When Yuval Delshad was growing up in the tiny Negev farming village of Zrahia, his neighbors were almost entirely religious Jewish immigrants from Iran who followed their culture’s well-worn patriarchy.
Some 20 years later, the dusty streets of that little moshav remain virtually unchanged, so much so that when Delshad went looking to cast a young actor in a film role based on his own childhood, he found the perfect boy living less than a dozen houses away from his own family home.
“We felt so connected,” Delshad says of Asher Avrahami, a 13-year-old newcomer who plays the role of Moti in “Baba Joon,” Delshad’s first feature film and the first-ever Persian-language film to be shot in Israel. The character, Delshad says, is autobiographical – an Israeli boy with Iranian parents who dreams of something bigger than the legacy they have planned for him.
“He knows all the characters, all the villagers and the people around him,” Delshad says of Avrahami. “He suffered the same issues that I suffered from.”
Avrahami has never acted professionally, but he has had some serious star power to support him on set. He is joined on screen in “Baba Joon” by Navid Negahban, the Mashhad, Iran, native best known for playing terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir in Showtime’s “Homeland”; Tehran-born David Diaan, another Homeland alum (he appears in Season 3 as Masud Sherazi, the uncle of CIA analyst Fara Sherazi who becomes a reluctant accomplice to Carrie Matherson), who has a resume peppered with film and TV credits; and Viss Elliot Safavi.
Filming, which wraps this week, occurred over five weeks on a turkey farm in Sde Moshe, a sand-choked, sun-parched corner of the northern Negev desert not far from Kiryat Gat. The film, which is being produced by David Silber of Metro Productions and Moshe and Leon Edri of the Israeli distribution company United King, is being financed by the Rabinovich Fund for the Arts, the Gesher Fund for Multicultural Cinema and the Nazarian Family Foundation.
Delshad, 43, says that when his script was completed and it was time to start casting, he knew that the only way to make the film authentic was to cast actors who understood the Iranian Jewish experience. Dialogue is a mash-up of Persian and Hebrew, and aside from the three adult stars, the majority of the cast comprises unseasoned Iranian-Israelis who, like Avrahami, had never set foot on a film set before.
“I knew that I had to choose actors who in their lives, in their cultures, were already the characters,” he says. “Even if I chose the best actor in Israel, or in the world, if he’s not connected to the Persian culture it would be very hard work. In Iranian culture there is a lot of nuance, and to play the part right, you can’t just learn how to speak with a Persian accent. You have to know how to say things.”
For Negahban, who left Iran as a young man to forge an acting career in Europe, the filming process has been somewhat cathartic. Sitting in his trailer during filming last week, the actor explained that his character, Moti’s domineering father Yitzhak, has struck him to the core because it reminds him of his brother, who died in Iran five years ago at the age of 40.
“He was the brother who stayed in Iran, who wanted to take care of the family, who always sought approval from my dad and until the day he died, he never got it,” he says, tears forming in his eyes. “And he always told me, you left, but you left me behind.”
He has dug deep for his role, which has also required him to work with a Hebrew coach to learn the Hebrew sentences that are sprinkled in with his mostly Persian dialogue.
In between takes, Negahban is nothing like his gruff character. He is a joker, teasing his castmates and crew while offering high-fives to Avrahami. He says that in reality, he is more similar to the character of Moti’s impish uncle Darius, played by Diaan.
Diaan and Negahban know each other well; in addition to both appearing in “Homeland,” they co-starred together in Cyrus Nowrasteh’s shocking 2009 film “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” which was also filmed in Persian.
Diaan, who is Jewish, says he adores Israel. He and the rest of the cast have been living at a beachfront Tel Aviv hotel during filming, and spending their free evenings at the city’s cafes and open-air restaurants.
“I like the sense of community here,” he says. “I like that I can go out at 10 p.m. on a weeknight and walk on a sidewalk full of people.”
The carefree attitude of Tel Aviv feels infectious, he says, and has only driven home what he already feels about the relationship between Iran and Israel: at the end of the day, people just want to live their lives.
“What I believe in right now, with social media and with the connections between people, is that everyone wants the same thing,” he says. “They think their governments are going crazy, and all they want is peace and love, to relax and to enjoy.”
Delshad says it wasn’t easy to bring his three big stars to Israel, since not only are they Iranian — two of them aren’t Jewish, either. But it was worth it. In addition to the buzz that’s been created by having such big names attached to his project, he says that the filming process has allowed him to reminisce about his heritage, and spark a small hope that “Baba Joon” will show audiences just how much Iranians and Israelis have to share.
“We sit together, and we see have so much in common because we are the same culture,” he says. “Even though I am Jewish and from Israel, I am also Iranian, and my parents are Iranian. Our culture is so similar, it’s like we came from the same country.”