Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Armin Nasseri of Polar Underworld Productions Is Helping To…

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Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Armin Nasseri of Polar Underworld Productions Is Helping To Change Our World

Sometimes making a film is a thankless job. When the final product is shown, the audience only sees what’s on the screen and not what went into making it.

As a part of our series about stars who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Armin Nasseri.

Armin Nasseri is a first-generation, Iranian-American filmmaker. His last feature film, “The Central Authority,” a socially-distanced, dystopian horror-comedy featuring an inclusive cast, has garnered multiple nominations and awards, including two awards for Best Ensemble Cast. Armin has directed both “Miles Around” and “Safe” music videos for Aventurine, which have received multiple nominations and awards at film festivals domestically and internationally. His newest film, “George Hobbs: Stick Figure Wisdom,” a documentary feature about L.A. contemporary artist George Hobbs, has won a prestigious Award of Recognition from The Impact DOCS Awards Competition.

Thank you so much for joining us on this interview series. Can you share with us the backstory that led you to this career path?

I was born and raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. As an ’80s baby and a ’90s child, I was consuming many commercial movies, television shows and music videos. At the age of ten, my parents took me to my first arthouse film, where we watched The White Balloon, written by the late Abbas Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi. I was in a movie theater surrounded by several members of the Iranian community as we watched a film that was not only a compelling story told through the eyes of a child, but a representation of my Iranian heritage as well as a reflection of my family’s native country.

During my adolescence, my love for the arts grew when my oldest brother introduced me to Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. My brother would break down their films by critiquing the camera angles along with their signature styles. The term “auteur,” had entered my vocabulary. I became enlightened about the idea of film directors having a platform, where they can put their personal and creative influence on a film. The “author” in a motion picture is how they describe it. I took many trips to the video stores where I would rent movies and not only watch and study them, but also listen to the director’s commentary along with interviews and behind the scenes bonus features.

When I was 18 years of age, my parents and I were at a social gathering with our friends from the Persian community. My childhood friend was there and he brought over a copy of a short film that he acted in along with his father and two brothers. The short film that he screened was titled Backgammon, directed by Ramin Bahrani. This was early in Ramin’s career before he directed Chop Shop, 99 Homes and The White Tiger. Ramin went to school with my older brothers and I remembered meeting him when I was very young. His short film was a reflection of the world that I lived in. It was the first time I ever watched a westernized, multi-generational, Iranian family on a television screen. I was inspired to see a person, who looks and sounds like me, capture a visual story in our hometown that brought generational conflicts and cultural identity to the forefront. The night I left the party, I was excited, motivated and made the decision to pursue a career in filmmaking.

I began my career in Wilmington, North Carolina before moving to Los Angeles. I went to acting school and then enrolled at Los Angeles City College, where I studied film and production. I made some student films and learned so much about the film business, cameras, etc. I completed the program at LACC and I wanted to continue my studies, so I enrolled at West L.A. College. I entered the Directed Studies Program and I got hired to work on many film sets. After I graduated, I had over 30 credits to my name. I have done almost everything you can imagine on a film set from storyboard images to editing and everything in between.

Although I was content working on numerous projects behind the scenes, it was hard to deal with the reality that minorities such as Iranian-Americans, were not getting their voices heard in American movies. The only way you can change something is to be the change, so I wrote and directed a short film titled Seeking Valentina. A psychological thriller that portrayed an Iranian-American family as nuanced human beings. My collaborator Kristin West co-produced and also starred in the title role. Kristin and I showcased an inclusive, gender-balanced movie that eliminated all stereotypes that have been perpetuated by Hollywood. The film went on to win many awards, including an Honorable Mention from the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards, which went beyond my expectations. I never imagined that Seeking Valentina would have another life when it got picked up by Shorts TV five years after the film release. Seeking Valentina is also available to watch on Tubi TV.

I have continued to follow my path as a director. I made another gender-balanced short film titled The Carting Call. I directed two music videos for Aventurine. Both “Miles Around” and “Safe” music videos have received multiple nominations and awards at film festivals domestically and internationally. Kristin and I co-directed a socially-distanced, dystopian horror-comedy feature titled The Central Authority. My team and I are thrilled that both The Carting Call and The Central Authority have won awards for Best Ensemble Cast and they have also gotten distribution deals. It’s great that people can watch them on multiple platforms. I’m proud to stand behind a body of work that not only features an inclusive cast and crew, but a reflection of America.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was taking an acting class when I first started out. I was young and inexperienced. My class was given a character study exercise by our acting teacher. I created this character based on a person that I knew. He was socially inept, an only child and a big chain smoker. The teacher selected me to stand up in front of the class along with another classmate. Our task was to take the characters that we developed and pretend that we are hanging out at a bar. We set up the chairs in the middle of the room and another classmate lend me his cigarette pack as a prop. I sat on the chair as I’m packing the cigarettes. My scene partner is seated next to me and says, “So, do you come here often?” I am processing the thought of an awkward person, who is out of his element and I blurted out “I am an only child.” I got a big reaction from my scene partner and my peers as they all laughed at the major beat change. I completely ruined that scene. The lesson I learned is to make stronger choices, stay in the moment, listen to your scene partner and don’t make a sudden beat change. Follow the improv game “Yes, and.”

