MFF 2019 Interview: Maryam Sepehri Says Her New Documentary is ‘Very Personal’

Documentarian Maryam Sepehri, right, interviews Hamid Naficy, the subject of “Mouth Harp in Minor Key” at his home in Chicago. Naficy, a cultural studies scholar at Northwestern University, left his home country of Iran in 1979. Photo courtesy of Sepehri.
Documentarian Maryam Sepehri, right, interviews Hamid Naficy, the subject of “Mouth Harp in Minor Key” at his home in Chicago. Naficy, a cultural studies scholar at Northwestern University, left his home country of Iran in 1979. Photo courtesy of Sepehri.

While it won’t win any trophies for elegance, “Mouth Harp in Minor Key: Hamid Naficy in/on Exile” still has one of the best titles of any movie at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.

The documentary is indeed a minor, restrained affair about Hamid Naficy, a distinguished film scholar at Northwestern University. But when he demonstrates how to play a mouth harp, a musical instrument with a metal tongue placed in the mouth and then plucked with a finger, the movie strikes a note that is at once warm and wistful. After all, Naficy has been in exile from his home country of Iran for 40 years, and the music is one way he remains connected to his culture and his family.

When the 1979 Islamic Revolution happened, Naficy was researching in the U.S. and decided never to return to Iran. Since then, Naficy has become a leading lecturer on diaspora, displacement and Middle Eastern movies. He has published many books, including “A Social History of Iranian Cinema,” a four-volume series that belongs on any cinephile’s shelf. Yet the documentary largely eschews biographical detail, presenting instead a nuanced portrait of what it means to maintain a bicultural identity, especially over several decades.

That’s why the forward slash in the title, which might otherwise feel cumbersome, has thematic perfection. At its core, “Mouth Harp in Minor Key: Hamid Naficy in/on Exile” is about awkward slashes, about separations, about living inside contradictions, divisions and dualities.

The film’s director, Maryam Sepehri, is a native of Iran who became a U.S. citizen three years ago and calls Milwaukee her second home. Eight days before “Mouth Harp in Minor Key” was scheduled to play the Milwaukee Film Festival, I spoke with her at Stone Creek Coffee on Downer Avenue.

As an Iranian-American filmmaker, were you drawn to Hamid’s story for personal reasons?

Of course. I’ve been in the same situation for years. It’s always been my big question in life: What is the benefit of leaving my own country where I was born, and immigrate to another country? You will definitely lose most of what you grew up with, like your own language, and the people around you and the culture that you have grown up in. But at the same time, you have lots of opportunities if you want to study, if you want to work, if you want to expand your business. For me, it’s been a challenge. I’m doing documentaries, so you need to know deeply the culture, the people that you are working with. What if I immigrate here, to the United States, someday for good, and then I was not able to make documentaries, or take pictures, or write stories, because I do not know exactly the same things as when I lived in my homeland? Hamid faced it for 40 years, exactly the same thing. It was very interesting to me after all those years that he still struggled with the same challenge, that idea that I have lost lots of things, but I have gained a lot more. It’s very personal.

Do you feel that you have lost a great deal by spending so much time in the U.S.?

No, not in my case. I have done something that I have really loved. I have made this documentary and I’m working on another project. Maybe unconsciously I’ve felt a loss, but at the same time, I do what I love. But the theme of the documentary is this duality, and I’ve worked with people who are Iranian but live in the United States now. I know them, and I can relate to them.

The film is punctuated with oblique shots of Chicago’s massive “Cloud Gate” sculpture, nicknamed the Bean. The way its curved stainless steel warps reflections might be a metaphor for the distorting properties of a bicultural identity. That’s only reinforced when you consider that the Bean was designed by Sir Anish Kapoor, a British artist whose original home was Mumbai.

Kapoor, yes. That was intentional. The different reflections are kind of the different identities that you can gain, different chances that you may take.

