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An Interview with: Jahangir Golestan-Parast and Ryan Blake Co-directors and Producers of the film: “John and the Pahlavan”

March 20, 2019 by  

By Brian H Appleton

Perhaps the place to start is to define the word Pahlavan. It goes back to Persian antiquity and meant warrior hero; not just victorious in battle and in wrestling but also a moral exemplar, a leader known for generosity, self-abrogation, humility, fairness and for standing up to unjust rulers. Today in common parlance it means champion athlete but is still carries with it all these other connotations.

The following is a synopsis of the film by their script writer Steven Fischer:
“John & The Pahlavan”, written by Steven Fischer, Co- Produced and Directed by Jahangir (John) Golestan and Ryan Blake.
When Jahangir Golestan-Parast was 17-years-old he left his family, his friends, and childhood memories of his father’s Zurkhaneh. Like most teenagers, the naive Jahangir was looking ahead and eager to shake off the dust of ancient Persia and embrace the West. He immigrated from Esfahan to London and started identifying as “John” (to fit in and, he’d hoped, avoid prejudice). Following his lifelong plan, John leap frogged to Los Angeles where he studied filmmaking at UCLA to follow in the tradition of the Hollywood idols that inspired his odyssey. It seemed he’d won his dream, but it didn’t fulfill the way he imagined. After 18 years away from Iran, John found his attention more focused on what he had lost: his Persian roots. 

In 2016, United World Wrestling brought an international world cup tournament to Los Angeles. Curious, Jahangir went looking to reconnect with his past and was immediately filled with a sense of pride and longed for a better understanding of his heritage. Recounting Iran’s history through the success of Iran’s national wrestling team, Jahangir started a personal cinematic crusade to reconnect with his home at a time when the United States stepped up its long- running suspicion of anything Middle Eastern. Jahangir’s personal interest to simply celebrate his native culture turned into a social effort to help audiences find understanding about Iran, dispel stereotype, and see the cultural beauty he almost forgot. 

Forget what you know about Iran in the media and learn about its past and people through the eyes of the Pahlavan. Did you know Persian politeness is seen as an art form? Do you know Iranian-Americans held a vigil after 9/11? Have you ever heard of Gholamreza Takhti? 

In his father’s zurkhaneh, a strength house where pahlavani wrestlers exercise, Jahangir recalls how the wrestlers would greet him by bowing reverently. That simple act of respect made a spiritual imprint that still influences him and motivates this production. “John & The Pahlavan” follows Jahangir, now aged 66, as he plans a return to Esfahan to re-unite with family, explore the path of the Pahlavan wrestler, and find truth in a home he has almost forgotten. Through film, Jahangir discovered a chance to thank his parents for the love he was just now realizing they had given him all those years ago. Jahangir explores the nature of the pahlavan and asks: What can we learn from the pahlavan and how might we apply it to the conflict in our daily life?

Our story follows a 3-year journey in which Jahangir studies wrestlers in the U.S. and in Iran sharing with audiences inspiring pahlavan-like stories of the legendary Gholamreza Takhti and testimonies from American wrestlers like World Champions Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Syndser. Our goal is to create a documentary that influences a new way Western audiences: see the sport of wrestling; understand Persian culture and share in one man’s heartfelt journey to reconnect with his heritage.

Interview with
Jahangir Golestan-Parast

Tell us about yourself? What is your background?

I was fortunate that I was raised in a very, very loving family. They were not millionaires but having travelled the world and seen so many different aspects of life, I feel that love is most important, and I grew up surrounded by love. Even today my passwords were always my parent’s names. My sister Shahine inspires me so much. She inspired me to make documentaries. People who have not lived or visited Iran do not have a real understanding of Iranian culture. A retired US wrestling coach I spoke to who had been in 48 countries said no one has ever shown him the hospitality that he experienced in Iran. Also Medea Benjamin from KCET Radio, who travelled the world, said to me she had never been anywhere that people were as generous as they are in Iran. Complete strangers would not let her pay her restaurant bills and would pay them on her behalf. After seeing my earlier film “BAM 6.6” she stated that it truly represents the Iranian people and their culture as she experienced them.

