Lila Yomtoob: Love and Forgiveness

Still image from America 1979

Filmmaker Lila Yomtoob took time recently to converse with #DirectedbyWomen Catalyst Barbara Ann O’Leary about the anthology series she is developing based on her short film America 1979, which explores the impact of the Iran Hostage Crisis on a young Iranian American girl’s life. Yomtoob also shared insights about how she remains grounded and connected to her creative work while handling the demands of a full time job.

DBW: Thanks for taking time to engage in conversation.

LY: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

DBW: I appreciate your director’s statement. In the statement you share: “Movies bring people together through mutual understanding. We become a collective mind without speaking a word, united by the viewing experience. And this is why I make film. To bring people together.” These are times when bringing people together feels more urgent than ever.

LY: It does feel very urgent right now. Luckily there are so many ways for people to connect.

DBW: I’d love to hear what you’re working now.

LY: I’m mostly working on America 1979 the series concept based on my short film. The short film is about an Iranian American family during the Iran Hostage Crisis. The series itself is an anthology, so each season is different. The concept is that each season brings the viewer into a different year in contemporary history, exploring how politics and culture shape people. So the second season is America 1980, then America 1981, etc.

DBW: That’s an interesting way to expand the story. Same family moving through the changing landscape of American social and political upheavals of that time?

LY: Actually each season follows a different household that would be specific to the storyline. So each season is a new year, and a new story, and new characters.

DBW: Following different households feels even more exciting. I think you were at IFP Week last month, exploring possibilities for moving forward with the project. What was that experience like?

LY: IFP Week was incredibly exciting and rewarding for me. Most people I spoke to strongly connected to the idea and wanted to hear and read more. That felt great, and was really encouraging. I also had great news businesswise—that the project has great international appeal, and that it could be largely funded with international sales. An international sales agent told me this, and it was echoed by reps from AMC and CAA. It’s an exciting thing to be able to say that the project has sales potential. I’m hoping it will help me find a production company and show runner.

DBW: It’s definitely refreshing to hear your project has sales potential… and international appeal.

LY: It made me really happy to think that people who think in terms of money think that audiences are ready for this kind of show.

Still image from America 1979

DBW: Yeah. Did the process give you support moving forward with these next steps? There are so many possibilities. What’s helping you stay grounded and on track?

LY: Staying grounded is difficult. There is so much to do, and it can be an emotional roller coaster. Since I also have a full time job, I have to carefully balance my time and energy so I don’t get burned out. I’m lucky to have great friends and colleagues, and I am a member of a few communities that have been helpful such as #wearewiti, FilmmakeHers, and Film Fatales. IFP graciously offers to help whenever they can, and I have already taken them up on it. I also do a bit of yoga every morning. That helps keep my head straight.

DBW: Yeah… daily energy practices like yoga can be so supportive. I was planning to ask you about what communities you connected with to support your filmmaking practice. Not every filmmaker has experience with groups like Film Fatales, etc. In what ways do groups like this help sustain you?

LY: Mostly it’s great to know that I’m not alone. I’m 43, and I made my feature film long ago—before social media. I went to film school, but even then I didn’t know one woman doing what I was trying to do. I hardly knew any filmmakers! Now it’s easy to find each other and connect. I love seeing all the generations of women working hard to fulfill their dreams, and helping each other along the way. The groups share resources, and sometimes talk out issues. Sometimes I’ll meet up with members of the group outside of the meetings to get in deep and help each other with advice and resources.

DBW: Yeah… community is so crucial. I’ve also been thinking about how a series like America 1979 can open up possibilities and make opportunities available to so many other people—directors, writers, actors, film crew, etc. In these times of transformation within the entertainment and media world, creating space for women, people of color, and others who have not previously had robust access is really exciting. I can really see your project flourishing. And the kinds of community you’ve been building will be so valuable as you bring people onto your project.

LY: Thank you, Barbara Ann. I hope you are right.

DBW: I’d love to hear your thoughts about what drew you to the America 1979 story and what inspires you to expand that story now?

LY: America 1979 is very loosely based on my experience growing up Iranian American during the Hostage crisis. There is so little made about this massive event from the Iranian American perspective that I felt a need to do it. Then I realized there are so many other hidden stories that are still resonating, and that made me want to expand. I am very excited by the thought of the research that will have to go into every season, the experts we’ll bring in to give talks in the writer’s room, and picking new writers and directors every year that can bring their personal experience to the table. We can employ a lot of people—a lot of people who deserve more of a voice.

Lila Yomtoob on set
Lila Yomtoob on set

DBW: And people who can help create new ways of working together—more inclusive, supportive ways of creating than have been prevalent in the past.

LY: Yes.

DBW: All while being highly entertaining and profitable!

LY: That’s the plan!

DBW: I like it.

