PERSONAL ESSAY, NONFICTION
A Film and/is a Prayer
Issue 5, Winter 2022
The Godfather is the first film I remember watching. I must have been around five years old, curled up on an armchair in our living room in a suburb of Tehran, sipping a glass of warm milk and honey as was my nighttime ritual. My Baba was in the opposite armchair, drinking a home-brewed beer, my mother on a couch between us.
My parents didn’t have a lot of rules for me. I had to be polite (which I was) and not do anything mischievous (a rule I was constitutionally incapable of following). But other than that, I had free reign to do what I wanted, including staying up late to watch films with them so long as I covered my eyes when Baba instructed — during sex scenes.
In the mid 1980s, a film, especially a foreign one, was a rare treat in most Iranian homes. VHS tapes passed person-to-person, an informal black market video rental service. In post-revolution Iran, everything good was forbidden or scarce: Foreign films, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, dancing, music, bananas, talking to boys, exposing my hair in public, Nesquik powder, my mom’s makeup, her long red nails, my dad’s nightly beer, the wine we made in our garden, playing cards, the parties they had, the way my mom danced with her best friends and their husbands at those same parties.
What we did get from the “outside” — whether clothes relatives in Europe had sent, candy someone brought back from a trip to Turkey, cassette tapes of pop music copied a thousand times over, or films — had a profound impact.
Even though I didn’t yet speak English and the film wasn’t dubbed, The Godfather captivated me. I fell in love with Al Pacino and his moody, broody masculinity. And I was enthralled with the power of Don Corleone. I fantasized about having the strength to fight, even if it meant putting a horse’s head in a Revolutionary Guard’s bed — men I hated and feared, even as a tiny child.
Outside that living room, with its white 1970s tube TV sitting on the stem of a lily pad-shaped base, bombs fell. My mother taped my windows and moved my bed across the room, so if a bomb’s impact shattered the windows the shards wouldn’t hurt me. At school, we filed into orderly lines when the sirens sounded and rushed to a dirt bunker below ground. Every day I heard my mother and her friends talk about another young woman who had been dragged into a van by the morality police, beaten, her head shaved. And every day, another boy came home from war and sat at whatever gathering we were at, staring blankly into space. Or didn’t come home at all.
And so I prayed at the altar of films.
On the nights when Baba came home with a film, I experienced a world beyond the confines of my own. After watching, I’d go to bed and pray for freedom, for power, for the strength to fight and to emerge a victor like the heroes of those films. During the day, I dressed like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, my sweatshirt hanging off one shoulder; danced like Kevin Bacon in Footloose; and tried to jump off of our roof, in an attempt to fly, like Christopher Reeve in Superman.
Every film I watched ended happily. Every day in Iran became more chaotic and unmanageable, until one day Baba was killed by the government and my mother and I escaped to the United States.
In America, I kept offering prayer to the gods of film, watching E.T. over and over and wishing I’d someday go back home — to Tehran. Other prayers were The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, films about lonely, abandoned girls who are ultimately bestowed with a long-lost father or uncle’s love. As I grew older, learned English, and began to make a home of this country, I prayed to be like Alicia Silverstone’s Cher in Clueless, savvy and popular, skinny and fashionable.
In college I began to fall in love with filmmakers. I immersed myself in the works of Pedro Almodóvar and prayed for loud, colorful, and boundless experiences. He led me to a year in Spain. I watched, over and over, Manhattan and Annie Hall, and prayed for a life in New York City, with funny neurotic friends with whom I’d have garrulous, hyper-intellectual conversations, and with art as my work. Woody Allen brought me to New York, where I’ve lived for twenty years.
In New York City, I immersed myself in Iranian culture and discovered Abbas Kiarostami, with his oeuvre of quiet, sparse poetry. I remembered the Iran of my childhood, its grace and its terror. My mother tongue — literally and culturally — came back to me.
In my 30s, I discovered women who make films: Claire Denis, Agnès Varda, Lucrecia Martel, Barbara Loden, so many others. With them, a new kind of prayer seeped into me, one in which my wild heart and brain could stop trying to fit in and do what’s expected. Through their films, their work, their art, I could envision, once again, something different for myself.
It took years of contemplation, of rejecting myself because of fear of failure, of asking what right I had to be a filmmaker before I finally gave up control and gave into the desire to make films. I started with one short film, then another. Wrote a feature and began to make this my life, going along with the currents of this new river in a way I’d never allowed myself to do. I had leapt into the unknown, but was buoyed by decades of prayer.
With films, I send my life — my experiences of loneliness and otherness, my joy, my fears and hopes — onto the lips and into the hearts of people unknown to me. And maybe, one day, my films may be their prayer.
Naz Riahi (she/her) is an Iranian writer and director who explores the spaces, emotions, and opportunities of otherness and isolation, informed by her experiences as an immigrant. She was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film in 2021. Her short film Sincerely, Erik won a Vimeo Best of the Year Award and was named a NoBudge Best Film of the Year, garnering praise from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the New York Times Magazine, and Fast Company, among many other publications and cultural institutions.
Her essays, journalism, and fiction have been published in Food & Wine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Longreads, Catapult, The Fader, Flavorpill, Atelier Doré, Guernica and more. She holds an MFA from the New School, lives in Brooklyn, and can be found on Instagram.