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Maz Jobrani

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"Vhy you alvays terrorist?": Musing on the Lack of Middle-Eastern Role Models in Pop Culture

Posted: 12/04/2012 11:21 pm

When was the last time you saw a hero of Middle Eastern descent in an American film or TV show? I know, I can't think of one either (Okay, maybe the Prince of Persia but even then they got Jake Gyllenhaal to play the part -- granted he did let his stubble grow out to get the full smarmy effect). However, for the longest time when you have seen characters of Middle-Eastern heritage in American films or on TV they're usually yelling "I will kill you in the name of Allah" and/or are being killed by Chuck Norris, Jack Bauer and nowadays even by Claire Danes.

I myself had the privilege of dying at Chuck's hands once in a movie (I know, you're jealous!) Later I was cast as a terrorist again on the TV show 24 though on this occasion my character changed his mind halfway through the mission. I called him the "ambivalent terrorist." The more I did these roles the more uncomfortable I felt about participating in this negative depiction of Middle-Easterners. Even my mom was getting fed up, asking me with her Persian accent:

"Vhy you alvays terrorist?"

"That's the parts they have for Middle Eastern guys."

"Vell I don't like you dying all the time."

"Me neither, but that's how they've written it."

"Vhy don't you kill dem von time?"

"I can't just kill them."

"Vhy not? Vhen they say lights, camera, you go. Don't vait for action! You can kill Jack Bauer!"

"I don't know if FOX would be happy with me just killing Jack Bauer."

"You pussy!"

Fed up with these parts, my writing partner, Amir Ohebsion, and I decided to write a movie called Jimmy Vestvood, Amerikan Hero. Our goal was to break new ground with the first comedic hero of Middle-Eastern descent in American cinema. It's the story of an Iranian immigrant who is obsessed with being an American hero like his childhood idol, Steve McQueen. In his zest to assimilate into American culture and realize his dream, he changes his name from Jamshid Vahedizadeh to Jimmy Vestvood, and takes a side job as a private investigator, only to find himself at the center of a Hitchcockian murder mystery [spoiler alert!] It is only after he embraces his own culture that he solves the case and comes to realize that you don't have to be American to be an American hero. (Think the "Persian Pink Panther.")

We then set out to get the movie made but kept running into obstacles. Production companies liked the script but questioned whether there is a market for such a film. After all, who wants to see a Middle-Eastern good guy? If he were an Italian or maybe even Mexican there might be an audience for it. But a Middle-Eastern hero? Come on! In America that's an oxymoron!

So we turned to some rich members in our community to fund the film but they didn't even understand why we were in the movie business to begin with: "You vant to be an American hero? Listen to me. I am your uncle! Take real estate classes, buy property and make lots of money! Look at the Donald Trump. He is my American hero!"

With a script in hand and nowhere else to turn we started to read about crowdfunding. Many filmmakers are utilizing this relatively new phenomenon which gives you the opportunity to engage your fans/supporters who share your passion and vision, in a way that will directly involve them in the making of your film by helping fund it. We thought, "That sounds like a slam dunk." After all, I've got over 100,000 fans on Facebook as well as 20,000 fans on my email list. If they each gave $5 we could make our film!

So on Oct. 22 of this year we launched our campaign on Indiegogo and waited for the money to trickle in. And trickle it did. In three weeks, we had raised $25,000 of our $250,000 goal. Halloween, the presidential elections and Hurricane Sandy didn't help our cause. But the key was that we had launched and there was no turning back.

One of the challenges we faced was explaining to some in our community what crowdfunding is. My mom would ask questions like:

"So you just put up a vebsite on the internet and ask for money? Vhat are you a beggar?"

"No mom, it's not begging. It's like-minded people coming together to help change the image of Middle-Easterners in America today!"

"Vhat do they get in return? A t-shirt? Are you crazy!!!"

"No, it's more than that! We get to be proactive and do something about how we're seen in the media!"

"Didn't your uncle tell you to get into Real Estate? If you had done that then you vouldn't be begging on the Vorld Vide Veb."

"It's not begging!"

"You should've killed Jack Bauer. You pussy!"

Other surprises started coming up. My webmaster told me that of my over-100,000 fans on Facebook, a good number were in places like Egypt, Bahrain and Jordan: "You might have trouble raising funds for your movie, but you could start a revolution if you wanted to."

Slowly, however, we started to see some rays of light. First, we ran into some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who saw the value in what we were doing. They graciously offered to hold a fundraiser for the film, which more than doubled our money. Then we started to realize that we were creating a buzz about the film just by being online talking about it every day. People started following Jimmy on Facebook and interacting with him. Jimmy stickers and t-shirts started to make their way into the world and people started asking us when the movie was coming out.

So here we are now, mid-campaign. It's been an exhausting experience, but a fulfilling one nonetheless. And we haven't even started making the film yet. The good news is that the film will be made and in this one I'll be playing the good guy! The better news is that my mom came around and contributed to the campaign:

"I gave you von hundered dollars!"

"Thanks mom."

"Vhere's my t-shirt?"

 
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