Meet Kaveh Taherian, Iranian-American filmmaker and the director behind 25 Prospect Street, “a documentary about empowering adults with disabilities through love of the cinematic experience”. He has his very own page on IMDb and his resume includes some character design for The Simpsons and Producer of 20 Years of Madness – which just got announced as part of the 2015 lineup for the Slamdance Film Festival. But at the root of it, he’s just a regular dude who tells some extraordinary stories.
Read the interview below, and donate to the 25 Prospect Street campaign here.
Tell me a little about your background.
I’m full Iranian, my mom is from Tehran and Dad is from Gamsar. They came here in 1975, to Michigan. They came with the intention of returning, but then became these ‘reluctant Americans’, as I like to call it.
I was born in the Bay Area in Redwood City, then lived in Connecticut and France before coming back to the Bay Area.
I always drew, since I was a kid. I went to Laguna College of Art + Design, to study illustration, so my background is really rooted in illustration and art. I decided to come down to LA about six years ago and applied to grad school. I went to USC for a Master’s in film.
Why did you switch from illustration to film?
When I got out of college, I wanted to do character design, but it’s a very technical job. I chased it for a bit, and then realized I wanted to write the story behind the characters.
What have you been up to since film school?
Assistant Director (for films) work is my bread and butter. Having ADD and OCD is ideal for that position, you have to be gregarious when you’re making all the logistical decisions for a crew to follow.
I think the average life span for an AD is in their 50’s, because it’s so stressful.
I keep myself creatively occupied with a project that originally started as my Master’s thesis.
It’s the story of my uncle who was a pilot in the Navy of Iran, he joined during Shah’s time and stayed on after the Revolution. He gave less mind to the ideology because he believed ‘my job is to protect the people of Iran’. He stayed and fought in the Iran-Iraq war, but soon the ideology became too much for him and he decided to leave.
How he escaped: he and his co-pilot stole one of helicopters from the Iranian Navy, and eventually made their way to America.
What’s the story called?
I titled it ‘I’ll Fly Away’ after a Southern church song, because I thought it framed it perfectly. It’s rooted in Western themes, relatable to Americans, and it’s about redemption and escape. My uncle’s approach was always very sincere and matter of fact about his experience.
It doesn’t marginalize Middle Easterners, he’s just a regular dude put in these extraordinary circumstances.
Media should be about people. “I’ll Fly Away” is an American story, an immigrant story.
Where do you draw inspiration for your work?
Routine is extremely important to me, and if I don’t follow my routine I go crazy. I have a structured time that I just write, read random crap on the internet, and let my mind wander.
I think every story is rooted in something about yourself that you don’t understand, and you want to figure out further. I used to write essays for fun, and the one rule for myself was that it had to be horridly embarrassing for me to write about.
You’ve worked on documentaries, including the current one on 25 Prospect Street – why documentaries?
I never thought I’d be doing documentaries. I fell into it by accident, and then realized that I really loved it. It’s not necessarily a long term career goal. There’s something accessible and low maintenance about it.
It’s a lot more forgivable as a medium too, and its a lot more content than polish.
For my Lavashak documentary: I had just gotten the camera so I decided to go film my grandmother as she made some Lavashak.
Tell me about 25 Prospect Street?
Ridgefield, Connecticut is a town I went to elementary school in. I heard from a friend’s dad about the Prospector Theatre. It’s a first-run theatre and also a nonprofit, that employs adults with disabilities – giving them different jobs and job coaches. And disabilities is a broad term, and that’s the rabbit hole that I’ve been going down… The revenue of the theatre funds their job coaches and all the operating costs, including staff.
What they’re learning to do is to become socialized. Somebody is in their 30’s and 40’s, and they’ve never had that opportunity to engage with people. Now they have a job and an opportunity.
The documentary part for me is not about the technical side, its more about how amazing it is to see people progress and see them get better at their jobs and personal life.
Rachel is a young woman in her mid 20’s on the spectrum and until recently she had been living at home without any real promise of being able to live independently. Since becoming a member of the Prospector team, she now lives completely on her own in a one-bedroom apartment. From what I understand, that was something her mother assumed was an impossibility, so it’s actually quite a big deal that she’s able to hold down a job and provide for herself on a very basic level.
It’s a story that people should see.
Valerie Jensen, (the founder of Prospector Theatre) lives in Ridgefield, and is a staunch advocate for disability rights. This is something she wanted to do and did it right in her own backyard.
And it’s very startup-like. When we think about it, how many men run start ups? And to see a woman who is so smart and running this theatre… it’s something special.
What’s the status on 25 Prospect Street?
It opened unofficially back in August, since the theatre itself had to be built. Val decided to purchase the property and it’s been reappropriated, and made into something bigger and better than before.
It’s a huge experiment, we need to have a fair amount of time before we open the doors and let the masses in.
We started filming in June, then we made another trip in September, and another trip up until just a few days ago. We’ll be making another trip in January.
It’s a full on tracking documentary (one month, three month, six month, and one year after) to see if this idea is even sustainable.
Why this story?
If I hadn’t lived in Ridgefield, I don’t think I would’ve had the propensity to it. I lived there, 1985-1995, and I didn’t necessarily have the best time there. I had this negative association, so I wondered how is this little town doing something progressive?
My original interest was being oh I’ve gotten the shit beaten out of me there for my name being weird, and then to come see this project that’s so progressive and the passion behind it – something surprising. Los Angeles is a lot of ego, and there’s not a lot of people who are doing stuff like this.
The reason I knew i could do this, is because people with disabilities are marginalized, just like Middle easterners.
You want to create a third archetype and show people there’s more to it than their stereotypes.
Three things you value most in life?
Punctuality, Sincerity, and I guess…creativity, let’s just be generic with this one.
Where was your first job?
I love my Persian mom because… oy. She is supportive to a fault.
How do you like your Fessenjoon?
It’s not my favorite one, my jam is Gheymeh. Over rice …standing over the sink.
I know I’ve made it if… I’ve paid off my master’s (seed) debt. I’m debt-free.