Prayer answered: Vida Ghahremani and Henry O share a park bench in Wayne Wang's 'A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.' (Photo courtesy Larsen Associates)

Vida Ghahremani: Star is Reborn in Wayne Wang's Latest

Judy Stone September 24, 2008

When Vida Ghahremani became a movie star at age 16 in the Shah’s Iran, she felt as if she were in prison. It left her with a lifelong desire to pursue freedom at all costs, but the memory of those 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, which opens this weekend in the Bay Area.

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 everything that her character had left behind in Iran, it was like reliving her past, and she could not control the flood of her emotions.

"I know what you’re feeling," Wang told her, "but I want it inside you. You explode inside."

"So that was a great lesson," Ghahremani told me 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. and eventually to the Bay Area 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 daughter’s Golden Thread Theater Company in San Francisco and asked permission to give the number to Wang. "Do you know him?" she asked.

"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."

Years earlier, 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 were 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 Muslim. So there were compromises: a Muslim marriage ceremony in the morning and a Christian one at night.

After 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.

After Davit’s jealousy became insupportable, she went to London for four years where she earned a diploma from the London Academy of Radio, Film and Television 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 misunderstandings between people. Hoping to learn more by taking college courses about the brain and anatomy, she began applying for a U.S. visa. The University of Oklahoma was interested in her ideas, and she got her visa to go there in September, 1979. One month later, the Tehran 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.

By 1989, 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 based on the book The Stoning of Soraya M. 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 was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.

Meanwhile 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."

Nevertheless, after 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 mandatory 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.

Not only 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. "It was 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.’"

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