What would you advise a young person who wants to emulate your success?

Do the work that you are passionate about. Create art that benefits humankind. Success does not happen overnight. It takes time. Make sure you stay focused, keep a good work ethic, stay persistent, determined and very dedicated. You will not succeed in anything without hard work and discipline. Always surround yourself around people, who share those same beliefs.

Is there a person that made a profound impact on your life? Can you share a story?

My father shaped me into the person I am today. He taught me how to be a man. He taught me to have a purpose. My father moved his family to the United States after he watched his native country go through a regime change. He worked hard to build a better life for his family. It was not always easy growing up in the south as a brown person, especially during the height of 9/11. One day my father said, “Anyone who questions who you are, you tell them that you are an American.” I have to thank both of my parents for their sacrifices and love.

How are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting causes you’re working on right now?

Art has the power to transmit a message. My films have portrayed multi-ethnic groups as nuanced people and that we are all the same. My newest film titled George Hobbs: Stick Figure Wisdom, is about an American artist named George Hobbs, who is using his art to bring people together.

Can you share with us a story behind why you chose to take up this particular cause?

Over the past forty years, there would be a public outcry from the Iranian community whenever Iranians get vilified in a Hollywood movie or in the news media. Iranian people have been portrayed in movies as one dimensional, barbaric characters as well as some television shows using our ethnicity as the butt of a joke. I would be in a situation where a non-Iranian person would ask or say something foolish regarding the stereotypes and tropes in certain Hollywood films. You can’t blame them entirely for their ignorance. The people feed into the mainstream media. The media and the arts have both power and influence. I took action and made Seeking Valentina because it was the kind of film that I wanted to see growing up in the ’90s and ’00s, but it did not exist.

There’s been a number of inventions and innovations created by Iranian people that are existent in our everyday lives such as the refrigerator, guitar, battery, Algebra, Postal Service, etc. Go look it up. Many Iranian people in America and abroad have contributed to society. They have built houses for people, served food to patrons, treated sick patients and helped others in the legal system. Everyone has a story and their stories deserve to be told, which is why I want to help get those voices heard and take control of our own narrative.

Can you share with us a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

I directed my first documentary feature titled George Hobbs: Stick Figure Wisdom, which I produced with Kristin West and Matt Chassin. George Hobbs is a union prop master, who rediscovered his love of art through stick figures. He created his Stick Figure Wisdom series along with mixed media, animation, short films and original songs to convey the complicated issues in our society through the themes of love, religion, politics, relationships as well as what it means to be human, all while fighting against the evils in the world. George Hobbs: Stick Figure Wisdom is currently in the film festival circuit and I’m humbled that it received an Award of Recognition from The Impact DOCS Awards. George’s art should impact all of us and I hope that this film helps to impact George’s career in a positive way.

Are there three things or are there things that individuals, society, or the government can do to support you in this effort?

The people at the top can use their platform by denouncing hate and hold others accountable.

The pundits and the media can find a better solution for ratings and profits rather than spreading fear and propaganda.

The government can help give grants to deserving artists, who have a unifying message.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started”

I didn’t know that the film industry was so political. We are led to believe that it a meritocracy.

No one told us that show business really is a business. That marketing is just as important as honing your craft. If not, more so.

No matter how much time and work you put into prepping and striving for a smooth production, you will still deal with setbacks.

No one told me how long it was going to take to make a film. From start to finish, filmmaking can take a year or more.

Sometimes making a film is a thankless job. When the final product is shown, the audience only sees what’s on the screen and not what went into making it.

You’re a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The stories that I’m interested in, are stories that relate with everyone. Showing how we are all alike regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender.

Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote? And can you explain how that was relevant in your life?

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”

– Charles R. Swindoll

We’ve all been through many hurdles in life. I’ve been in a stressful situation many times and I wish I had found a better way to handle it. I remembered meeting this guy from the entertainment industry. He invited me to have breakfast with him along with his collaborators at a restaurant in North Hollywood. After we walked out of the restaurant, we walked towards his car on Magnolia Blvd, and he noticed a parking ticket placed on his windshield. He picked up the ticket and looked at it. In a calm demeanor, he looks at me and says, “Whenever you have a bad day, it’s 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you react to it.” I have never forgotten what he said to me on that day. Those words that he shared with me in that moment really helped put things in perspective. If you let your stress overpower you, then you are only hurting yourself. Sometimes we have things in our life that are less ideal and out of our control. When you are self-possessed, you will have 100 percent control.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would be honored to sit down and have a conversation with Chuck D, the founder and leader of Public Enemy. Chuck D was one of the pioneers of creating socially conscious music in our society. He has a powerful voice and very influential. I’ll be thrilled to chat with him about music and the world that we are living in. It would be a privilege to one day collaborate together on building a positive message through artistry.

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was so inspiring, and we wish you continued success!

Stars Making a Social Impact: Why & How Armin Nasseri of Polar Underworld Productions Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.