A CONVERSATION WITH DENIZ KHATERI
The internet is reshaping the modern experience of immigration: It’s possible to connect to resources in a new place before arriving there; news about the ever-shifting policies that affect the lives of immigrants can be quickly found and distributed; and people living halfway around the world from their country of origin can see the weather there online before their family at home even has a chance to look out the window. So if you’re looking to communicate what the inner life of a person immigrating to America feels like to a wide audience, what better place than the internet to get your story out there? Deniz Khateri is doing just that in the creation of her new short-form animated series for the web, Diasporan.
To create her show, hyphenate artist Khateri crosses the borders of genre to combine experience in graphic design, puppetry, theater, and teaching, while her collaboration with Iran-based artist Arvin Fouladi crosses the borders (both physical and digital) between the two nations. Together, Fouladi and Khateri have completed Diasporan’s first episode, which introduces the journey of Parastoo, a young Iranian woman moving to America to complete her master’s degree on a on a single-entry visa. Now, the collaborators are gearing up to complete the story in a full series of short animated episodes.
The first episode of Diasporan strikes its own distinct note to in the rising chorus speaking out about immigration. Partially in English and partially in Farsi with subtitles, realism and fantasy work together in Diasporan as real-life accounts of immigrants’ experiences are incorporated into the story, while the inner lives of the characters are reflected in whimsical flights of fancy. The humor of the first episode makes it inviting and fun (from the pair of mice smooching romantically in Parastoo’s new apartment to the trapdoors that appear in the airport in the path of hapless travelers), yet there’s also a nod to the poignance and alienation of being far from home. Parastoo’s look of “What have I gotten myself into?” as she flops on the bed in her strange new apartment is relatable to anyone who’s been unsure about the big life change they’ve just made.
We spoke to Khateri about what it was like working across borders, time zones, and genres to create Diasporan:
How did you decide on the animated web series format to tell the story of Diasporan?
I knew from the beginning that it had to be a series, because the more I observed myself as an immigrant and the changes I was going through, the more I realized how gradual the process of those changes were, and I think it is important for the audience to see this gradual process as it is. [...] Then I started talking to some people about making a (non-animated) web series that would be easily accessible to everyone [...] However, it was much more practical and less expensive to make it a simple animation. I should say that because the focus of this series is very much on the inner world of immigrants and how that inner world affects their social lives and communication, we’ll see so many surrealistic images and fantasies. That was the main reason that I thought of animation as my medium. It has no limits for creating fantasy, comedy, and drama.
You primarily make the show with Arvin Foulaudi, your co-animator and graphics and storyboard artist, who is based in Iran. How did your collaboration come about?
Arvin and I have been friends for many years. I love his works and we always wanted to find a way to collaborate, since our imaginations clicked very well. In 2015, we thought of a company that would design posters and promotional materials for theatre and music. A company with designers who have professional experience in that field. I am a theatre artist and both Arvin and I have experience working with professional musicians so we knew their needs. We started Nutz Design and after a year, when I came up with Diasporan, he instantly started sketching characters for it. He taught me about so many resources to learn animation. He was very enthusiastic about the project! We had no budget for the first episode so I think love and enthusiasm were our only tools that helped us do it despite so many obstacles.
Speaking of obstacles, you’ve mentioned that one of the challenges of making this series is transferring large files between the US and Iran. Can you talk some more about the unique challenges of long-distance collaboration?
There are many challenges working across the globe; some we had experienced before and some that were new to us and we had to find ways to work around.
One of the challenges were time difference. Arvin worked daytime and I was at rehearsal or a performance at night. We had very limited time that we were both available and online. Most of the time we would leave each other voice messages so that the other one could respond when possible.The fact that we weren't in each other's presence made lots of miscommunications that just added to the time it took for the project to get ready. We had to do many revisions that wouldn't have been necessary if we were next to each other.
Other problems were things like sending huge files and not having any budget to get more storage space online made it really hard to transfer big files. Also, even if we had more space, most of these websites were filtered and Arvin had to download the files via software that made the downloading process slower than usual.
