November 10, 2022
By Iman Sadri
Iranian Americans are talent-rich and a new generation of filmmakers have come into the industry to make dramatic films that tell the story of the Persian diaspora. A generation of Iranians was dispersed after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. These young, bold new filmmakers are finally telling the stories of their parents and grandparents, who fled Iran, often with little to no possessions and start a new life abroad. One such filmmaker is Julia Elihu. She is a writer, director and producer of two notable films and other projects. Her film, ‘Winter of 79′ is now streaming. We caught up with Julia to learn more about her illustrious, young career, which will go down in cinema history, due to her persistence and early start.
Iman Sadri : Thank you for speaking to The Persian Observer. Please describe your early life, childhood and education ?
Julia Elihu : I grew up in sunny San Diego, California. I had a really great childhood filled with constant cousin hangouts. My dad’s side of the family all live in San Diego, and my mom’s side all live in Los Angeles. So, we are constantly back and forth, visiting all the cousins, grandparents, uncles and aunts between LA and SD. I was very active as a kid and constantly played sports, but was always very interested in the arts from a very young age.
I was very lucky because my parents always supported my artistic endeavors and pushed me to pursue my passions. In high school, my school (Canyon Crest Academy) had an after school film program called “Envision Cinema Conservatory.” I had just discovered film at the time, and decided to audition. With great excitement, I was admitted into the program and thus started my film career! The first film I ever made was a short documentary called Lily’s Journey, based on my dear family-friend’s escape story from Iran. From there, I continued to make short films, with an emphasis on the immigrant experience, mostly because that was my and my parents’ experience and it always seemed like the most significant thing to tell stories about.
When it came time to apply to colleges, I knew I had to go to film school. I was lucky enough to be admitted into Chapman University as a Film Production, Directing major and had a fantastic education through that program. I graduated in 2020, and decided to dive straight into directing, working as a freelance commercial director. In addition to commercial directing, I also make my short films and short documentaries.
IS : What were some of the early influences that got you involved in film ?
Julia Elihu : One of my earliest influences that got me involved with film was the movie Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni. I really love how the director was able to take such a tragic story, and tell it almost through a childlike and innocent viewpoint. It really made the film all the more impactful, and really did a beautiful job of simply capturing the all-encompassing experience of life.
IS : What were your favorite Top 3 films growing up and how did they impact you ?
Julia Elihu : My favorite films are:
1. Life is Beautiful by Roberto Benigni
2. Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
3. Life of Pi by Ang Lee
4. Short Term 12 by Destin Cretton
5. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
6. Taxi & Offside by Jafar Panahi
These films impacted me in a very profound way.
Taxi by Jafar Panahi taught me a different way of storytelling, one that defies genres. What I love about this film is the raw authenticity of it. That crossover between documentary and narrative.
Life is Beautiful taught me that a tragic story can still have a happy ending.
Short Term 12 taught me that it’s important to write what you know. Essentially, write from a place that is very personal to you. It also taught me the importance of specificity in storytelling, that the more specific and original you can get with a storyline, the more universal and relatable it becomes.
Moonlight taught me that you can throw your audience into a world that they may not understand and you don’t need to give any explanation. The process of showing people a world they have no connection to is the best way of making people feel empathy towards a story and a person they never understood or knew about before. Because, underneath those specifics, there are always common truths. It also taught me a lot about bringing artistry into your work.
IS : Who are some of your favorite directors in cinema history ?
Julia Elihu : Some of my favorite directors are: Roberto Benigni. Barry Jenkins. Ang Lee. Destin Cretton. Marjane Satrapi. Jafar Panahi. Maryam Keshavarz
IS : When did you decide to pursue film as a career ? What were some of the inspirations that gave you the green light to make a living as a film-maker ?
Julia Elihu : I decided to pursue film as a career when I was eighteen-year-old and applying to colleges. I was back and forth between applying to film school and business school. When it came down to deciding what school to go to, I was between Chapman University for Film Production and UC Berkeley where I would likely study business. However, when I thought about it deeply, I knew that I had no choice but to go to Chapman and study film. I had to follow my passion, otherwise I knew I would feel a deep regret. Luckily my family fully supported me in that decision, and continue to support me in my career.
My main purpose and inspiration to pursue film is really my family’s stories and the impact they had on me. My great uncle Habib Elghanian was unfortunately the first Jew executed during The Revolution, and that experience had a deep and profound affect on my family and the larger Iranian-Jewish community. Growing up hearing Habib’s story, my mom’s story of immigration, my uncle’s story being thrown in jail, my aunt’s story escaping through the border of Pakistan, my grandfather who lost his brother, my cousins who were born in the midst of a revolution, and dear friends who escaped through the snowy mountains of Turkey, I felt it was my duty to bring these widely unknown stories to the forefront. Experiences that completely changed the outcome of not only my life, but the outcomes of thousands of other people’s lives. And, stories that seem to always get swept under the rug.
