Last night, Washington DC’s Iranian Americans were out in force to support one of their own. Afshin Molavi, esteemed writer (“Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran”) and think-tanker extraordinaire (New America Foundation), who, when not jet-setting around the world to research geo- economic trends in the Middle East, can be seen on CNN delivering polished and accurate analyses on a myriad of international topics, was adding yet another talent to his already impressive resume: documentary feature film producer.
Molavi, along with director and co-producer Karim Chrobog, held an advanced screening for his latest endeavor, the award winning documentary “War Child”, a painfully honest and inspirational story chronicling the life of a Sudanese child soldier, Emmanuel Jal, who, though taken from his home at the young age of seven, and forced into war, has emerged as an international hip-hop star with a message of peace.
Rudi Bakhtiar recently sat down with Molavi to discuss his foray into the movie industry.
Rudi: How did you go from a fellow at the New America Foundation, to producer of an award winning documentary?
Afshin: It all started in Dubai, actually. About three years ago, I was on assignment for National Geographic magazine to write a story on Dubai and held a meeting with a talented, young Dubai-based Egyptian-German director, Karim Chrobog, who was working on a film about Ibn Battuta, the great 14th century Arab explorer. We began talking about the importance of documentary films and I had told him about a vague notion I had about writing a book or making a documentary on hip-hop and globalization. In my travels across the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, I was struck by how fast and deep hip-hop music had traveled around the world. We both were interested also in how global hip-hop music had become a medium to express social marginalization and youthful angst as well as frustration with governments, unlike hip-hop in America that had devolved from its origins as a means of socially conscious expression to a world of “bling, bling” diamonds and champagne that demeans women and extols the virtue of materialism, or, in some cases, glorifies violence.
And so, the journey began right there in Dubai, and Karim and I went back to our respective offices (he in Dubai, me in DC) and we began locating hip-hop artists around the world who could tell us something important about their local musical culture, but also something vital about the political and social conditions of the country they live.
Rudi: When did you first hear about Emmanuel Jal and what made you want to tell his story?
Afshin: I first heard about Emmanuel Jal through a New York Times article that I had read about him. Subsequently, I googled him and read just about everything written about his life and music. His story amazed and touched me. At the age of seven, he was conscripted as a child soldier in Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, carrying an AK-47 into battle while most of us at that age were playing with water guns. He managed to escape, along with thousands of other Sudanese child soldiers by crossing the desert into Ethiopia. This was an incredibly dangerous journey because they had no food and no supplies, and some of the boys simply died of hunger or exhaustion (they are known as the “Lost Boys” of Sudan).
I wanted to tell Emmanuel’s story because it’s a story of triumph amidst terror and it shows us the power of the human spirit. Emmanuel has emerged from hell and has become a thoughtful, intelligent, committed young man who works with Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam, and a whole range of other groups to highlight the plight of child soldiers and promote education in Africa. We also wanted to help Emmanuel spread his message of peace and education. As part of the film’s profits, we are supporting Emmanuel’s foundation, Gua Africa, which aims to build schools in Sudan and supports the education costs of at-risk Sudanese youth in Kenya and Sudan
Rudi: What was Emanuel Jal’s first reaction to you when you proposed the documentary?
Afshin: It’s a funny story, actually. Jal, who grew up fighting against Muslim northerners, told us he was very wary when he received a phone call from someone named “Karim.” Jal often tells the story with a laugh that “someone named Karim with a partner named Afshin wants to tell my story.” He then says with a smile: “no way.” But then, after he got to know Karim and he understood that our intentions were good and that we did not only want to tell his story, but also help his foundation, he grew to trust us, and he accepted our offer, despite the fact that other more established players like the BBC were knocking on his door. Jal, who lives in London now, often says himself that he grew up fighting Muslims and Arabs, but he has the ability to distinguish and not tarnish all for the acts of a few. Frankly, neither Karim (who is Christian) nor I see religion as playing any role in telling this story (or any good story). After all, this is a human story that transcends religion, but Jal’s initial reaction to us and the friendships we have forged with him offer an interesting side note.
Rudi: Did the Iranian American community support your project, even though it had nothing to do with Iran?