The nonfiction “Mouth Harp in Minor Key,” which explores what it means to be bicultural through an Iranian-American prism, finds metaphorical meanings in the unusual reflections of Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture. Photo courtesy of Maryam Sepehri.
The nonfiction “Mouth Harp in Minor Key,” which explores what it means to be bicultural through an Iranian-American prism, finds metaphorical meanings in the unusual reflections of Chicago’s “Cloud Gate” sculpture. Photo courtesy of Maryam Sepehri.

Near the end, Hamid stands before the Bean and the camera placement makes it seem that he has no reflection. He is home, but not home. What were you thinking about as you arranged that final image?

Hamid speaks about being in a kind of purgatory, or about being in an elevator that goes up and down between two cultures, which comes from a nightmare he had. You cannot see the reflection because those images are not like a mirror, they are different, they are not trustworthy. When you stand underneath the Bean, it’s a kind of distortion. Hamid talks about how he made his own world through his language and his accomplishments. He is not something that we can see in a reflection, he is something that is only inside him.

The movie seems powered by dualities and contrasts. There are very cinematic, monochrome shots of Chicago that are in stark contrast to the painterly nature images and the loose, organic footage of Hamid at home.

I wanted to have color and black and white; Iran and Chicago; modern architecture and traditional, panoramic pictures. I wanted a contrast between English language and Farsi language, kind of a duality.

Much of the film feels like a love story between Hamid and Kelly, his wife of 48 years. What was it like to spend so much time with them?

Hamid himself calls the movie a love letter between two countries, between Iran and the United States. Hamid and Kelly are gorgeous people, very kind and very cooperative. They did a lot to work with me and are very happy to see the results. They did whatever I needed them to do. It’s very important when you work on a portrait that the subject wants you to discover him, not hide himself. He was really into it and loved sitting in front of the camera.

One image inside their Chicago home has a striking symmetry. With identical chairs, bookcases, paintings and lamps on either side of a fireplace, the shot could be folded over into a mirror image. The room is empty, but then a dissolve slowly brings Hamid and Kelly into view. It’s a surprising flourish. How did that idea originate?

I don’t know. It was maybe my subconscious. But it’s like a miracle. When you find someone who loves you, it doesn’t matter where you are, this is your own place. You share something very safe. That’s the relationship between Hamid and Kelly. They love each other, they found each other, they shared their love and they live in peace. Maybe that cozy place led me to it. I found the room beautiful and designed for me to shoot it that way.

As Hamid sits near the fire, he remembers how his father would sometimes pretend to smoke, going through the motions as a way to connect to tradition. Why did you think it was important to include that story?

After all these years, Hamid is truly attached to his family members. The way he talks about his mom (and the way she talks about him), it’s as if time has stopped, has frozen. It’s as if he has just left the country. The way he talked about his dad, I wanted to show his emotion. It’s a sign of how he is still attached to his childhood.

Another key contrast is between Hamid’s Chicago home and his mother’s neglected home in Isfahan, the third largest city in Iran.

Everybody has left and only the mother lived there. She has since passed. There was a tradition in the family that every day one daughter would take care of their mom. They took turns. The whole place was kind of falling apart because it’s huge and they cannot manage to keep things maintained.

Was it easy to get the family involved?

Very easy. They love Hamid and they wanted to be in a movie that relates them to him, as if they had lost him for years but I was bringing him back to them. Hamid cannot travel, it is not safe for him to go back to Iran.

For political reasons?

Yeah. Not very serious ones, but it’s better for him not to risk it. He’s not into politics, but in Iran, everything is considered political.

Hamid’s sister Nahid tells an amusing story about how, as children, they would tussle over who would first get to read the latest magazines. Then there’s an immediate cut to Hamid, who three times whispers, “You talking to me?,” in an apparent allusion to Travis Bickle.

Exactly! I’m happy you got that, because people normally don’t understand.

It’s both one of the funniest and most jarring moments in the movie—funny because these siblings are still poking each other, jarring because “Taxi Driver,” of course, is one of the most disquieting portraits of a man displaced ever committed to celluloid. Would you agree that your movie, too, has a rumbling sense of melancholy?

