NASTY WOMAN: Tara Aghdashloo (Writer & Filmmaker)
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
This interview was originally conducted on September 17, 2017 and has been edited for length & clarity.
Tara Aghdashloo is the kind of woman whose words envelop you. A writer & filmmaker by profession, Tara is a natural - and gifted - storyteller, a compelling mix of elegance and candor. Tara's journey started in Tehran, Iran and eventually led her to London, England, with a world of experience and exposure in between. Currently directing a feature film documentary, at the age of 30, Tara is already checking items off of her bucket list and learning to embrace the freedom that comes with letting go...
NAME: Tara Aghdashloo
LOCATION: London, UK
WHERE YOU KNOW HER FROM: Tara Aghdashloo Studios
Describe yourself in three words.
Determined. Impulsive. Aware.
You were born in Tehran (Iran) and lived there until you started high school, when you moved to Toronto (Canada). What was that transition like and how did you acclimatize yourself to being in a new and unfamiliar place?
High school is hard as it is, and then you had me not speaking English and not really wanting to be in Toronto, away from my friends and everything I knew and loved, so it was emotionally unsettling.
But, it wasn’t so much that it was a different culture because I grew up watching MTV in Tehran, and I listened to the same music. By 2002, when I moved, it wasn’t so much a culture shock as it was shocking to see what people thought or didn’t know about Iran or my “part of the world”. It was post-9/11 and people were thinking about the Middle East. I had classmates ask me if I was from Iraq, and I had to explain that these were two completely different countries with different cultures. People would ask me innocent but silly questions about my life in Iran, if there was electricity and if we had camels. That was the mentality. And, to me, it was shocking because I was like, “How come I know so much about North America?”
Mind you, what I thought I knew about Toronto was also not very exact. I thought the city would be like what I saw in American high school movies, so I was surprised to discover that Toronto was actually quite cold and a bit more boring than what I had seen on the screen.
There was a bit of adjustment in the beginning, and I fell in love with Canada over time because I realized that, as much of a cultural discord as there was, in so many instances, it was still a very open and welcoming culture. It didn’t take long for me to make friends and to feel like I could call Toronto my home. It happened within three to four years, but it wasn’t easy. It only became easier when I went to university and mastered the language a bit more and became more confident as a person.
You went on to attend Ryerson School of Journalism. Why journalism and what was it like to start your career as a journalist in Canada?
I loved literature and my dad, paradoxically being a successful artist, had advised me against going with a profession that was romantic in nature. He’d say, “What can you do that uses what you like, but also that you can make some money off of?”
That made me think that there was work in journalism -- at least there was ten years ago. Now it's a different story. I also found journalism to be a very noble profession. In my country, and many countries in the Middle East, people go to jail for reporting the most simple facts, and journalism is regarded as speaking to power and it’s a very politically potent profession. Being an Iranian in a North American city like Toronto, I became very politically aware and I thought that journalism was the way to marry these two passions: politics and literature.
Attending Ryerson School of Journalism definitely made it easier for me. The scene in journalism was that everything was moving to online writing and blogs were the new thing, and everyone was afraid for the future of print, which was my focus initially. I got an internship at the Ottawa Citizen newspaper and I started working. Then I switched over to broadcast reporting for BBC World, which was, more than anything, just an exciting job. I didn’t think I’d be turning to broadcast for a big chunk of my career.
You’re now calling London home. How did that move influence your career in journalism and as a storyteller?
I moved to London mostly because I sought somewhere new and more active. London was a very old city and I’m from a very old city - Tehran - so I had this affinity for old, cultural cities. I did my master's degree at SOAS, which was my dream university, and when I moved I was closer to the BBC so I started doing more work for them. Then things slowly kept coming my way. I wrote more articles, made reports and started to have fun with broadcast and visual storytelling.
I always say that London loves you back when you love it. You can’t be here and stay home and suffer in silence, be overwhelmed by everything. You need to get out, go on the underground, go to all the different postcodes in the city and meet new people, and say “yes” to everything. Once you go through that process, if you find your little group of friends in your little neighbourhood, and hopefully a job that you like, London is a great city. But if you’re here, and you don’t have a job that pays your bills to a satisfactory level, and you don’t have friends who make you feel at home, then it’s a tough city and you’ll really suffer. I think it has to be that combination for it to make sense.
My experience was that the first year was kind of lonely and difficult to return to student life-standards, especially with the bloated expenses of London but, over the years, things started to fall into place and now I feel great.
You’ve lived in many different places. Is there somewhere you feel most at home?
I have issues with the concept of “home”, in general. Once you make that initial snip, like when I left Tehran for Toronto in 2002, things change. So, by the time I was moving to London, I felt ready. I did all of that before 15 and survived, so this was going to be peachy, I thought.
