05 July 2005

Persian Poet Omar Khayyam Inspires New Iranian-American Film

Filmmaker endures six-year odyssey to bring Rubaiyat author's life to screen

By Steve Holgate
Washington File Special Correspondent

Wake! For the Sun, who scatter'd into flight
The Stars before him from the Field of Night,
Drives Night along with them from Heav'n, and strikes
The Sultan's Turret with a Shaft of Light

Portland, Oregon -- So begins The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, one of the best-known poems in the world and perhaps the most famous piece of Persian literature.  The several hundred quatrains that make up this enduring 11th century work have been translated into dozens of languages and inspired countless readers and scholars with their beauty.

At least nine editions of The Rubaiyat are currently in print in the United States, and the work remains a staple of university courses across the country. 

Most are based on the 19th century translation by the British scholar Edward FitzGerald. 

American artistic interest in Omar Khayyam goes beyond an admiration for his greatest literary work, however.  The story of Omar Khayyam himself has captured the imagination of numerous American novelists and filmmakers over the years.  Three silent films and a 1950s Hollywood epic have told sometimes highly fanciful versions of the story of the multitalented 11th century man who was one of history's great mathematicians, a noted scientist, an accomplished poet and an important figure in the court of the Seljuk empire.

Now a fifth film is seeking once again to recount the story of Omar Khayyam.  The Keeper:  The Legend of Omar Khayyam, a new movie on the poet’s life and work, has opened in theaters in the United States.  The Keeper is the labor of love of Iranian-American filmmaker Kayvan Mashayekh, who produced, wrote and directed this highly personal version of Omar Khayyam's life. 

The new film, which features Oscar-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave in its international cast, is set at first in the United States, where a 12-year-old boy is told by his dying brother that they are descendents of the great poet and that they must keep his flame alive.  The film then takes up Omar Khayyam's story as the dying man relates it to his younger brother.  

Significantly, Mashayekh learned of Omar Khayyam's story from a close family member, his own father.  In an interview in Payvand's Iran News, Mashayekh made clear that he means the film as a tribute to his father, saying, "I feel it is my way of paying formal homage to a past which has contributed so greatly to my duality as an Iranian-American."

Omar Khayyam might have considered Mashayekh's long and difficult journey to complete the film as an adventure in itself.  Wishing to make it as authentic as possible, Mashayekh shot most of the footage in what is now Uzbekistan, in Samarkand and Bukhara, cities that figured prominently in the poet's life.  In addition to the difficulties of filming in daunting conditions, the project was plagued by financial woes that stopped production on two occasions, by misplaced film canisters that nearly led to the loss of much of the footage, and by plain bad luck; Mashayekh was scouting locations in Morocco when the attacks of September 11, 2001, led his financial backers to abandon the project. 

In all, it took more than six years for the first-time director to realize his project, but he makes clear in the Iran News interview that if he loves something strongly and deeply enough he is willing "to sacrifice everything to get it."

Mashayekh has finally seen his dream come true.  The film opened in Los Angeles in June and earned a favorable review from the Los Angeles Times.  It has also been chosen as an official selection for this year's Moscow International Film Festival.

The film enjoys a potential audience of Americans already familiar with Omar Khayyam.  In addition to the films mentioned earlier, Americans have written numerous songs and plays based on Omar Khayyam's life and his Rubaiyat. There is even an episode of the cartoon Rocky and Bullwinkle in which the intrepid moose and plucky squirrel go searching for "The Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam." The poet's name has also been used in less exalted fashion over the decades to market wine and rugs and to serve as the name of many Iranian restaurants in the United States. 

Beyond brand recognition for Khayyam’s name and greatest work, "Khayyam's philosophy of tolerance and humanity are vivid lessons to be followed in our post 9/11 world," according to Mashayekh’s interview in the Iran News. Now he awaits the verdict of critics and audiences, taking faith in the power of Omar Khayyam's timeless message.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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