Filmmaking is almost never an exciting process. In fact, the more boring the shoot is, the higher the chances that the director is doing respectable work. Actors waiting and waiting, producers fretting about the schedule, the director ignoring the pressure as he or she slowly searches for the best possible image, pulling only a few shots at a time—these are all good signs. Great film is not the product of luck. It is the product of patience and persistence and boredom.
It is boring up on the roof of the Kawabe Memorial House (the K building), where Zia Mohajerjasbi is on the set for his music video of "The Town," a new tune by local hiphop star Macklemore. (The video will premiere on November 13, the day of the Genius Awards party.) Mohajerjasbi is absorbed by his camera, checking and rechecking the image on the miniscreen for the exact point to place Macklemore. The rapper is waiting and waiting, talking to DJ DV One, who had arrived only to learn he would not be needed until the next day. Mohajerjasbi's producer, Sam Toloui, is fretting about the schedule: Dusk is quickly approaching, the city is under heavy clouds, and the shoot is three hours behind.
His shoots may be boring, but Mohajerjasbi's music videos and short films are the opposite of his slow and dull process. More than anyone else, his images have captured the new energies of Seattle's emerging hiphop scene and the vibrant colors of its 21st- century cosmopolitanism. Mohajerjasbi is only 24 years old, and he is already redefining not only filmmaking in Seattle, but the image of Seattle itself.
There are three reasons why Zia Mohajerjasbi won this year's Genius Award in the film category. The first and leading reason: Through a technical knowledge of film production and sharp artistic instincts, he has been able to democratize "the beautiful image" (described by Roland Barthes in his essay on Greta Garbo's face) and make it accessible to the people. The second reason: He is developing a new cinematic language for the city. The third: He is the first filmmaker in Seattle with a cosmopolitan project that's authentic rather than superficial, realistic rather than ideological.
Mohajerjasbi's career began three years ago with a music video for Gabriel Teodros's classic "No Label." In that video, we find all of the elements that have come to define his work: the democratization (or distribution) of the beautiful image with a focus on neighborhoods, locations, and buildings that have not been a part of the city's dominant visual vocabulary. Forget the Space Needle, the Pike Place Market, and so on—"No Label" is set on and around the Dr. Jose Rizal Bridge, a fresh and cinematically unfamiliar view of the Seattle skyline—not from a ferry in the middle of Puget Sound or the heights of Queen Anne hill, but from the city's working-class and immigrant neighborhoods. "No Label" also inaugurated Mohajerjasbi's visual affair with South Seattle's thriving cosmopolitanism—African immigrants, black and white Americans, and Asian Americans, unified by the beat.
So far, Mohajerjasbi has made three local masterpieces. The first is the video for Jake One's "Home" (2009), which begins on Broadway, at Dick's Drive-In, as an homage to Sir Mix-A-Lot's "My Posse's on Broadway." (Mix-A-Lot has a cameo, playfully and contemptuously flicking a $20 bill at the new generation of Seattle rappers.) The camera then gets in a van to explore the post-gentrified Central District. No other director has filmed this area with so much affection and emotion—its homes, streets, corner shops, and young rappers hanging out together at barbecues. His second masterpiece is "Joe Metro" (a 2008 collaboration with Marty Martin), which is set on a Metro bus running northward from Beacon Hill to the financial district. Mohajerjasbi arranges images of Beacon Avenue South, the storefronts of the International District, the civic brick buildings of Yesler Way, and the glass towers of corporate prosperity into a new logic of power and counterpower, moving from the outside to the inside, a germ of musical resistance slipping into the center of domination. His third, the short film Manoj (2007), is a parody of racism in standup comedy starring comic Hari K. Kondabolu and the natural light of Seattle, which slants sharply in autumn.
Mohajerjasbi is a former student of English and architecture at UW, an Iranian American, and the brother of Sabzi, the producer behind Blue Scholars and Common Market, two of Seattle's biggest hiphop acts. Blue Scholars have a growing national reputation and sell out shows at A-list venues. In the way Sabzi has built a new sound for the current decade of hiphop, Zia has built a new visual vocabulary for that scene. But whereas Sabzi built the new sound on a long and rich history of underground local hiphop (Vitamin D, Jake One, BeanOne), Zia's videos were made on (or even from) pure air. Zia has invented a local hiphop film tradition.
Mohajerjasbi's work also aligns with the emerging independent Seattle cinema whose leading representative is Lynn Shelton, last year's Stranger Film Genius and the maker of Humpday, which won a jury prize at Sundance. This film movement is characterized by Seattle's growing recognition of itself. Before this decade, Seattle did not exist in any real way in independent cinema. For example: Gregg Lachow's film Money Buys Happiness, which was completely shot in Seattle and completed in 1999, is not set here but in a generic city.
"You know, the people in this building have an average age of 72," Mohajerjasbi says as he prepares to shoot Macklemore's video on the roof of Kawabe Memorial House. Mohajerjasbi picked the location because it has yet another view of downtown that had never been filmed before. "And they throw a barbecue on the roof when the Blue Angels are in town. The jets fly right over the building, and you can see the pilots in the cockpits. I had no idea that old people are that courageous. You'd expect them to be timid and worried about their hearts." Kawabe, a 10-story building, dominates a neighborhood that has its roots in the Japanese-American experience. Not far away is a park with a stoic statue of the 13th-century Buddhist monk Shinran Shonin, a Buddhist temple, and a Japanese-Christian church. Many of the elderly in Kawabe are immigrants: So we have the pleasing situation of the son of immigrants making a hiphop video on a building that houses aging, Blue Angel–loving immigrants.
"When I asked the managers of the building if we could shoot on their roof, they did not even think twice. They gave us complete access. I mean, it is a hiphop video and they had no problem with that." Mohajerjasbi operates with a small crew, four to six people, and does everything he can to keep costs low, but not at the expense of the beauty. He only shoots in digital, but does everything he can to reduce the sharpness of digital reproduction. "I really strive for a dirty image," he says. "Sharp images are just not emotional enough for me." He loads his digital cameras with all sorts of lenses, adjustments, and attachments to produce the kinds of images that would usually cost an arm and a leg. In this way, Mohajerjasbi fulfills the founding promise of digital filmmaking: to liberate the beautiful image from the confines of big budgets.
Many filmmakers are happy with the cheap look of digital reproduction because it helps to shorten the distance between the content and the viewer. The photography in Shelton's Humpday has few enhancements or manipulations and prefers to maintain the directness and sharpness of the digital image. The camera is to a viewer what the eye is to a person. Mohajerjasbi goes in the opposite direction; he wants the dreaminess of film, and he enhances and manipulates his cameras to achieve his dusky worlds.
"I may one day shoot with film," Mohajerjasbi says, looking into his camera, downtown behind him. "But right now it's all digital. Which is fine because there is lots to learn about digital. And that's important to remember. I'm still learning. Learning lighting—that's another monster—learning new things about cameras, like the Red. One day I will get to where I want to be, but I'm not there right now."
Where he is now, what he has made, has pioneered a new direction and discourse for Seattle cinema. Zia Mohajerjasbi has already come so far.