Remember Anthony Bourdain said the same thing. I myself went to Iran for the first time alone in 1966 at the age of 16 and people were so generous and hospitable that I left with more money than when I arrived. They kept giving me money and saying I was a kid and I would need it for my travels.

Did you study film making or are you self-taught?

I wanted to make documentaries ever since I was a little kid. I went to film school at UCLA but it’s passion that has been driving me. All my films have a very humanitarian theme. I wish there were a film festival just for humanitarian themes. Especially one that shows humanitarian Iranian films so that people’s perceptions of Iran will be more realistic.

What is your philosophy on film making and what compels you to make films and even to mortgage your house to finance them? Why is it so important to you?

I do not compare myself to the brilliant film makers in Iran and I could learn from them. I ask you to name one documentary film since Mossadegh that has had the impact of Bam 6.6 and it’s message to the Iranian diaspora? It only takes one person to send a message of humanity and to make change, to make a difference. My films are not about me. I am making these films for our legacy. Films that make money are action films that show killing, killing, killing. Michael Moore said a film should “tell me something that I don’t know.” People don’t know about Persian heritage and culture. I believe a movie can inspire you to be a better person.

How many films have you made?

My first one was about Esfahan, my hometown and then there was “Bam 6.6” about the humanitarian effort of Iranians and the international community in helping after the 6.6 earthquake there in 2003 and the sole American couple who were caught in it. Then I made “Homeless to Homeowner” about Mo Mohanna’s humanitarian efforts to help the homeless in Sacramento and lastly “Ashes to Eden” the story of Amir Dailemeh, who voluntarily built a garden where a fire had devastated Griffith Park in L.A.

What inspired you to make this latest film “John and the Pahlavan?”

I was inspired by the life of Takhti and that he was such a good person. The most important thing in your life is what you do for others not for yourself and Takhti put other people’s needs ahead of his own and that is what made him so popular and a legend. After the earthquake that was close to Tehran, he went around in his car with open windows and collected money donations for the victims.
When I interviewed Babak Takhti, son of Golamreza in Las Vegas, he was amazing and inspiring. Even in Iran, 6 months ago when I was there, teenagers knew about Golamreza. He was a philanthropist and saintly and we could all learn from him, especially world leaders.
I went to his grave in Tehran. This world-famous Olympic wrestling champion had a modest grave and he did not spend his time with celebrities and the rich and powerful but rather with his common men. As a child I had heard about him but not about his humanitarianism and his humility. His death remains a mystery.
We need good people on earth in society. My main motive for this film after seeing “Not Without My Daughter” was to make movies that showed Iran realistically. 
One of my viewers an Iranian American woman, Ronak Jalali said: “for once I see someone who makes films showing the positive side of the Iranian culture and people. Thank you for portraying the kindness and humanity of the Iranian people.”

How did you meet Babak Takhti?

Ryan Blake, my co-producer was introduced to him by a writer.

How did you meet Ryan Blake?

Blake approached me. That fact that he was not of Iranian ethnicity and that he was very young caught my attention. He approached me at a wrestling tournament in Englewood, L.A. and said: “I know you are making a film about Iranian American wrestling and I would like to collaborate with you.” We realized we had a lot in common. 65 years ago my dad had a Zurkhaneh and I really didn’t understand then what it was about. Zurkhaneh was considered popular culture and not sophisticated. But it is all about respect.
It turned out that Ryan wanted to make a documentary about Iranian wrestling and Takhti. He said there are good people everywhere and he wanted to show Americans, Iranian culture, so we decided to collaborate. 
What can you tell us about filming the US wrestling team in Iran?

Iranian wrestlers were very attached to Jason Burroughs who gave condolences for the last earth quake. One of the Iranian wrestlers was saying Burroughs was not just a wrestler but a hero. Burroughs said if Trump went to Iran it would change his opinion. 