LY: Thank you! It’s so much fun to recognize the potential that each individual has to bring to a project. I really try my best to allow everyone to bring as much of their creativity to work. Being able to make film is a gift, and I try to treat it as such.

DBW: That really resonates with me. The creation process is something that impacts the work that emerges. Something I appreciated about your America 1979 short film is the way very simple, everyday details in the lives of a each family member connect to the global events unfolding in the world—events that shift the dynamics of each member of the family in different ways. That’s something I think people living through the current turbulent times can relate to.

LY: That’s a very interesting observation. When we are living through something intense, we still have to go through our everyday lives on some level. The little details of life help us stay grounded, remember who we are and that we are human.

DBW: And they help bridge divides in a natural way.

LY: Yes. I was very surprised how many people could relate to the film, and intensely so. I feel like stories live in the details.

DBW: I agree. I like the anthology approach. It makes opportunities to explore a wider range of human experience. And keeps people coming back to see where you’re going next.

LY: Thank you for seeing that. I think it has potential to do so. I think the pitfall to be avoided is for it to feel formulaic, which I think we can successfully avoid.

DBW: Yeah. That’s why I was asking about your grounding practices. It’s crucial to stay true to your deep intentions for the series, while navigating the economic pressures.

LY: That will be a tough one. The way I am approaching this is that I am starting a relationship with the people that I work with on this. I have to think about it this way—do I want to get in a proverbial bed with this person/company? I’ve seen a lot of crappy behavior. Luckily, one of the big culprits is going down as we speak. I’ve been working professionally in this business for over 15 years and know what I will and won’t put up with.

Still image from America 1979

DBW: That’s so important. Yes, and that informs the kind of environment you’ll cultivate for others as well.

LY: That’s right. Of course, who knows what will happen. I feel like I better talk like it’s happening as a way of bringing it to fruition, although I know that I have better chances of winning the lottery!

DBW: People do win the lottery!

LY: They do! You gotta play to win!

DBW: Yeah. “Gotta be in it to win it” and you’re stepping up to do the work of bringing your project forward not only for yourself but for the benefit of others. To me that makes the process so much more valuable.

LY: Yes, this project has the potential to mean something to people—which I love. It can get people talking and sharing, and hopefully laughing and crying.

DBW: I’m really looking forward to this series coming into being.

LY: It makes it much easier to pour all this energy into it when thinking people might actually benefit from it’s existence.

DBW: Yeah.

LY: One criticism I get about the short is that there is no ending, or that nothing “happens.” I think there are many ways to watch films, and that people who say these things watch films in a different way than I do.

DBW: I know, what you mean. A LOT happens in your film. Family relationships heal in subtle but meaningful ways, and your characters see themselves differently in ways that are complex.

LY: Thank you for saying so, Barbara Ann. I happen to agree! A lot happens! To me, the film is about love and forgiveness. The ending is that Bobby loves his sister enough to accept her apology and truly forgive her. I really wanted to show an Iranian American family operating in the context of love—the opposite of war and violence, which is mostly what we see in media.

Still image from America 1979

DBW: Yes. The total power of unconditional love unfolds in very quiet ways. It’s far more powerful than any other force in the world and it makes for compelling viewing. Of course in this business there are no guarantees that any given project will find its way to completion, but there’s juice here and it feels timely. It’s about an earlier time and yet it not only lets us experience now with some distance, but it also shows us things about how we got to where we are now, which is something a lot of younger people particularly have no comprehension of as it was before they were born. And yet it’s nothing at all like a history lesson.

LY: Thanks so much for your support, it really means a lot.

DBW: You are welcome. I know you’ve had a long day. I need to let you get on with your evening. Before we wrap up, I’d love to know if you can share about women directors whose work you wish more film lovers were aware of. I’m always on the lookout to help bring more women directors to people’s attention. We’re growing a culture of appreciation.

LY: I have to admit that I haven’t been viewing much lately. I’m very far behind. But I will say that I am VERY excited to see Agnès Varda’s new film Faces and Places. Have you seen it by chance? She is so inspiring to me, and the trailer looks so great…

DBW: I haven’t seen Faces and Places yet, but am hoping to soon. Varda’s amazing. Her The Gleaners and I is one of my all time favorite films.

LY: Yes, I love that movie too! Such poetry.

DBW: I love that she continues to work and bring fresh energy to projects. Creativity is timeless and I look forward to many women directors making work into ripe old age. I’m so glad we had this time to converse. I’m so appreciative. Please keep us posted on your work as it unfolds.

LY: I certainly will! Thanks so much.

DBW: Enjoy your evening.

LY: You, too. Have a good night.

Lila Yomtoob
Lila Yomtoob

Find out more about Lila Yomtoob’s work on her website. The short film America 1979 is streaming on VHX and on Amazon Prime. It is also available on DVD.