Where are you from, and why there?
My father was the Brooklyn-born son of Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. My mother was the daughter of Midwestern Presbyterians with a claim as a Daughter of the American Revolution. I was born in Minnesota and raised in Bellevue, Washington, before it exploded with Microsoft and Amazon.
Which issues do you work on/care about, and why?
Human rights and cultural connection are central themes of all our documentaries, including films about women’s rights in Iran, the way swing jazz and dance helped break the color barrier in the 1930s, the origins of the marriage equality movement, and women’s empowerment in Haiti. However, I care about a lot of other things, too … Japanese woodblock prints, Chinese folk music, classic movies, and the theatre. On a personal level, nothing is more important than my wife and our children.
How did you get involved?
Early on, I was interested in art, politics, old movies, and moving far away as soon as I could. I dropped out of college, went to New York City, got a job as a messenger at The New Yorker, and that started my real education. I remember seeing sometime in the late 1970s a display on Fifth Avenue about the abuses of SAVAK, the Shah of Iran’s secret police and security service. The faces of the people in the demonstration, and the horrors they showed, made a lasting impression.
Over the years I’ve zig-zagged between NYC, Vermont, and Los Angeles. I’ve also moved from being an artist/illustrator, to a journalist, a radio host, and a documentary filmmaker. All those pursuits have featured a fascination with the way cultures and societies grow through contact with each other.
More recently, I’ve produced six documentaries with Marcia Ross (she also had a long career as a film and TV casting director). We got married mid-way through making our previous film about the great American playwright and LGBTQ pioneer Terrence McNally. In 2011, I did a short documentary with Amnesty International about the persecution of the Baha’i Faith in Iran (“Education Under Fire”). Stories I heard of Muslim men and women putting themselves at great risk to help their Baha’i neighbors stayed with me, and I kept thinking about returning to that subject.
In 2016 Marcia and I reached out to Nasrin Sotoudeh to ask if she’d be interested in a documentary about her life and work. It was a time when many American politicians were demonizing Islam and promoting conflict with Iran. We felt Nasrin’s story could help counter those stereotypes and show the diversity, resilience and depth of Iran’s people and culture.
As a sad irony, while we were making this film about brave advocates for grassroots democracy in Iran, we saw a frightening assault on those principles in the U.S. that continues to this day. Nasrin was arrested in June 2018 for defending women who publicly protested Iran’s mandatory hijab law. She was sentenced to decades in prison and dozens of lashes, but she continues to challenge the authorities from the confines of her cell. The film NASRIN has become the center of a global campaign for Nasrin and other political prisoners.
What’s the biggest challenge for the issue(s) today?
Ignorance, arrogance, apathy, greed, cruelty … those are challenges that face every generation in every country, although this does seem to be a time when those qualities have been embraced as the driving principle of one particular party in the United States. I do think most people, regardless of background and ideology, have at heart a kindness and personal generosity. I hope we can find a way to build mutual respect as a guiding principle for individuals and institutions. I’m by nature somewhat cynical, but if Nasrin Sotoudeh can remain optimistic I figure I should, too.
Who are your most frequent allies? Any surprises?
Doing a documentary about human rights can be dispiriting because we see so clearly the way repressive governments treat advocates for human rights. It can also be difficult because of the disinterest we see from some of the sources we hoped would offer support for what seems so clearly to be a great cause. That is more than countered by the example of people like Nasrin Sotoudeh and other activists around the world, many unknown but equally inspiring.
What drives you?
Like a lot of others, I want to do good work and be a decent person.
What do you want your career/advocacy to stand for?
I’ll leave that judgment to another time and to someone else.