Kind of. That’s a very smart question! In the movie, I wanted to emphasize what Hamid says about himself, not as a historian, not as someone who has written many books, but something that comes from inside, more intimate things like his feelings and emotions while he’s away from his country. I was not about to give the kind of information that you could easily find on his Wikipedia page. I just wanted to get closer to him and the way he lives. I wanted him to represent the bigger group of immigrants, a generation who, like Hamid, are not in their homeland. They gained a lot, learned a lot. They all have higher education and are successful, but at the same time, there’s something lacking. That might be a bit more emotional, because of the relationship between Iran and the United States.

You first mentioned this project to me six years ago. Why did it take so long to complete the movie?

Money. Budget. I also needed to travel back and forth between Iran and the States because I was still working on my citizenship, so it was very challenging. I had to wait and wait to collect some more money to get it done. It took four years. We spent only two days interviewing Hamid. We shot the Chicago scenes in three days. We had one day at Northwestern, one day walking around the Bean, and one day, the first day of shooting, was Hamid’s birthday party. I wasn’t ready and everything was up in the air, but it was his birthday and we couldn’t change the date.

There’s a large amount of archival material in the movie. I was especially intrigued by the footage from the Iranian film festival that Hamid organized, amid controversy, at UCLA in 1993. How did you acquire that material?

I tried really hard to find them, but I failed. I went back to Hamid and asked for a favor. I guess somebody helped him out. After a few months, he called me and said, “Good news! I found them!” They were in terrible shape, but I’m very happy we were finally able to find them. It’s very important to show how people were very mad about that film festival. They were protesting the Iranian government, but Hamid was trying to convince them it was a good thing to share their culture with the United States. I can understand both sides, I can understand their anger but also how art and cinema can be used for peace. Hamid was very sad. He told me that after that happened, he had a very difficult time and was kind of depressed about the protests and the boycotting of the festival. He didn’t want to see the footage. It still hurts.

Could you tell me a little about the cheery cartoons that appear during the end credits? I was surprised to learn that they were Hamid’s drawings.

While we were filming, I noticed that Hamid had something hidden inside him. He always wanted to create something, to make art rather than be a scholar. Once he told me that if he were born one more time, he’d be an artist. I loved those drawings, so I asked, “Is it possible to use them for the credits?” He was very happy! It was a brave decision by him, because some people don’t like it, especially in Iran, where everything is very serious. “This is a very serious movie, and the situation is sad, and people are out of the country, and our country is in chaos, what are these cartoons?” But I still like it.

So the film has screened in Iran?

They liked it! I thought they wouldn’t like it, but they did. It was nominated at Cinema Verite, the biggest, most important documentary film festival in Iran.

Hamid says, “In exile, synchronicity dissolves and one feels out of step and out of sync with the new world.” Do you agree?

In my experience, it doesn’t happen to me, because I’m not very involved with American life. I’m a freelancer and can easily change. If I’m here and feel bad about something, I can go back to Iran and change the situation. But if you have to stay here, like Hamid has done for so many years, you need to sync yourself with the new world, otherwise you cannot survive.

How has U.S. citizenship affected your career?

It’s still the same situation for me. As long as I make films about Iranian subjects, it’s not going to be very interesting for Americans, unless it’s something political, which is not my type. Legally I am welcome to enter the United States at any time, which means I can go back and forth much easier. Still, at the border, at the airport, they ask me why I traveled back to Iran. Well, it’s my hometown, my mom lives there, my husband is there, why not? It’s weird. I have to answer this question every time. Haven’t I spent enough time here to prove that I’m doing okay? But I feel that I’m safe, that they can’t take citizenship back from me. This is the land of opportunity, that’s true.

“Mouth Harp in Minor Key: Hamid Naficy in/on Exile” will screen Oct. 19 (4:15 p.m., Times Cinema) and Oct. 22 (12:30 p.m., Oriental Theatre) as part of the 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival. The movie is in English and Persian with English subtitles.

The Milwaukee Film Festival runs Oct. 17-31. The full lineup plus ticket and venue information are online at

Read Eric Beltmann’s 2013 interview with Maryam Sepehri here.