The night after the sold-out screening of Baba Joon at the 29th Israel Film Festival in Beverly Hills, writer-director Yuval Delshad is ordering a beer and coffee at Culina at the Four Seasons. He and his star, L.A. transplant Navid Negahban, are waiting for their fellow cast members to join them, and Negahban has a gift for Delshad, who’s going back to Israel the next day. It’s a fitted denim button-down. Negahban insists Delshad try it on.
It’s a perfect fit.
“We were like older and younger brother,” says Negahban, whom you might recognize as Homeland’s misunderstood terrorist, Abu Nazir. “Once in a while we’d butt heads. But about the process, not about the outcome. He knew what he wants to say — but at the same time he would give you the freedom to explore it.”
Baba Joon — which means “daddy dearest” — is the first film to shine a light on the struggle of Jewish Iranians to build a new home following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Outside of L.A., Israel boasts one of the world’s largest Iranian Jewish populations.
As important as the film is for exploring the culture of a marginalized minority, it also hit a lot of nerves for its cynical portrayal of die-hard Judaism (where a blessing of good fortune and happiness is literally for sale to the highest bidder) and for its depiction of the stereotypical, old-school, belt-whipping Middle Eastern father.
Nonetheless, Baba Joon has earned five Academy Ophir Awards (Israeli Oscars) including best picture and is Israel’s best submission in the foreign-language category for the 2016 Oscars, a major achievement for an Iranian-Israeli film considering the recent and continuous conflict between Israel and Iran (and pretty much all surrounding countries).
“One of the things that I like about this film is that it went above and beyond all prejudice,” Negahban says. “We had such a diverse group of people working with us, Arabs and Israelis. We really became a family.”
Delshad, a distant relative of Jimmy Delshad, former mayor of Beverly Hills, was somewhat inspired by his own experience when writing this story about three generations of stubborn Jewish Iranian men trying to navigate domestic life through cultural and religious divides.
The film shifts back and forth between Hebrew and Persian (cast members often had no idea what the others were saying), sprinkled with some English and chock full of proverbs (“if a branch doesn’t bend in a storm, it breaks” or “they pet the horse with one hand and pull the tail with the other”) — the preferred communication device for Iranians.
Negahban plays Yizkhak, a turkey farmer who hopes his son, Moti, will take over the business the same way he did from his father, who moved the farm from Iran to Israel. Moti, played by talented 14-year-old first-time actor Asher Avrahami, has no intention of doing so.
“When I chose Navid, for me he was the anchor,” Delshad says. “I knew that I’m set. I built the family around him.”
The story is male-dominated; the sole female role is Yitzkhak’s wife, Sarah, played by Iranian-British actress Viss Elliot Safavi. “I think it’s more interesting that she didn’t have a sisterhood,” says Safavi, who, as Sarah, is a seemingly quiet wife busying herself with the task of mending broken egos and actual broken backs.
Safavi even grew out her eyebrows for Negahban to pluck in a very intimate and eerily erotic scene. (Just imagine Abu Nazir aiming a sharp pointy object at your eye over and over again.)
The plot centers around a visit from the dapper American uncle (and prodigal son) Darius, after which all hell — and some turkeys — break loose. Darius is the uncle you want to get drunk with at family get-togethers. He’s funny, charismatic and quick to reveal dark family secrets and exhume years of buried rage.
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“I love the positive teachings of all faiths, but we know about some of the problems blind faith creates,” says David Diaan, who plays Darius. “One of the things I think Yuval did masterfully was [express] his criticism of that kind of religious practice.”
After his film The Stoning of Soraya, Negahban, who is Muslim, was criticized by the Islamic regime for “cooperating with the Israeli government against Iran” — and has been barred from going back to Iran, a place he misses dearly.
As a result, he brought a genuine longing and nostalgia to Yitzkhak’s character.
“It’s not about just Iranian Jews or Israelis,” Negahban says. “It’s a story about relationships, understanding, accepting each other and giving each other the freedom to be who we want to be.”