Masih Shariff videotaped with his crew and did the sound recording. We had a crew of four in Tehran and they came with us to Tabriz where they were celebrating the 50th anniversary of Takhti in Feb. 2018. My niece, Rehian Safavi and her husband came with us. They had been to the USA a few times. She said she would be honored if she could accompany us to Tabriz. She picked us up at the airport and hosted us in their home in Tehran. We flew together to Tabriz. She is only 30 years old. She knew under this regime she would not be allowed to watch the wrestling, but she wanted to be a part of our film making project anyway. She said: “I want to leave a legacy behind and I want to be part of this film and I am proud of you for doing this for our culture.” We also went all together to Esfahan which was one of the most touching and unbelievable journeys in my life even though my parents were no longer there and alive. At age 67 I had a different perspective. I only have a decade or two left of life. Talking to strangers in Esfahan and Tabriz was amazing. One guy in Tabriz when we asked him for a good restaurant, not only recommended one but accompanied us there and spent 45 minutes talking with us.

What did the US wrestlers think of Iran and Iranians?

One of the American wrestlers had been to 45 countries and said he had never experienced anywhere else, the level of kindness and generosity he had received in Iran.

What is your objective in making this film and what message are you trying to impart? What audience are you trying to reach?

My objective is to show the world Iranian humanity. I have lived 9 years in London, 8 years in France in addition to many years in California and I have traveled to many countries and what I can tell you is that we can all learn from Iranian culture. A culture that is many thousands of years old has much to teach us. This film is about me and my relationship to the life of Golamreza Takhti. I have been asked if I were to be reborn, what I would choose….I would pick my same family and my same country of origin. I would have gone back to live in Iran if my American family had agreed to come. Even the former diplomats, Bruce Laingen and John Limbert, who were among the embassy hostages for 444 days bear no animosity towards Iran and admire the Iranian people and culture. 
Since I have stayed in the USA I have made it my mission to educate people about Iran…my conscience is telling me to educate people about Iran. When I am with my relatives in Iran, we don’t talk a lot but we exchange so much love.

When we screened my film Bam 6.6 at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC which not only showcased the compassion of the Iranian people in the face of natural disaster but also the compassion of people who came to help from all over the world, a gentleman asked me if copies of the film were for sale and if so how much were they? I said $20 and he bought 200 copies with a check for $4000.00. I said I was honored and that this was my first screening of the film. I asked him why he wanted 200 copies. He said “young man, I am not going to answer that question, you will need to figure it out for yourself.” That was 12 years ago and I have never forgotten it.
Another time a near homeless man heard me on the radio in the valley and wanted a copy. Then he called back and asked for 25 copies. I asked him what he did for a living and why 25 copies. He said he took care of his mom in his room because they couldn’t afford a senior assisted living arrangement. I asked him what he was going to do with 25 copies and he said that he was going to give them to strangers on Ventura Blvd because he wanted people to hear my message.
While we were filming in Tabriz we ran into so many young students, mostly girls who were singing and wanted to talk to us but not in front of the camera but they wanted us to please bring this message to America: ”people were celebrating in Iran when JCPOA was signed…we were so happy that Obama signed the peace treaty with Iran…why is Trump banning Moslems and why not banning Saudi Arabia?”

Interview of​ co-director/producer Ryan Blake

What is your connection with wrestling?

I wrestled in college and still coach wrestling at high schools by viography for small clients.

What is it about wrestling that you like? For me I always preferred individual rather than team sports and with wrestling and martial arts, I like the fact that during bouts you have to stay focused or you lose.

I agree. Wrestling is intimate and personal, worldwide and historic for 1000’s of years. It occurs in Africa, Asia, Japan, Europe, Turkey…why? Wrestlers are a small group of athletes in the USA. It is biggest at the collegiate level and is a niche sport at the high school level. I grew up in Chicago. The Mid West is the center of wrestling in the US. It is a smaller sport here which takes so much dedication and gets no publicity. It is distinct from what they call professional wrestling like the WWWF, which is popular entertainment.
As I got older I saw different fan bases. I went to the Olympic 2012 and 2014 worldwide championships which have junior and senior levels by weight. There are 8 weight classes at the Olympic level.
At the World Cup the top ten teams globally compete. Each wrestler represents his country for that weight class. It is country versus country.

How did you meet Jahangir?

