Self-described cultural activist Hamid Rahmanian readily admits that he comes from a world of filmmaking and graphic design, but after spending more than 10,000 hours on an illustrated adaptation of a 10th-century Persian epic, he saw an opportunity to share something with the West through one of the oldest forms of storytelling: shadow puppetry.
“I felt that the place where graphic design and movies meet [is] probably in the shadows, so I thought it would make sense to create a cinematic shadow theater,” says Rahmanian.
Feathers of Fire: A Persian Epic, based on Iranian poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), tells the story of star-crossed lovers Zaul and Rudabeh using 160 specially crafted puppets, 15 masks and costumes, and more than 137 animated backgrounds. Rahmanian describes the show’s two years in production as both labor intensive and financially complicated.
“It’s very difficult to get funding for this kind of project, especially if your narrative is not part of the common narrative of Iran that is portrayed in media,” says Rahmanian, adding that the money people tend to look for projects that are more critical, touching on subjects like human rights, Islam or politics, or created from an activist point of view.
Rahmanian, however, does consider his efforts to export a strength of his culture (in this case, the visual tradition and literature) a form of activism – cultural activism – that he hopes will give audiences a positive image to take home with them because, as he points out ruefully, “Who wants to talk about the positive aspects of Iran?”
It’s a position Rahmanian is familiar with; though his book, Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings, has appeared on bestseller lists and is currently in its sixth printing, he says he didn’t get funding until the very last minute.
“It’s kind of like a pain and pleasure at the same time,” says Rahmanian. “You have to have love and passion and belief in what you’re doing to make you sit down for four years without funding.”
Audiences have more than made up for the gatekeepers’ lack of faith, with close to 65,000 people seeing Feathers of Fire since its premiere in March 2016.
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Rahmanian says people are responding this culturally specific story in the same way they might respond to Mulan or Hercules: You don’t need to be Chinese or Greek to enjoy them. In fact, Rahmanian says Feathers of Fire is for people who enjoy Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones or Star Wars.
“I created a beautiful fairytale, an action-packed adventure, and it is a nice story so everybody connects to it. And this story is now infused with the visuals of Eastern or Middle East or Islamic world or – what you call it – Persian, Iranian, so many terms,” laughs Rahmanian.
Not bad for an art form Rahmanian speculates started with only a cave, a fire and a talented caveman.
Feathers of Fire is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. April 20 at Cullen Performance Hall, University of Houston, 4800 Calhoun. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $35 to $50.