Persian-Jewish filmmaker tackles love and money in ‘Shah Bob’
The film “Shah Bob” opens with Bob (Reza Sixo Safai) waking up in bed next to a beautiful woman. When Bob’s father (Parviz Sayyad) calls to ask Bob to check on some tenants who haven’t been paying rent, we quickly learn three things about Bob: He’s 40, a swinging bachelor, and he hates his job.
He’s also an amateur filmmaker, and while his Asian-American friend Steve encourages him to quit the family business and focus on making movies, his Persian-Jewish family pressures him to make money.
The second feature film by Babak Shokrian, “Shah Bob” includes numerous autobiographical elements as it takes on many of the things he both loves and finds annoying in his community of Tehrangelenos.
“I work with my father, and we do work in real estate, and I dated in that community. But really, I took that little seed and had some fun with it, based on my own experience but mostly based on the experience of friends and family and those around me,” Shokrian said. “There are brushstrokes of my life in there, but it goes into fiction and fantasy and a little bit of comedy.”
Shokrian was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1965 and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was 5 years old. He attended USC and UCLA and directed a short film, “Peaceful Sabbath,” in 1993, which explores conflicts between ethnic and cultural identity. He continued with those themes in his first independent feature, “America So Beautiful,” in 2001.
“Naturally you feel like an outsider when you first come here as an immigrant, as opposed to being born here,” Shokrian said. “I think it’s a psychological difference. Being born here gives you that edge, that advantage of feeling like you belong.”
In the director’s newest film, Bob is set up on a blind date by his father and is surprised to find himself drawn to the young, beautiful Persian-Jewish woman named Sheila (Solmaz Niki-Kermani). She’s a pharmacist, though she had wanted to be a fashion designer.
“I always wanted to design my own line, but my parents talked me out of it,” Sheila tells him. “I suppose they wanted what was best.”
“They always do, don’t they,” Bob replies with a hint of irony.
Bob struggles to finish his screenplay, and is visibly exhausted throughout the movie. At one point, he shows up late to meet with a real-estate broker because he stayed up all night writing. His business partner Mike (Kamyar Jafari) chides him for not being business-minded enough.
“My wife has to buy shoes to go to the mall to spend more money. You understand me right now?” Mike asks Bob. “You want to be like one of those f—ing losers at Starbucks with their f—ing laptops? What you’re talking about is a pipe dream.”
As Bob’s relationship with Sheila progresses, he starts to feel career pressure from her as well. “Wouldn’t it just be easier to work with your father in real estate?” she asks him.
“It’s not all about money for me. I think pursuing dreams are more important,” he says, as she rolls her eyes. She reminds him that he’s 40, raising children is expensive, and he’ll need to earn real money to support a family.
It’s a constant refrain throughout the film. After his father becomes ill, Bob’s mother pressures him to settle down. “You want to make us happy, find a wife,” she tells him in Farsi.
Throughout the movie, the camera frequently shifts from these interactions to scenes of Bob sitting in his apartment, typing on his laptop while chain smoking, drinking coffee and ignoring phone calls, suggesting that all these ordeals are fodder for his script.
Shokrian made the film on a shoestring budget of $50,000, relying on favors from friends in the industry. He shot at properties that he also managed and at Persian restaurants in L.A. that allowed him to shoot for free, as long as the crew ate there. The movie was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II, a digital single-lens reflex camera (DSLR), using mostly natural lighting, in just 12 days.
“I learned the limitations of DSLR filmmaking and the challenges, but you can also see the possibilities,” Shokrian said. “This was my first time doing that kind of thing. The possibility is to make a low-budget film with a good cast and crew; you can make a good film for a very low budget.”
Shokrian hopes to provide a more nuanced view of his community than Bravo’s reality TV show “Shahs of Sunset.” Bob’s story highlights the pressures placed on Persian Jews to earn high salaries and have children, much as in other immigrant communities. It also shows the complexity of dating within those pressures.
And for a generation that may have been born in Iran but was raised in the U.S., it explores the blending of identities. Bob’s real name could indeed be Babak, like the director’s, but he chose to go by Bob.
“It’s showing how these characters have been here for some time, and have lost their identity and the roots of their culture, and now they’ve changed their names to Bob and Mike and Jimmy. They do that because they want to make their lives easier, they want to make other people’s lives easier, they don’t want to have to explain themselves in business with having a funny name,” Shokrian said.
“In the end, everybody just really wants to fit in. Nobody wants to be that different.”
“Shah Bob” runs from Sept. 25 through Oct. 1 at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. Actors Reza Sixo Safai and Parviz Sayyad and director Babak Shokrian will participate in a Q-and-A following the Sept. 25 screening. For more information, go to