I met Jahangir at the 2015 World Cup in L.A. We were both excited by the Iranian wrestling teams fan base. L.A. has the largest Iranian American population in the US. We exchanged business cards and promised to think about a project we could collaborate on. I suggested we make a film about Jahangir’s life. I was the cameraman, Jahangir was the host. We interviewed him and then the wrestlers. He had done Bam 6.6 and Homeless to Homeowner to try to change perceptions about Iranians and Iranian Americans. Our main motivation for making this film is to change perceptions especially with the election of Trump, his immigration ban and dropping from the JCPOA. So we felt it was timely and we have been working on this film from 2015 to 2018. Jahangir went to Iran to film in Feb 2018. It was touch and go as to whether it was safe for him to go from a political standpoint.

Describe the special dynamic between the US and the Iranian national wrestling teams.

Iran, the US and Russia are the top three teams worldwide. I went to tournaments in Russia and there were fist fights and hostility in the fan base. But Iran and US teams get along. They have mutual respect and they know each other and their coaches. When the US wrestlers went to Iran, they were treated like celebrities where as in the US they are relatively unknown. In fact the US wrestlers are better known in Iran than in the US because wrestling has a much bigger fan base in Iran.

How did you discover that Golamreza Takhti’s son, Babak was living in Las Vegas and how did you get an interview with him?

I discovered Babak after I interviewed Dr. Hushang Chehabi of Boston University where he is a professor of Iranian studies. Dr. Chehabi had written some articles about Golamreza Takhti and agreed to an interview. I thought Babak was still in Iran but he told me that he had heard he was somewhere out West. I found him on the internet and we did some phone interviews. Then I asked him if we could interview him in person. He was happy to be interviewed in person and Jahangir went. It was a wonderful interview of him in his home and he shared a lot of information, stories and photos about his father.

Who else did you and Jahangir interview in this film?

We also interviewed: Dr. Alan Williams, professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Religion at the University of Manchester, UK; Dr. Arik Greenberg, professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University and Marcello Di Cintio, author of Poets and Pahlavans as well as many other Olympic wrestling medalists and coaches such as:
Henry Cejudo-US Gold Medalist/UFC Champ Ali Bayat – Iranian freestyle coach Jordan Burroughs-US Gold Medalist Parviz Hadi-Iran Bronze Medalist.

Tell us about the script writers, cameramen and crew.

Colin McDonald is the main cinematographer and the main cameraman. Jahangir is the producer and I am the co-producer and director. Steven Fisher, a colleague out of Chicago who has done some documentary work is also one of the writers.

What was it that attracted you to the Iranian wrestlers and inspired you to want to make this film?

The Iranian fan base caught my interest at the tournaments…I saw the energy of the Iranian fan base…there were some language barriers.
At the 2015 World Cup, I couldn’t speak Farsi but there were a lot of Iranian American fans and that got me into wanting to make this film…their energy, enthusiasm, intimacy and history attracted me and I grew to appreciate and respect that. Persian culture attracted me, particularly their respect for wrestling and for wrestlers…I admire that as a fan.

I feel that US and Iranian wrestlers have acted as citizen diplomats where our governments have failed.

Jordan Burroughs is loved in Iran…he is a fantastic wrestler…he helped his opponent up off the mat. And there was that famous photo of Gadarvi and Burroughs arm in arm. They were citizen diplomats for both countries.

Tell us about what you have learned about Golamreza Takhti?

Jahangir grew up watching Golamreza…he was a true pahlawan. His son Babak inspired us to interview other wrestlers. Golamreza was outspokenly for the people, he spoke out against the Shah on several occasions…he represented the people…his death was said to be suicide but there are rumors. It was said that he had marital problems. The public did not want to believe it was suicide.
 Golamreza was winning medals right up to a few years before his death in 1968. The main proponent of this documentary is Jahangir. Babak and Golamreza reminded him of his childhood and his cultural origins.

I want to thank you and Jahangir on behalf of the readers of Persian Heritage Magazine for your time and we wish you the greatest success with this film. When will it be released and are you going to enter it into film festivals?

Next year we will know which festivals. The trailer will be released by beginning of Dec on Jahangir’s website at www.golestanparastproductions.com

Any last words Jahangir?

You go to school to learn something and this movie will teach you and is for you.

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