IS : Describe the writing of a film and your process ? Do you do storyboarding and if not elaborate on your directing process / with casting / editing / screenwriting ?
Julia Elihu : When it comes to writing, I typically start with a relationship and evolve from there. After I’ve established a relationship, I’ll do research and interview family & friends on their personal experiences, attempting to flesh out the story through diving into real experiences.
With my short films, if I have the time, I absolutely love to create a storyboard with my DP, and really break down the visual elements of the film.
When it comes to casting, I try to find actors who are not only talented, but who truly embody the characters. For that reason, I love to incorporate improv into my casting process, because I want to see the true essence of the actor. When it comes to directing, my style is very similar. I don’t like to force actors to do and say what is written down in the script verbatim. I like to give them the flexibility to truly breathe life into the characters and make it feel authentic to them.
When it comes to editing, I tend to like editing my own work. However, if I have the pleasure of working with an editor, I love to work with them very closely to select the very best takes. Each film warrants its own editing style based on the essence of the story, but the rhythm and pacing is always very important to me. I don’t care too much about continuity. I’m more concerned with focusing on the most authentic performances.
IS : Describe how ‘In the Garden of Tulips’ came about ? Highlights from the project.
Julia Elihu : In the Garden of Tulips is Ava’s mother’s story. The story came about because Ava had written a feature covering her mom’s story which I was lucky enough to collaborate with her on. Because the feature would have been a really large undertaking, we decided to narrow-in on one defining moment of that feature and turn it into a short film. Almost like a proof of concept for the feature. Ava wrote the short and I directed it! Now we’re in post-production! We’re still crowdfunding for that if anyone is able to contribute, below is the link:
One of my favorite highlights from the filming process was that on the second day of the shoot we were able to work with all of Ava’s family & friends as extras in the film. Seeing their pure excitement and joy on set was a truly special experience.
IS : Elaborate on your relationship with Ava Lalehzarzadeh – you two seem to be a formidable young female duo in cinema.
Julia Elihu : Ava is a dear dear friend and creative partner of mine! We started working together back in 2017 on my short film Yasamin. At the time, I had reached out to almost every Iranian-looking person on Backstage Casting and sent them a message asking if they would audition for my short film which was to be performed in Farsi. Ava fit the part and graciously accepted the role! From that project forward, we’ve worked together on a number of films including Winter of ‘79 and In the Garden of Tulips. Ultimately, we’re fueled by the same passion and drive to tell Iranian-centered stories.
IS : If you would direct / write the biopic of any historical figure who would you portray and why ?
Julia Elihu : If I could direct and write a biopic of any historical figure I would portray my great uncle, Habib Elghanian. Habib had a profound effect on Iran’s history and I find his story to be both fascinating, inspiring, and chilling all at once. It is a story that is widely unknown, but deeply important (especially to me, of course!) There is actually a fantastic book titled Titan of Tehran written by my cousin, Shahrzad Elghanayan about his life and the history of Iran’s Jews. I would love to use her book as a foundation for a biopic on Habib.
IS : Describe ‘Winter of 79’ and how the project came about ? Highlights from the projects.
Julia Elihu : Winter of ‘79 is a short drama/thriller about an Iranian-Jewish mother and her fight to get her wrongly convicted husband out of jail. It is mostly based on my uncle and aunt, Shahim & Mina, and my dear family-friend Roya, with sprinkles of Habib’s story as well. The film is really an ode to all the Iranian’s who had to escape their homeland with blind faith for what was to come next. This film was actually my thesis film at Chapman University; however, we got shut down halfway through production due to COVID and had to finish the second half of the film post-grad. For me, this was the story I had been wanting to make since I began my filmmaking journey, so I feel really lucky that I was able to bring it to life.
Some highlights from the project are all of the wonderful responses I’ve been getting from family and friends who feel that their story is finally being told.
IS : What more can be done to get Iranian Americans into film + television ?
Julia Elihu : I think what we really need to do is push programmers to find value in Iranian stories. Right now, there is a large push to get BIPOC creators into the spotlight which is great; however, MENA filmmakers tend to get left behind in this movement because we’re often seen as “not diverse enough”. We don’t quite fit the quota. We need to continue to push that our stories and our voice is just as important and impactful as that of other minority groups AND majority groups. We need to be loud.
IS : What are some of your future goals pertaining to the film industry ?
Julia Elihu : In the near future, I hope to write and direct my first feature film. I hope that In the Garden of Tulips has a very successful festival run, and that we subsequently make the feature version of that film. I also hope to continue to expand my commercial directing career and work on projects that fill me up.
IS : Who are your favorite top 3 actors and top 3 actresses of all time ?
My top three actors/actresses of all time are: Dev Patel. Brie Larson. Leonardo DiCaprio. And of course, Ava Lalezarzadeh!!!!
Follow Julia Elihu on social media @Julia_Elihu