Afshin: Yes, the project garnered tremendous support from the Iranian American community….Among the early backers were a few successful Iranian-American doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. They deserve mention here: Dr. Safa Farzin, Mr. Pejman Sharifi, Mr. Reza Ghassebeh, and Mr. Aria Mehrabi. They supported it because they, too, believed in the story. Other Iranian-Americans attended a fundraising and awareness raising event we held in DC. At one point, Emmanuel Jal was so touched by all of the Iranian-Americans he met (most of it orchestrated by Roshanak Ameli- Tehrani, our superstar executive producer as well great support by a close friend of the project, Sogand Zamani), that he pledged to “write a rap about all the cool Iranians in DC” that he met. We’re waiting for the song, but Emmanuel Jal remains deeply touched by the Iranian-Americans he met. This makes me very proud of our community.
Rudi: What were the biggest challenges in putting this documentary together?
Afshin: Funding is, of course, the most difficult challenge of most independent documentaries, especially the sort that we wanted to make, which included filming in Africa, London, and the United States in high quality digital format. Obviously, this was a major challenge, but we managed to overcome it through the support of foundations like the Macarthur Foundation and the Global Fund For Children, as well as investors who believed in the project and were willing to take a risk on it.
The second biggest challenge is finding the right people to join you on this journey. In that, we were very fortunate. We attracted a super-talented director of photography and editor as well as a quartet of skilled and far-sighted executive producers. Dal Lamagna, our lead executive producer, has been a hero to this project, and a continuing source of strength. Lastly, my buddy and “fearless leader” Karim Chrobog kept us all in line and displayed enormous talent and vision for a first time filmmaker. He deserves all the accolades he’s received — and more.
Rudi: What are you hoping to accomplish with this documentary?
Afshin: As with most documentaries, we want the message to be heard widely. In this case, we have three broad messages: first, we want to raise awareness about the plight of child soldiers and the potential for renewed north-south conflict in Sudan far beyond the horrific genocide taking place in western Sudan, in Darfur; second, we want Emmanuel Jal’s life story to be celebrated and his music to be appreciated; third, we want to support Gua Africa in its goal of building a school in Sudan, and supporting at-risk youth. And, of course, it goes without saying that we want the film to be a commercial success.
Rudi: How has this documentary been received in Sudan?
Afshin: It has not yet been seen in Sudan, but many of Emmanuel Jal’s most ardent fans are Sudanese interested in peace, and fellow southern Sudanese in the diaspora. He also has many admirers among former child soldiers living in Europe or America. Many of them are contacting us, eager to learn about the release date (which is not yet decided).
Rudi: Do you think it’s easier to get your message heard through documentaries?
Afshin: I have two answers to this question because I really don’t quite know the answer. J In terms of sheer numbers, there is nothing more powerful than film in reaching masses of people. There’s also something incredibly powerful about the moving image on the screen in a darkened theater and the shared experience of it all. I’m also aware, however, of the enormous challenge of getting documentaries to the big screen and wide distribution on DVD. Hopefully, with new technologies and downloading abilities, more documentaries will make it to audiences.
On the other hand, most of my working life as a journalist has been devoted to the printed word and I remain a devotee of print. There’s something very intimate about the bond between a writer and a reader. The writer spends more time with his reader than a moviemaker with his audience. I know many people who have told me such-and-such book changed my life or dramatically changed my perspective. Movies can do that too, of course, so I guess I’ve come full circle and would say that, “yes, it’s easier to get your message out to large numbers of people” through film if you manage to get it on screen and distributed widely, but it’s not the only way to do it, and the printed word might leave more lasting imprints on people’s minds.
Rudi: Do you have any new projects in the works?
Afshin: I’m very excited about a new venture I’m co-founding alongside Aria Mehrabi, a Los Angeles- based private equity manager who earned his Ph.D. in International Relations. It’s called the Banu Foundation, and it aims to support the work of organizations around the world that are empowering women either through literacy programs, education, microfinance, or myriad other ways.
Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, where he writes on globalization, economic development, Middle East affairs, the “New Silk Road”, Iran, and Persian Gulf economies. He is the author of Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran, which was nominated for the Thomas Cook literary travel book of the year and described by Foreign Affairs as “a brilliant tableau of today’s Iran.”
Molavi has covered the Middle East and Washington for a wide range of publications based in Riyadh, Dubai, Jeddah, Washington and Tehran. His articles and essays have appeared in the Financial Times, the New York Times, Businessweek, the Washington Post, National Geographic, Foreign Affairs, and numerous academic publications. He has appeared on CNN, the BBC, NPR and other broadcast outlets to deliver analysis on a variety of Middle east-related issues. He was recently selected by the World Economic Forum in Davos as a young global leader.
Molavi is also on the Board of Directors of the Parsa Community Foundation, an inspiring group of Iranian-Americans who are engaged in strategic philanthropy targeting Iranian-American issues.
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