If I had never left Iran and never made a home elsewhere, things could be different, maybe. I was really happy there, I was really passionate about who I was going to be and what I was going to make in Iran. I was always a radical person and wanted to change and make things around me better. A bit of a born-feminist from early on, maybe because of my grandmother or because of that society, but I was very purposeful there.
“Home” is the city that allows me to continue being purposeful, and I think now that’s in London. And when I was in Toronto, it was Toronto. Toronto became my second home, but that wasn’t really my choice. London is a home that I’ve built, so I would say that, right now, London is home. But Tehran is always my home. Even when I haven’t been back for years, when I have dreams about my childhood it’s always in my Tehran house or my grandmother’s house, which I have long and lucid dreams about on a monthly basis. That’s in my psyche, which is partially the foundations of who I am, and so that is home.
Journalism & filmmaking have been focal points of your career trajectory. What’s been a memorable project you’ve worked on?
The most memorable work in my journalism career, because I don’t call myself a journalist anymore, was an article that I wrote while I was working at the Ottawa Citizen. At the time, there was an earthquake in Haiti and there were a lot of refugees who had left in a panic to Canada through various means and, while I was checking incoming e-mails to the paper, I came across one very short but poignant e-mail from one of these refugees. She was a woman who had jumped on a rescue plane with her three kids and came to Ottawa via Montreal, and was living in less-than-nice conditions there. I met with her and it took her a while to trust me and speak to me, and I wrote this long article about it that I was really proud of. But, when it came to publishing her name, she refused because she was afraid of her ex-husband and, due to the editorial policy back then, the story was cut. I was devastated. No one ever read that story, but I felt lucky knowing her.
My documentary work was a wonderful learning curve that I think brought me to where I am now, making a feature film about my father (Aydin Aghdashloo, Iranian artist and scholar). In terms of filmmaking, it’s, in many ways, all new, but also not because I’ve made documentary films before. Doing this film has been incredibly revelatory in the way you can know someone your entire life but then look closer and see a new, more complete picture emerge. And, in reflection, you learn all these new things about yourself. It’s become an intimately personal journey and it’s been great. In a somewhat narcissistic way, any subject that pushes you to grow as a storyteller is immensely valuable.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to enter the world of journalism & filmmaking?
Honesty always makes for a good writer and filmmaker. I don’t mean being honest with everyone else; I mean being honest with yourself, what you really seek, what you want to say, and not being afraid of how you want to say it. And, if you’re a woman, to not be afraid of being feminine or masculine in the process.
During my first day at the BBC, I pretty much turned myself into a boy. I’ve always had short hair, but I put on these massive glasses, thinking I needed to look very presentable and serious. Now, whatever I want to wear, I’m going to wear. If I want to wear red lipstick to work, I’m going to do that. Whoever thinks that I’m less of a filmmaker because of it can fuck off, basically.
But I think it’s navigating your personal desires and your wants and needs, and not being afraid to ask questions and not know things, and getting people you like to show you the way and mentor you. Whenever I got over my own pride, from the day I became an immigrant, not knowing how to speak English and reading the timetable to find my first class, I’ve come across moments in my life where I’ve had to ask someone to guide me and that’s always okay.
You’ve also delved into the world of art. What kind of art are you pursuing and what inspires you?
Art was one of those things, because of my family background, my father being a painter and my mother an architect and artist and later a gallery owner in Toronto, it all felt like a second language. When I was much younger, I noticed that all my efforts in the arts would be accredited to my dad. I’d go to my third grade class with my drawings and the teacher would say, “Your dad painted this, right?” I needed to distance myself from it to figure out what I wanted and was able to do without everyone else’s input.
A few years ago, I started running and curating an exhibition space for an ex-partner. I thought, “Why don’t I do a show? I know a lot of artists and I love art.” I also found similarities to journalism; journalists can dissolve themselves in the stories of others and, with curating, you do the same, except visually. It’s just another form of storytelling, which came naturally and was exciting to create these narratives and bring artists together and learn from them.
The gallery thing, unfortunately, is a difficult job so I couldn’t do that and my full-time work as a journalist. I had to prioritize. Now I curate the occasional exhibition or write on and review shows.
I’m turning 30 now and, for the first time in my life, I’m beginning to understand myself as an artist and not hiding behind telling the story of others. I’m now taking the time to tell story, and I’m starting with a very personal project. I’ve reached a point where I’m confident enough to say, “You know what? This is about me right now,” and I don’t know why I always shielded away from it or felt that I hadn’t earned it. I always felt that, if you want to call yourself a writer, you have to read all the books in the world. If you want to be a filmmaker, you have to know exactly what each and every lens looks like and does, and you’re a filmmaker. Then I realized, if you want to be a filmmaker, you start making films, and that's how you become a filmmaker.
What did you aspire to be & do when you were younger?
