World Cinema - Iran, Germany, USA: September 2016

Michael Rowan, a member of Chiltern Film Society's committee, is finding out about how people from different countries experienced cinema in their homeland.

With one exception I have only ever visited the cinema in the UK and had always assumed that mine was a universal experience. One day a chance conversation made me wonder if perhaps I was being naïve and so I set myself the challenge to find out what people living in Chesham but born in another country recalled about cinema in their homeland. I am very grateful to everyone who gave up their time to give me such an insight often reviving memories that they had forgotten.


Today I must begin by declaring an interest.  Those who know me well can confirm that I am possibly the least observant person on the planet.  So when struggling to find a subject to interview who lives in Chesham but was born in a different country, it really shouldn’t have taken me quite so long to ask my friend Maryam Sharifi.  I have come to expect the unexpected from Maryam but even I lost count of how many times I said, ‘I never knew that’.  What I did know was that Maryam is a film fanatic but I was amazed at how she seems to see life through the prism of the big screen.  Of course Maryam being Maryam couldn’t just have one country to tell me about, she has three.  So let me introduce you to my friend Maryam.

Maryam Sharifi was born in Iran but came to England aged 7 when her parents decided she should have an English education.  The year was 1976 and when the Revolution took place in 1978 it meant that it was not safe for her mum and five sisters to return.

Her father was on the very last flight to leave Iran – a bit of a Luke Skywalker moment says Maryam: when the Mullahs commanded the pilot to return the airborne flight to the base, her father stepped in and said ‘Do not turn around or we will all die’.  Luckily for all, the pilot ignored the orders and continued to London.  Her father worked for an oil company and had had to dress as a woman in a hijab to travel between two towns in order to carry out some business.

Maryam grew up in Cambridge, moved to Germany when she graduated in Graphic Arts and Illustration, then lived in America for 8 years, working in the film and animation industry for 16 years on such films as Help I’m A Fish, Quest for Camelot, Enchanted, the last two ‘Harry Potters’ and the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, facts that impress her pupils now that she has moved into teaching.

Maryam, one of the creators of the short animated movie The Shark and the Piano, was a guest speaker at Pixar and Dreamwork’s studios, which has also won awards.

1) How does the cinema here differ from that in Iran, Germany, the USA?

Well of course I was only a little girl when I left Iran but I recall the outdoor cinema because the weather was always nice.  It was in a huge park with a wall on to which the film would be projected.  One could either drive in with a car or sit outside with a picnic.

German movies were, shall we say, at best challenging, as they hadn’t mastered editing, dialogue or narrative.  However there was an English Cinema in Germany which featured films in English.  I loved to go there with friends from work.  The problem is that because of my education in film I am continually critiquing the film that I am watching; back then I was a keen cinematographer and watched out for the style of particular directors.

In Munich we had the Museum Lichtspiele, which screened the movie The Rocky Horror Picture Show every night. It was a kind of art house cinema but it also showed other alternative films. There was a restaurant nearby for writers, playwrights and film makers would gather though I can’t recall the name just now but something like Faust. We used to love going there as it had a great artsy atmosphere.

Maryam’s arrival in America coincided with the completion of Arclight Cinema founded by Stephen Spielberg: "It boasted spacious seats and held film festivals which other directors would attend eg. Tarrantino.  It was the place to go if you were a film buff which of course I was.  Another benefit was that with certain late screenings, one was allowed to take alcohol into the screening room and I once took advantage of this and though I didn’t drink much it made me fall asleep so I missed the film.  I do however recall the title was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with Jim Carrey.  Lesson learned: I never drank again before a film."

2) What is your first memory of going to the cinema as a child?

Maryam can remember been taken to see Blue Beard as a child which with hindsight seems a strange choice and all she can recall is this man murdering his six wives. Strangely this didn’t put Maryam off cinema but it may explain her love of the horror genre particularly the Hammer House of Horror, in her adolescent years, though these days she tends to avoid horror films.

3) What was the first film that you recall seeing?

Well as I said it was Blue Beard in Iran and later I was a devotee of the films shown at the Cambridge Art House Cinema. I loved almost everything by Stephen Spielberg and having watched Raiders of the Lost Ark I wanted to become an Archaeologist.

4) How expensive was it to visit the cinema?

Pretty much on par with the UK - it cost another two dollars more to visit the Arclight in LA but we all thought that it was worth it.

5) What was the etiquette in the cinema in Germany and the USA?

When I lived in Germany my partner would rather not go at all if we were likely to miss the first 5 or 10 minutes as he was adamant that we wouldn’t be able to pick up the movie.  Not sure if this was the etiquette or just one of his idiosyncrasies.

Because I was in the industry in America we tended to mixed with our own film crowd, you know after work and all that, which made for some great post film discussions.  Same in Germany we always met up afterwards when the film would be dissected looking for plot holes and metaphors and so on.

In America when the bad guy gets killed everyone cheers and when good prevails again everyone cheers I think that this was less prevalent in the UK.

6) When I was a child the only food eaten in the cinema was tubs of ice cream or choc ice, Orange Juice and hot dogs. What kind of food could you buy at the cinema?

Pretty much the same but I recall sneaking in a sandwich into the cinema in Germany but if we got caught we would be thrown out. I thought that it was worth the risk as I didn’t like popcorn for dinner.

7) What sort of films were shown in Iran, Germany and/or America? Was it the usual blockbuster? Walt Disney or something else?

Again it was much the same as here, but in the US for us it was more about hearing the directors/artists discuss their film.  I remember hearing Tom Cruise, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch, amongst others.

We mostly watched films to see if we could identify and utilise new emerging styles and how visually comparable they were with the latest Disney, so that we could use them in our movies at the time.

8) Do you go to the cinema in UK – if so what were your first impressions?

Well I came here aged 7 so pretty much I grew up with them.

9) We have certain films that are shown every Christmas, is that the same in your country and if so what?  Perhaps for Christmas or another festival?

Not particularly culturally but I used to look forward to all the animation movies that were shown at Christmas, all those children’s programmes that featured them and of course the old Walt Disney classics.

10) And what film character would you like to be?

It has to be Clint Eastwood as Blondie in the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  I just love Clint Eastwood, even as a Director.

11) Finally what is your favourite film?

‘You can’t ask someone from the industry what is their favourite film, you just can’t’ (see reader the problem with interviewing friends?).
‘Maybe every decade perhaps’ (I am a stern interviewer and demand an answer). 
So after much deliberation:  ‘Clint Eastwood, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, er, no Unforgiven, er, no definitely The Good the Bad and the Ugly. This is so sad I thought that I had grown out of it and I haven’t.  Or maybe old Disney: Fantasia.'

Thank you Maryam for your insight into cinema-going in more countries, it was good to catch up with you again.