they hold loyalties. Iran is a beautiful country with deep history and wonderful poets, intellectuals, artist, and filmmakers, but is a completely problematic state that I fortunately do not belong to.

Sujewa: Feel free to talk about anything that you want to communicate to other humans in this world at this point in time, on any topic at all. Thanks.

Amir: What has become of our intellect? Evolution is self-destructive, as humans, since we tend to continue to destroy the ones that don't look and feel like our own. Be nice, kind and offer a smile sometimes. Or, if you don't like me, don't fucking pretend to.

Sujewa: Are you excited about your upcoming multi-city US tour [note: now past, this interview was conducted in Feb '05]? Tell us more about it - dates, places, the movies that you will show, all the specifics.

Amir: I rarely show my excitement about anything on the surface. The tour is in the works. Exact dates can't be expected of me, since I have a new film I'm working on. The films that will be screening are "Pumkin Little" and "My Break Ups Into A Million Pieces" in a small "preview screening tour" with about 15 dates. I also hope to have some festival dates for "My Break Ups Into A Million Pieces" and "Pumkin Little", individually. My video series "Lessons in Self-Destruction" has a few dates and "The Tentative Years" with my three films "Still Lover," "Love @ 11:47" and "Dino Adino" has some shows in a few galleries. And others, like Capitol City Microcinema are mixed shows with other filmmakers. I'm flexible. I will compile an up to date tour schedule on my website Oh, and word on the streets is that "Still Lover" will be going on an 18 city International tour in May 2005. These are the variables. What is for certain are the first five shows including RatPoweredFilms in Santa Ana, CA March 4th, Pusod in Berkley, CA March 19th, Anthology Film Archives in NY April 20th and Capitol City Microcinema in DC April 21st, 2005. I'll have more dates in the upcoming days and weeks.

Sujewa: How can people get in touch with you, purchase/see your work?

Amir: Easy, check out my website or or my upcoming site that will list my complete catalogue under my years as "A Year Alive Films". You can buy some of my films directly from me and they are available on some web stores, but it's always better to buy directly from the artist. You can always reach my company phone at: 310.951.4884
Or mail to:
A Year Alive
attn: Amir Motlagh
9 Coromande
Irvine, CA 92614

Thanks Amir!