A writer. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was nine, when I started writing poetry. I went through phases of wanting to be a scientist or an astronomer, then a lawyer, then the President of Iran since women can’t hold that title there. All the things that I couldn’t be or thought I couldn’t be. And I think my nine-year-old self would be proud because I kind of stuck to it.
But, like I said, the writing became very difficult when the language was taken from me. Now I’m at a stage where I’m not even a good writer in Persian anymore, or not as good, and sometimes I waver. It’s this crazy in between-ness, but I just think that’s now my identity. I am many things, and that can be positive.
What’s the greatest business challenge you’ve faced?
I hate raising funds and I hate pitching and monetizing an idea, especially in the current media scene, and making it sound like something that is worth existing, when a lot of time that existence is only measured by the number of shares and clicks. Sometimes certain stories are not meant to be seen or heard by the sheer majority, but it’s great if they are.
I worked for a television company for over three years, and I learned a lot. The impetus for me quitting last year was that, at this point in my life, I really don’t care if everyone watches my work. I want to make it the way I think is okay, and I want to be criticized, not because it’s not popular enough, but because it’s not good enough. Sometimes, those two mean the same thing but sometimes they don’t.
I don’t want to look down on things that are popular. I don’t think “the masses” don’t have taste or the right to like or not like something, but where I am in my career, they don’t necessarily converge. Everyone in the world isn’t going to be interested in the story of this artist father of mine, but I do think there are universal aspects to it, and it’s a challenge to make that attractive or into a business plan for an investor. That’s why it’s good to work with people who do that for you. It’s a different way of looking at the same thing.
What’s the greatest personal challenge you’ve faced?
I’m obsessed with fairness and justice. You can put so many things in that category, from social rights to women’s rights to ethnic rights to racial dynamics, and sometimes that makes me unpleasant to be around. Sometimes, it makes it difficult to tolerate certain people and that’s always been a source of frustration.
On a personal level, being a woman, I don’t know how to say this without sounding like an asshole, but being a woman who enjoys dressing up, enjoys being expressive about her desires and her emotions, while at the same time being someone who’s actively concerned with things that happen around the world, wants to talk about them, and takes work very seriously. You know the number of times people have told me “you’re too pretty to be so serious”? My friends have said this to me, my co-workers have said this to me, and my bosses have said this to me, that I’m “ too serious,” or why am I “not on camera?” Why am I “so obsessed with being behind the camera?” Why don’t I “get into acting?”
Sometimes it feels stupid to complain about it but, when I was younger, it did feel like a trap. It felt like I was always trying extra hard to be taken seriously. And it took me a while to feel like I don’t need to try anymore, I’m just going to do, and whoever doesn’t get it, I don’t care. The effort that I was always putting in to make myself heard or perceived in the “right” way became too corrosive. Then I let go and, as soon as I did, I felt happier. Now I’m less concerned with how people perceive me. Still obsessed with justice, but less concerned about changing every single person’s mind around me.
What is your greatest fear?
Not having enough time to do all the things I want to do; being happy and loved and loving, but also contributing to the environment and the society that I live in or the society that I’m passionate about and don’t necessarily live in. All these things that I really want to make an impact on within the very short time that I have on the planet.
Ultimately, it’s not really about making a huge change in the world and leaving a legacy. Those things, they’re nice, but they’re also egotistical and irrelevant because none of it really matters because… we’re all going to die. What matters to me are these few years that we have on earth, to do nice things and not just for ourselves, not just collecting awards and becoming really popular and looking really good, but doing little things that make the lives of others better. Having the time to do that.
Looking back, what is the. one thing you would have done differently?
I would be less sensitive about others or what they thought, but I also think that’s so me that I can’t really escape it anyway. My way of coping with it is by having people around me who are good people so that whatever they care about is not terrible.
So I don’t really think I’d do anything differently. I don’t really think I can do anything differently. I can always improve on who I am, but I am what I am, really.
What do you do to unwind and decompress?
There are two different ways that I do it. It’s either a glass of wine (or more than one) and a one-on-one with my best friend or hanging out at home watching television or a film with my husband. Or, I want to go all out dancing all night or traveling somewhere outside the expectations of the city.
What’s the #1 item on your bucket list?
I always wanted to make a feature film by the time I’m 30, so I guess that is getting crossed off soon. There are many more films I want to make. But next is maybe re-learning to play the piano.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
Hilma af Klint (who died in early 20th century) or Agnès Varda, the director. I like women who are just completely doing it, making art, not giving a fuck about anyone or anything else.
What is your professional mantra?
Grace under pressure.
What do you know for sure?
What have you learned?
What will you never learn?
To be someone else.
Best piece of advice?
A great work of art needs to be honest and courageous.
Did it work?
Yes. I am going through it right now.
The moment that changed everything?
When I got on a plane to Canada.
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