Exclusive Interview: Lila Yomtoob, First Iranian Jewish Emmy Winner
By Karmel Melamed
This past August the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored an array of actors, directors, producers, and creative artists for their work on various television programs that aired this past year. Lila Yomtoob, a 30-something Iranian Jewish resident of New York became the first Iranian Jewish recipitant of an Emmy Award this year for her sound editing work on the HBO television documentary film “Baghdad ER”. While she did not travel to Iraq for the film, she handled the post-production sound editing. The film chronicles two months in the day-to-day lives of doctors, nurses, medics, soldiers and chaplains working in the U.S. Army’s premier medical facility at the 86th Combat Support Hospital located in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Yomtoob is one of a growing number of young Iranian Jews who have recently broke with their community's career expectations by working in the competitive entertainment industry and achieving success. After completing film school in 2000, she has worked as a freelance sound editor on various film and television projects. Yomtoob has also produced and directed her first independent feature film “High Life” that takes a look at one day in the unique lives of five Brooklyn teens. Following her recent Emmy win, I had a chance to chat with Yomtoob about her award and her blossoming career in the entertainment industry.
Can you give us a little background on how you got involved in sound editing?
When I was in high school I started getting really interested in films and film making. I watched maybe three films a day back then and I would write about them. I started to notice one film in particular called “Barton Fink” that had some really amazing sound and I realized that I so intrigued by what sound can do for a film. I never actually thought I would work in sound, it was just one of those things that brought me to film making. When I went to film school, I realized that I was really terrified by all the equipment and all of the technology. Later on I did an internship at a sound company in New York that was the same company that had done the sound on “Barton Fink”, then I got hired.
What was it like to win the Emmy award?
I wasn't expecting it at all. When I saw that I was seated in the sixth row I had a gut feeling I was going to win. Everyone at work and my family has been very happy and congratulating me, it been great. It's really exciting to be recognized and go there and see what the Emmy's are like.
Are there any other noteable projects have you worked on as a sound editor?
I work mostly on independent films, different size films. The biggest film I worked on which is the most recognizable was called “Two Weeks Notice” with Sandra Bullock and Hugh Grant. I work on a lot of documentaries, small art films, films that go to the Sundance Film Festival. I've also worked on the film “Dave Chappell's Block Party” and on the T.V. show called “The Wire” on HBO.
Iranian Jewish parents seem hesitant to allow their children to work in the often unstable entertainment industry. What was your family's reaction when you told them you wanted a career in show business?
I would say that my decision was met with skepticism. My parents, my family, a lot of cousins are doctors and lawyers and my father wanted the same for me. My mother had a little of an artistic streak, so she thought it was ok. But I was raised to be very practical and make sure I could make a living. I honestly wanted to go to art school and pursue a career in photography, but I didn't think it was very practical. And for me film making was more practical because if you could get a job, you could make a really good living. I wasn't particularly encouraged but I went ahead an did it anyway, that's always been my mentality. I haven't been criticized in anyway and when getting recognized with an award like this it opens people's eyes because they're very proud and excited for you.
Did you want to continue on this path of sound editing or do you have other career aspirations?
Ultimately I'm hoping to be a director of my own films. I do consider myself a director already because I've made a film. I'd like to parlay my sound editing into a career in filmmaking. My film is called “High Life”, it takes place in one day and it's about a group of teenagers who grew up together in Brooklyn where on the friends who has been missing for a week comes back. It's basically a coming of age story for a group of 19-year-olds growing up.
What advice do you have for younger Iranian Jews wanting a career in the entertainment industry?
I would say that if you have a passion, you should follow it because that's what life's about. Walk with humility because you have to do a lot of grunt work, you have to be friendly with people and work hard. I think they're really lucky to be in the United States, because if you really want something you can get it if you're prepared to pay the cost.