Seattle is in the process of developing a cinematic language of its own. And it is the brave ambition of this new language to be distinct from the one that has been developed by outsiders, by those who look at our city in the way a person looks at a goldfish in a bowl. This kind of look, that of the outsider, can be seen in the new movie Battle in Seattle. Stuart Townsend, the film's director, pictures Seattle in broad, blockish, and general (or generally laughable) terms. We laugh at the depiction of Gary Locke (Seattle as a part/port of the Far East), of a political banner dropped from a construction crane (Seattle as a hub of radical activism), and of the Space Needle (the first and final meaning of Seattle). Countering this general view of our city is a growing local cluster of views, scenes, and scenarios. The primary locus of this counterdepiction has been independent films (the cinema of Lynn Shelton, for example). But there is another locus that deserves our attention, and that is the recent body of hiphop videos produced by Zia Mohajerjasbi.
The brother of Sabzi (the beat-maker for Blue Scholars and Common Market), Zia, who is 22, made his first video a year ago for Gabriel Teodros's Mass Line masterpiece "No Label." In that video, he established the two themes that primarily generate the meaning of the city he shares with us: the Jose Rizal Bridge off 12th Avenue South (it is the link between the south and the center of financial and civic power, downtown), and the globalization of the city's population. Seattle, from his view, is about an interaction (center/periphery) and an emergence (the new voices of the global youth).
"I consciously avoid every popular image that's been seen of Seattle on a national scale," says Zia over lunch at Cafe Presse, the most European scene on Capitol Hill. "A shot might be nice, but I will not use it because I don't want to see the Space Needle and I don't want to see Pioneer Square." What one wants to see and not see, that is the meaning-motor of Seattle's new cinema. And all local directors have this agreement: What must be seen is what is not seen on a "national scale." For Zia, the tools for articulating this concern are found in architecture and narratology (the study of literature). "Though I have been making films since I was a boy, I started out thinking about film by studying architecture. The comparisons that I drew were very important. You have to consider all of the same things. You consider lighting, angles, blocking. How you move through space is the same as how the camera moves through space. Where are the actors standing? Where is the light coming from? These are very similar considerations, just in a different format."
"But what's funny," he continues, "is when I tried my hand at architecture for a year and half, I was preoccupied with this problem: You can't have two serious professions that are doing basically the same thing. And so I changed my major to English. This was an important move for me because studying literature is a way of studying the whole social fabric." In his videos, the theme of interaction corresponds with his background in architecture, and the theme of emergence corresponds with narration. In Blue Scholars' Back Home, Joe Metro, and Loyalty, as well as the Physics' Ready for We, we see the point at which urban topology meets the polyvocality of Seattle's multitudes. (Zia collaborated with Marty Martin on two videos, Joe Metro and Ready for We.)
"I never shot a hiphop video with the mentality that it's a hiphop video. I shot my video like a film. And I guess the aesthetic, my film aesthetic, is all about how I feel when I walk around Seattle... And so my videos are about a fusion of the music, what the rapper is saying, and my film values."
Though still working in the hiphop-video format (Zia was recently hired to direct Toronto-based Somali rapper K'naan), he has also completed a short film, Manoj (screening as part of STIFF), that stars the once-local comedian Hari K. Kondabolu. The themes activated in Zia's music videos are activated in this wonderfully photographed short film. We see our city in a way that it's not seen on a national scale.