Wisdom from a turkey farm

Talking to Yuval Delshad about the road to his Oscar-nominated movie, ‘Baba Joon’

Yuval Delshad, on set in the dusty village where he grew up (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yuval Delshad, on set in the dusty village where he grew up
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Baba Joon is the newly released movie by writer/ director Yuval Delshad (“baba” means grandfather in Farsi). With a career that grew from the documentary world, this is his first feature film. Never one to shy away from reality, Delshad turned to a subject that speaks to his heart – the father/son relationship.
For authenticity, the movie is filmed in the dusty village where Delshad grew up, and the actors speak a blend of Hebrew and Farsi, just like it was in the 1980s of his childhood.
Delshad loves the fact that life imitates art: “My baby, Itamar, was conceived during the start of the photography, and he is already trying to crawl!” Baba Joon centers on the conflict of a traditional father, Yitzhak, whose life has been hard and demanding, and his gently defiant son who, as a preteen, is refusing to learn how to farm turkeys. The mother understands that their son, Moti, has no passion for the family livelihood, but Yitzhak takes the decision badly. Thus end hopes and dreams; the father’s desire to pass on his father’s business is doomed the utter uninterest of a kid who has no love of turkeys, no desire to learn the trade and no appreciation of the art of poultry manufacture.
More painful is the perceived lack of respect that the father senses in Moti’s lack of interest. This is the farm that his father built with blood, sweat and tears, hard labor that generated the essential source of their livelihood and solved the issue of identity as they struggled to build a new life in Israel.
You can feel the connection of Yitzhak to these feathered fowl, who have enabled him to maintain dignity as the family left their immigrant identity behind.
Delshad cradled his baby as he shared his thoughts on the importance of Israeli cinema today. “I want to make movies that reflect the conflicted relationships that are part of our life. This movie shows how it was with my father and me; now that I have a son, I understand things more clearly. The desire to pass on a legacy to our child is strong, but I hope that I will be able to leave my son to make his own decisions in regards to the work he chooses. I love the paths and details in our lives.
“Previously I made some documentaries, and this brought me closer to understanding other people’s stories and seeing the truth in them. When my dad passed away, I thought it was time to tell my story – and so I wrote this screenplay. It was hard work – in fact, it took six years to finish. I quit everything else during that period so that I could do this. I was dedicated to the truth of the story; my life story parallels the movie.
“When I started to write, I was single,” he reveals. “Finally, after six years, I had finished my 17th script and was newly married.”
The Persian community has never been the place to find first-rate movie actors, nor is Farsi the go-to language for indie (independent) filmmakers.
Delshad poured years of his life into the screenplay and yet more time into casting realistic actors who could create the true feeling of family. Finally his casting was completed, with the grandfather in the title role and the leading role of 10-year-old Moti both played by Persian Israelis from Delshad’s village – who had never acted before.
The actor who plays Yitzhak, the father, comes from America, and the actress portraying the mother hails from the UK. Both the uncle (David Diaan), and Yitzhak (Navid Negahban) are brought to life by accomplished actors who have appeared in many films, including the HBO series Homeland.
The shoot took five weeks, with the last week reserved for second-unit shots that didn’t require the actors. Delshad had to work hard to get this time allocated because the budget was tight, but he knew it was essential for capturing the intricate feeling of small-town life. “I think everything can be found in village issues,” he says, and then divulges a bit of a spoiler.
“The essential truth plays out at the end of the movie when Yitzhak apologizes.
Moti finally knows that his father respects him and allows for the culture of difference.”
The movie was funded through the Tel Aviv Rabin Museum Foundation; this is often the way that independent Israel movies are created. Once filming was finished, longtime distributors United King Film – owned by Leon and Moshe Edery, also co-owners of the Cinema City chain – came on board with investment and distribution. In mid-October the movie premiered, selling an impressive 30,000 tickets.
Perhaps ticket sales have been boosted by the successful nomination of the movie as Israel’s official entry for Foreign Language Movie at the 2016 Oscars. The nomination itself is an accolade that will stand Delshad in good stead for future projects, as yet unannounced. Meanwhile, Delshad has started presenting the movie on the film festival circuit. Baba Joon won Best Picture at the Ophir Awards and was the opening-night flick at the Israeli Film Festival in Los Angeles on October 28.
Delshad attends all of the events and will subsequently visit festivals in Sweden, India and New York. He admits, “Of course, my wife and our baby will come along. My baby is the essence of Baba Joon!” Soft-spoken and poetic, Delshad explains, “The next movie I make will be about a small moment. I’m now 44, so I’ve seen many things. I don’t have cable; I don’t need television for inspiration.
The best research of all is daily life. I like the complications and sympathy of relationships between people, I want to touch simple people with issues that show the reason for life’s decisions.
I see many stories around me; you don’t need to add more drama because it’s there with the people in our lives – mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. I like to discover and delve into human nature in detail.
“The truth is that people aren’t good and bad. There is no black and white.”
These days, the Jewish state is burdened by terrorism bringing death and fear. How does Baba Joon play against this reality? Delshad sees the similarity of his movie with the current crisis.
“The Palestinian-Israel conflict is also a culture of difference, and the culture is so different. I have Iranian friends and some Palestinian friends, and when I see the way things are, I have a difficult time comprehending the way they respond to events. We must understand the culture before it can be possible to be break down the conflicts. Education has to update students, and shouldn’t oversimplify bad and good.
“In the movie, Baba Joon sees things one way and has to understand another approach. He’s an artist of sorts. He doesn’t deal with the problems in his family until his brother arrives, and then he finally can see it. He’s not a bad person, but he’s angry because he misses his roots and his childhood in Iran, and he was a new immigrant, which was hard.”
“In the past five years since the Arab Spring,” he continues, “things are changing, just like Moti in the story.
The people in this region are shifting the way they look at things. It’s not easy; the world is always transforming and the younger generation sees things differently. How will movies be watched in the future? “Perhaps I will be able to visit Iran and slowly the borders of the countries will open, and people will find an even greater need to understand each other.”