Argo, 2012 (Ben Affleck) Source: Warner Bros

The Case for Increasing Farsi Talent On-screen

by Mariam Habib, Kaveh Daneshmand

Toronto is among the world’s most filmed locations. In North America, Toronto ranks as the third-largest production center, after Los Angeles and New York. The city’s film and television industry formally employs over 25,000 people, and many more on an informal or temporary basis.

Guillermo del Toro’s Shape of Water, which went on to win the 2018 Academy Award for Best Picture, was filmed largely in Toronto. Familiar locations include the Science Wing of U of T’s Scarborough campus and the Elgin Theatre. Larger budget films that were filmed in the city in recent years include Total Recall (budget: $137 million), The Incredible Hulk (budget: $175 million) and Suicide Squad (budget: $184 million). With an incredibly diverse creative population of untapped talent, Toronto (as well as Canada’s other major film production cities) have a lot to gain by widening recruitment channels to increase inclusivity and accessibility to overlooked and undiscovered local talent.

Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones at the Elgin Theatre during the filming of Shape of Water. Source: The Globe and Mail

As a bridge between the Farsi film industry and the rest of the world, FCC recognizes that all areas of production stand to gain from diversifying cast and crew and increasing recruitment of Farsi-speaking talent in major production hubs in North America.

Casting is a huge part of this picture. With an increasing immigrant population, more and more of whom are choosing creative career paths, Toronto can radically change whom we get to see on screen. It’s no secret that audiences want to see diversity. TV shows like Atlanta, Kim’s Convenience and Master of None have amassed large followings and won several awards. Major producers like Netflix are pushing diverse casts and stories on their channels. Recently, Ali Wong’s Always Be My Maybe made headlines as a fan favorite on Netflix.

Still, there are significant gaps to be addressed. While we’ve made proud advancements in increasing representation for Black and Asian folks on screen, some populations are still being left behind. Namely, representation of Arab and Persian talent is greatly lacking in both film and television. Folks of a traditionally “Muslim-looking” background are still mostly written as two-dimensional secondary characters that accelerate stereotypes. This type of storytelling is culturally damaging and frankly lazy.

Filming of Total Recall at UTSC
Source: Jake Cadaverous

Another issue is the apparent interchangeability of different ethnicities and languages. It doesn’t take an expert to point out the inaccuracies of some character profiles in North American media. Non-white and non-black characters are often created using an intercontinental buffet of stereotypes from various identities and backgrounds to create a generic, metamorphasized “other”. On screen this looks like an “Arab” man, dressed in rural Afghan attire with an Indian accent.

The 2012 film Argo, directed by Ben Affleck, falls under this criticism. The film is based on a CIA operation to rescue six American hostages in Tehran in 1979. Though the film claims to be based on a true story, it has been harshly criticized by Iranians in America and elsewhere around the world for presenting inaccurate, oversimplified depictions of Iranian people. Some of the Iranian characters in the film have Arabic accents, an example of interchangeability and lack of proper casting.

These inaccuracies are easy to identify and just as easy to avoid. So why do we keep seeing these mistakes being repeated in big productions in the West? One possibility is that the ties between formal casting channels and underrepresented creative communities are weak. Building on our blog post from last week, our expertise as a platform aimed at strengthening a professional network across communities and industries has helped us identify that part of the problem is one of information, or rather the lack thereof. Unions, casting companies and agencies are to a certain extent unaware of the large community of underrepresented talent in the city. Moreover, where this information is received, the same organizations lack an adequate means of reaching out to these communities and discovering promising talent. On the other side of the equation, talent from historically underrepresented communities lack the connections to casting directors, agents and unions.

Argo, 2012 (Ben Affleck)
Source: Warner Bros

Identifying this gap presents a great opportunity for FCC to foster connections between the community of Farsi-speaking on-screen talent and casting organizations and producers in our network. We also acknowledge and support initiatives such as ACTRA’s Diversity Committee, that seek to increase opportunities for physically and culturally diverse  members. While there is much work to be done, identifying the areas in which we can make specific changes is an important first step. Continuing this research as well as collaborating with other local organizations will allow us to further promote our vision of better representation for Farsi-speaking talent in global film industries.

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