Shadow Play Sheds a Beautiful Light on Iran and its Long, Rich Culture

Coming across something truly unique is a near impossibility, but Hamid Rahmanian has delivered. He is a 2014 Guggenheim fellowship-winning filmmaker, and Feathers of Fire is the project.
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Hamid Rahmanian is an Iranian-born artist who was educated in graphic design and had his own business out of college. Success not standing still, he emigrated in 1994 and earned a master’s of fine arts in computer animation from the Pratt Institute. A job with Disney followed, and Rahmanian provided animation on films such as Tarzan, The Emperor's New Groove, and Dinosaur. An American success story by any standard, Rahmanian never put his culture in the rearview. Founding Fictionville Studio in 1998, the Brooklyn creative endeavored to combat negative Iranian stereotypes and received accolades at Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival, and Tribeca. Of course, the multi-disciplinary nature of the 2014 Guggenheim Fellow meant there was no standing pat, and a one-thousand-year-old Persian epic became his focus. A twelve-year journey to date, his 600-page illustrated adaptation became a bestseller in 2013 and gave way to a shadow play called Feathers of Fire. Playing across the nation since 2016, the family-friendly delight can now be seen on demand.

feathers of fire

So, tell me about this great Persian work?

In 1010, a poet named Ferdowsi put together millennium-old epic mythology of Iranian stories. 60,000 verses, it’s called Shahnameh and is like The Iliad and The Odyssey—only four or five times longer. So, there are tragedies, love stories, battles between good and evil, and contain elements that are similar to Romeo and Juliet, Rapunzel, and The Jungle Book.

What does the poem mean to Iran?

Shahnameh is the reason Iranians still speak Persian. After the Arabs invaded in the 7th century, the Middle East began speaking Arabic. But because of the book, Iran kept its language. So, we grew up with these poems, and every ruler or invader who came to Iran commissioned a translation. Even Ahmadinejad did an edition because Shahnameh is a unifying factor for the nation. The reach goes beyond Iran too. It is dear in most of Central Asia, the Balkans, India, and China.

How did your journey begin?

There is a wealth of treasure in our culture that has not been explored here in the West. I wanted to highlight this and contribute to diversity here in the U.S. This is badly needed to show how we are all connected and share similar values. As a result, I thought a great place to introduce Iran in a different light was by commissioning a translation. Others exist but they target academics. Along with another translator, we made it super friendly and created Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings. It took me over 10,000 hours of work, and also includes a popup book and an audiobook, which Francis Ford Coppola narrated the introduction.

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Where does all the artwork come from?

I collected and put together over 8,000 pieces from the 14th century to the mid 19th century. This includes anything influenced by Persian schools of pairing from Mughal India to all the territory of the Ottoman Empire.

When you embarked on the book, did you have Feathers of Fire in mind?

No, I had no idea.

How did the shadow play emerge?

I was almost finished with the book and saw the work of Lotte Reiniger. She was a German animator, and in 1926, made the first full-length animation movie. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a silhouette animation and is inspired by 1,001 Nights. I just fell in love and wanted to create something like it. So, I started making puppets based on my illustrations and created a 20-minute shadow play that ran at the Asia Society in 2013. I got great feedback and the programmer at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) said they wanted something in the future. I was also approached by the Metropolitan Museum, but they wanted something bigger.

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The video lists for families and children, so how did you tailor it toward children?

That was a big challenge. I had to take this story about young lovers and tell it as I was talking to my daughter. For instance, I couldn’t have the father of Rudabeh threatening to kill his own daughter. You can’t show that to kids. Nonetheless, the most important thing is the story. Because when you have a good story and a bad presentation, people still sit down. But if you have a bad story and a good presentation, people usually get bored and leave.

Can you tell me about the masks and how the actors create their craft?

A learning process, it’s not like you put on the mask, start to act, and understand how to cast the necessary shadows. I learned the techniques from Larry Reed, who is a shadow master. But I also changed things by adding animation technology that allows for zooming, panning, and tilting. The actors and puppets could then interact within the animated environments and create a more dynamic cinematic illusion.

What other technology do you use?

First, we used dowsers. A device that stands in front of the source and blocks the light. It’s connected to computers and flips on and off as programmed. This allows me to cut between different angles and scenes, as in a film. That said, there are two main sources that cross each other in the center. The choreography of actors and puppets must be precise. This way they don’t walk into the opposing light and create unplanned shadows. I am also constantly introducing a combination of digital and manual mechanics that keeps the audience on their toes in terms of understanding how things work. But all told there are 1,163 cues, and we introduced a whole new profession to make the show happen. Mohammad Talani ran the lights, the dowsers, the sound effects, and all the music and vocals. He was basically a machine, and the presentation is so well done that I changed the format. People thought they were watching a movie. At the beginning, I would come out with a puppet and introduce the show and some of the techniques. Then the audience can better understand what they were watching.

How come the actors don’t speak with accents?

My audience is an American Western audience, and I wanted to engage them with the story and visuals. The other important thing is when an audience looks at something Iranian, it becomes viewed within that Iranian-ness. Plus, with all the political hype you always get, I just wanted to normalize the situation. That let me get away from exoticizing or ghettoizing the Middle East. I make the comparison to Hercules or Mulan. You don’t have that feeling where it’s about China or ancient Greece. You just walk into that universe and view the story.

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But you still want them to know it’s Persian?

Yes, definitely—the stories, the visuals make it unique.

What kind of feedback have you had, especially in cultural terms?

For instance, in Des Moines, 9,000 people came to watch. There was cheering and clapping, and I had fathers in the middle of a red state thanking me. In fact, one dad came up and said, “My son says it’s cool to be Persian.”

That’s wonderful. So, what was involved in bringing the play to video?

At one show, I basically put the camera in front of the screen and shot. But it was a big production. I had to reformat and re-design the sound and had to do a very expensive process of color corrections.

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How well does the video hold up in comparison to a live show?

As I said, when you are there, you feel like you’re watching a movie. So, it loses less of its integrity than other theaters. Like when you’re watching the Nutcracker on TV, it's really much different.

What was the biggest challenge of creating Feathers of Fire?

Finding money. Being from an Islamic society, you’re talking about the positivity and beauty of the culture, and basically, there is no such narrative in American society. So, besides the Jim Henson Foundation, I got 100 percent rejection since grant money and philanthropy just don’t come for this type of cause. Because if you’re a woman, you have an advantage, if you’re gay you have an advantage, if your trans or black, you have an advantage. But if you’re a brown or Muslim man, you have no advantage. So, I had to go to individuals begging on my knees, and it was nearly two years of full-time work.

Are you done with Shahnameh yet?

No. What I’m making now is called Song of the North. A much more complex story, we have almost twice as many puppets, and I’ve hired engineers to build a moving platform that makes it look like the entire stage is moving. A lot of love and magic, I think it’s a very good follow up to Feathers of Fire.

Click for Feathers of Fire On-Demand

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