You note that all the characters and events will be based on true stories. How did you go about compiling them? Are some of the stories personal to you?
I have been talking to my immigrant friends and of course observing my own life. I have gathered the stories and selected some of them for the protagonist (Parastoo) and divided the rest among other characters. For example some of my experience would be in Parastoo’s story and also in some other characters. In the end, all characters have stories of many different people inside them so nobody can assign a character to a single person.
Your online bio talks about experience in everything from theatre, to teaching, to performing, to puppetry, to graphic design. Do your different experiences in different areas of the arts inform your work on Diasporan?
They surely have and will help me along the way. I have students from different countries and I ask them to talk about their cultures and their lives as immigrants. I have learned so much from my teaching experience. My experience in theatre as a director and playwright have helped me with the script, direction of the show and especially my acting experience helped me learn how to animate a character’s body and facial expressions. I have made several shadow puppetry shows and at times when I was experimenting with different styles of shadow puppetry I realized how close it was to the medium of animation. Shadow puppetry is in fact handmade live animation! Having worked on Nutz projects with Arvin also helped our communication with each other and by the time we started Diasporan we already knew how the other person works and how to overcome the physical distance and its challenges.
There are some topical references on the show, though in the first episode they’re mostly light and funny (like the soda truck with Trump’s Diet Coke quote on it). How do you approach making the show in relation to current events? Has that shifted at all as more news breaks?
Although our focus in Diasporan is mostly on introducing the challenges of immigrants and the psychological effects of immigration on people and the society, it is inevitable to neglect some news and decisions that affect people’s lives. We don’t want to get political but then there comes a question that why have so many people chosen to leave their homes and beloved ones and migrate to another country? And now that they are here, how do they sustain their visa and permission to stay here? What rules are there that we don’t even know about because we never had to deal with them? How do they support themselves financially? And so on. If we want to show immigrants’ lives, then we need to somehow show what affects them as well. Especially at this time that many rules are changing, I need to rewrite and integrate some of this news so that it is relevant. We are releasing this series in 2018, we want it to be relevant to what’s going on in 2018.
In the first episode, Mrs. Shahia says to her new tenant. “We didn’t know anyone when we came here. We were all alone in this country. But you already found an Iranian group through Facebook. You were lucky my tenant had just left.” It had never occurred to me before, but the internet must have made a huge difference in connecting people who are immigrating with communities and resources. How do you think the internet is used as a resource by immigrants now?
I agree that the social media has facilitated this to a large extent. I have heard from many people who immigrated to the US 40 years ago that they came without having a place to live and anybody to trust. Some of them were robbed because they didn’t know how much the rent for an apartment or a taxi would be and people just charged them as much as they could! Nowadays people already know some people of their community through social media, they have their apartments ready and they even know how to get there from the airport. Online maps have also helped so much. Personally, I felt much more relaxed knowing that I can rely on my phone if I got lost because I have a terrible sense of direction and I used to panic if I wanted to go somewhere new! But this fear has no longer any agency.
Also, being able to see your family and friends through video calls is a major help, especially for those who know that they can’t go back to their countries for a long time. My aunt who immigrated to the US many years ago said that she would write letters to my mom and would wait for a month to hear back from her. Today, I sent my mom pictures of rainy Tehran (Tehran is beautiful when it rains) from the same day and she says that she hasn’t got to go out to see the rain yet! I get the news of Iran faster than she does, living there!
Parastoo and Mrs. Shahia’s dialogue online leads to Parastoo settling into a new home across the globe at the end of her journey. Diasporan itself opens an online dialogue - where do you hope that journey leads?
I hope that Diasporan can help raise awareness of the effects of: immigration, cultural differences, immigrants’ mindsets and their needs. I personally would like this project to break cultural stereotypes and help our voices be heard. [...] As an immigrant, what bothers me is feeling different and from another world. Though true, different cultures are different worlds sometimes, I would still like to feel just like any other people in the room.