When Vida Ghahremani became a movie star at age
16 in the Shah's Iran, she felt as if she was in
prison. It left her with a life-long desire to pursue
freedom at all costs, but the memory of those haunted
years made her burst out in uncontrollable tears
during a rehearsal for her role as an Iranian exile
in Wayne Wang's superb new film "A Thousand
Years of Good Prayers."
There she was on a park
bench in Spokane, speaking Farsi and making friends
with a Chinese father who knew as little English
as she did. As she thought back to all that her character
had left behind in Iran, it was like re-living her
past and she could not control the flood of her emotions.
know what you're feeling," Wang told her, " but
I want it inside you. You explode inside."
that was a great lesson," Ghahremani said recently.
But no tears were in sight as she recalled the "wonderful
and strange way" she met Wang and talked about
her traumatic journey from Iran to the U.S. with
gusts of laughter. She looked full of vitality in
a bright orange dress and a colorful Iranian robe.
It all began when Wang's home copying machine broke
down and he took his film script to a print shop
owned by an Iranian. He mentioned that he was looking
for an old Iranian woman to play a part. The owner
got Vida's phone number from her daughters Golden
Thread Theater Company and asked permission to give
the number to Wang. "Do you know him?" she
"I said, No, I don't know him, but give
him my number." However, her three adult children,
familiar with the San Francisco director's work,
warned her not to admit that she didn't know anything
about him. Even friends in Iran had seen his films,
thanks to the black market. After catching up with
his productions on video, she thought, "My God,
how lucky I am!" So she was ready when an agent
called from New York and said, I'm sending you a
script and also a small piece of the script and please
play it in front of the camera and send it overnight
to New York."
Her daughter, Torange Yeghiazarian,
filmed her and sent it off. "Immediately Wayne
called and said, My wife told me you are like Meryl
Streep!" Beaming and an uproarious laugh. "The
next day we met and you can't believe it, it was
like we were friends for 20 years."
she had had no idea of how stardom would change her
life when she asked her mother if she could audition
for a teenager's part in the young movie industry
in 1955 Iran. After showing up unannounced at the
studio with her father, an army colonel, the ten
men present reacted with shocked silence. They wound
up pledging to care for her as if she was their own
daughter. Outside the studio, her participation was
a closely guarded secret because acting in a film
was considered almost akin to being a "street
woman." Advance publicity photos concealed
her well-known beauty mark and she changed her name
from Malihe (meaning delicate) to Vida by repeating
the name of her unsuspecting boyfriend Davit over
and over again.
The film, "A Busy Intersection" was
an immediate hit with Vida portraying a nice girl
confronting a man with evil intentions. When it opened,
school was out for the New Year holiday, but everything
changed when Vida returned. She was besieged by admiring
classmates who touched her, hovered over her and
assumed she was rich. "It was so strange.They
acted as if I was coming from Mars," she laughed.
But then she was kicked out of school only months
before her graduation because good girls were not
supposed to appear on screen. Pleas by her mother
and grandmother, both teachers, to get her into another
school were unsuccessful.
And Davit gave her an ultimatum:
it was him or the movies. She chose him but even
that choice was controversial because his father
was a Christian Armenian leader and it was deemed
unseemly for his son to be marrying a Moslem. So
there were compromises: a Moslem marriage ceremony
in the morning and a Christian one at night.
their first child, a son, was born in 1955, Davit,
now an army officer, was assigned briefly outside
of Tehran. When they returned, Samoel Khachikian,
her first director, wanted her in another film. She
refused, but after endless discussions with Davit,
at 19, she began to work again starring in 18 films
over five years — but accompanied to the set every
day either by her brother or her possessive husband.
She became basically a prisoner in her home.
Davit's jealousy became insupportable, she went to
London for four years where she earned a diploma
from the London Film and TV Academy for directing
films for children. When she returned, Davit hadn't
changed and she decided to get a divorce, even though
that meant that he would have custody of the children.
She then took an examination to get her 12th grade
diploma and entered college where she earned a degree
in early childhood education. Meanwhile, she had
become intrigued with the discrepancy she noticed
between what the brain understood and the eye observed
and how that related to misunderstanding between
people. Hoping to learn more by taking college courses
about the brain and anatomy, she began applying for
a U.S. visa because the University of Oklahoma was
interested in her ideas. She got her visa in September
1979 and went to the university. One month later,
the hostage crisis erupted, dominating tv news every
night. Vida and her three Iranian classmates became
targets of hatred, as swearing stone-throwers broke
their dormitory windows in attacks that became so
ferocious that she suffered a nervous breakdown and
was advised that she would be safer in Los Angeles
with her mother and brother. Eventually, despite
U.S.-Iran hostility and the death of Davit, she
was reunited with her now grown children.
a lucky break started Vida back on the acting track
when a friend suggested she audition for a minor
role as a Turkish prisoner in " Dark Holiday," Lee
Remick's last TV appearance. In it, Remick was imprisoned
in Turkey for unwittingly smuggling antiques out
of the country. But with Vida's part, she became
a member of the Screen Actors Guild and began appearing
in long-forgotten tv roles. However, she did recall
one stint as an Arab weaver and vaguely remembered
playing an unhappy Jewish mother in "Peaceful
Sabbath," a 30-minute film by Babak Shokrian,
a young Persian Jewish immigrant .
Recently, she was a weeping Iranian peasant in a
feature film, "The Fallen." Based on the
book "The Stoning of Soraya" by Fereidoune
Sahebjam, it is the true story of an Iranian wife
wrongly accused of adultery and stoned to death.
With a largely Iranian-American cast, speaking Farsi
but shot in Jordan, it will be shown at the Toronto
International Film Festival in September.
Vida keeps busy painting portraits as a hobby and
serving as narrator in her daughter's Golden Thread
fairy tale stories, such as "The Girl Who Lost
Her Smile," dramatized with songs, dances,
acrobatics, marvelous masks and Middle Eastern costumes.
They play to kids in schools, libraries and most
recently to an enraptured pint-sized audience (including
me) at the Discovery Museum in Fort Baker.
As for Iranian films shown here, she said, "I
don't watch them in cinemas because I don't want
to pay anything to the Islamic Republic. I wait to
see them in libraries."
26 years away, homesick for friends and countryside,
she went back alone in 2004 when Mohammad Khatami
was president. She was sure no one would recognize
her. Typically, she refused to wear the manditory
hijab unless it put someone helping her at risk.
On one very cold night, she covered her head with
her coat while visiting a small experimental theater
during the Fajr film festival and eavesdropped on
a conversation between two young boys. "I wanted
to know what the young generation was thinking. They
saw me and said, You look like an old-fashioned artist. " She
burst out laughing and asked, What does an old artist
look like? They wanted to know if she had appeared
in films and when she mentioned the name of director
Khachikian, they exclaimed, "Vida Ghahremani!" She
was shocked and wondered how they knew her.
had they seen her films, but later they made video
copies of seven of her productions, including the
only one she ever saw, and sent them to her, along
with her photos on magazine covers.
funny for me," she said, "and it made
me cry. I heard recently that one of the boys had
made a film, but it was only shown one night before
being prevented. I wanted to tell them, 'Don't stop
doing what you want to do and don't be disappointed.
Some day, somewhere, your movies will be shown.'"