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Interview with Sean Stone and his journey to Iran

Oliver Stone has done a fabulous job rearing his son, Princeton graduate, Sean Stone. Sean's wings have been strengthening as he has been working, interning, and meeting world leaders along side of his brilliant filmmaker father, and is demonstrating to the world that he, too, can soar. With a recent journey to Iran, with film as the primary focus, and his first feature film, "Graystone", nearing completion, this 26 year old has seen and done things most of us only read about.

Q: SHARON ABELLA: "What was the purpose of your trip?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I was invited by an American production company called, "Reel Knights". The two heads of the company are a husband and wife team. The husband is Bahram Heidari, who is of Iranian decent. He left Iran after the Revolution in 1979, and recently returned two years ago with the intentions of looking into co-productions with Western companies making movies in Iran, co-financing them, as well as, getting Western actors to star in them."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Will you be working together with "Reel Knights" on an upcoming project?"
A: SEAN STONE: "That's the intention. That is the reason why I visited Iran. Bahram's wife is an American woman, originally from Kentucky, named Melissa Carter. She converted to Islam when she was young, and studies Persian poets like Rūmī, also know as, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī. She especially loves the Sufi poets. So, having studied Persian and having adopted the Persian culture, she converted, and married Bahram later in life. She has lived in Iran for two years."
ASIDE **Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. It has its roots in the Qu’ran and the Islamic tradition, but at the same times encompasses the universal mysticism that we see in other spiritual traditions. The essence of Sufism is the simple path of loving God. The Sufi Masters sing of the all pervading love which inundates their being when they become one with their “beloved”. If there is just one goal of Sufism; it is to overcome the attachment to the binding ego and attain liberation through realising one’s identity with God. And thus the Sufi poets speak of dying to be born again, a concept similar to other mystical traditions.**
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "How did you enter the country?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I have dual citizenship, and went using my French passport. As an American, it is difficult to obtain a visa, and to have a passport cleared. We were hosted by a multi-national company called "Crown World". They operate out of Britain, China, and Dubai, but the owners are Iranian. We were negotiating with them about financing a few projects. I'm not necessarily attached to either company, "Reel Knights" or "Crown World", and simply went out of curiosity to learn more about the film industry in Iran. I visited Cinema City, which is where they have quite a few sets; the sets are relevant to multiple eras, you can set First Century Jerusalem there, you can set various eras from the early ADS forward. Rūmī, for example, is a television series being shot there now. They have great capacity for film sets, and geographically, they have beautiful terrain which varies from mountainous to fertile land. So, if you wanted to shoot films set in the region, you can really get away with a lot within the country."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Where is 'Cinema City' located within Iran?"
A: SEAN STONE: "Cinema City is in Tehran, but there is a huge potential for using other locations, like Persepolis, or Kurdistan in the north. Iran is known as one of the biggest film makers in the region. About 100 films are made there annually, by some of the most respected filmmakers in the world."

Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Did you ever get nervous being an American citizen? Were you worried that if someone found out you were an American citizen, you may have to deal with severe consequences?"
A: SEAN STONE: "Quite the opposite, I was quite open with the fact that I am American. There was never any feeling of danger at the idea of being an American. I went to Ramallah, West Bank in 2002, which was after 9/11/01, and there, again, was never any issue of being an American. On this past trip, I was at a local grocer's stand/market, outside the city of Tehran, and the grocer was looking at me and asked me where I came from. I said, "America". The grocer pumped his fist in the air, and said, "Long live America". There was no actual issue with America! Historically speaking, they are actually much more ANTI-BRITISH, than anti-American."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Because of the Monarchy?"
A: SEAN STONE: "Because of the empire, the colonization. They are very aware that the British still have a very nefarious role in world politics that most Westernized people do not recognize. I said in the press conference that I think the Americans and Iranians share a joint history of being post colonial countries and fundamentally they should be anti-empire. Both of them should be opposed to the continuation of the British Empire. They very much agreed with that.
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "What press conference are you referring to?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I did a press conference for "Crown World". I spoke with most of the newspapers from Tehran, Reuter's, and PressTV. The press conference was simply to announce my intention to work in the country. Now, that's not to say that any deal has been struck, or that I necessarily will be making a film there, to me it was an issue of offering an olive branch at being one of the first Westerners in the last 30 years to come and desire to even make a film there. Only in the last decade, I think Sean Penn and Annette Bening have been there and perhaps a few others I'm not aware of, but very few Americans have gone with any intentions of working in Iran, and I think they very much appreciated that sentiment."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Tehran is a city of 12 million and has a reputation for being one of the busiest and most polluted in the world. Did you experience any respiratory difficulties?"
A: SEAN STONE: "It is polluted. It probably depends more on the seasons. I didn't have any personal problems, but I can't assess how much pollution is in the air."

Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Discuss the political history of the country from the Monarchy to the Last Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, to the current President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."
A: SEAN STONE: "Ahmadinejad is not a very popular President. I'm not sure how he would compare to say a Bush or an Obama in terms of his popularity, he may be more popular than them. He is not considered a popular President at the moment, mainly, I think because of the fact that many people think that he has alienated America from Iran, in so far as he continues the nuclear program, and he is a bit bombastic in his speech. I think many people would prefer to have good relations especially with a countries like America and within Europe. The fact that the embargo (the partial or complete prohibition of commerce and trade with a particular country, in order to isolate it), has hurt the ability to have business with Europe especially. The irony of it, Israel I believe was the last country to put the embargo on Iran within the last year. In any condition of embargo, just like in Iraq, a whole new form of economy shapes. In this case there are many people still making money because they are creating trade with China, Russia, and India. I saw a great deal of Asians coming into the country when I arrived. Trading within the Eastern countries has not stopped just because of the Western embargo. The Western embargo hurts the West's ability to influence Iran. By keeping them isolated from the West, they become more independent."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Discuss the cultural differences you noticed. For example, the women having to cover all but their hands and faces with the mandatory chādor in either all black or black and white, and the men and women having to pray separately, etc."
A: SEAN STONE: "Culturally, Iran is a bit like high school. It's not overly regimented, but there is a sense of propriety (the state or quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals). People, especially women, are expected to live with their parents until they are married. Some choose not to, but for the most part, women live at home until they are married, because that's the point when they become a wife to a husband. In that sense, there is a repressed sexuality and a sexual anxiety within the country, but there is a sense of propriety. Men are respectful of women. Men won't engage women directly in public. Everything is meant to be taken place privately. You don't show too much because it is indecent to express certain things publically, whether it be political or sexual. There is just a certain sense of propriety, as in high school. There are obviously unwritten rules as well as written rules by which the society organizes itself. They are sophisticated people. It's not as though you are dealing with Islamic fundamentalism, because there are discussions that occur. I appreciate the fact that they have discussions on t.v. They have talk shows that go on for 2-3 hours and the dialogue can be heard. There is a dialogue exchange that goes back and forth, as opposed to American sound bites which last for about twenty seconds at most. What you get, I think, in the West, is a lack of attention or consideration to the issues, and in Iran, it's not a problem, because they do talk things through. Obviously, there are certain subjects that are considered sensitive. That's where the line is drawn. Some of the sensitive topics have been broached and, unfortunately, certain filmmakers have been placed under house arrest."

*** Iran has prevented a leading filmmaker from leaving the country to attend the Toronto film festival 2011, where his documentary about a detained co-director is being shown, his spokeswoman said Thursday. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s passport was seized when he tried to board a flight to Paris on Monday to promote the French release of “This is not a Film,” spokeswoman Emmanuelle Zinggeler told AFP. The documentary depicts a day in the life of Jafar Panahi as he appeals his conviction for “propaganda against the system” by an Iranian court for making a film about unrest after the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. Panahi, who was sentenced in December to six years in prison and slapped with a 20-year filmmaking ban, is under house arrest in Tehran. Mirtahmasb, who did travel to the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, “is now banned from leaving Iranian territory” and his personal effects, including notes and a computer, have been confiscated, his spokeswoman said. The filmmaker’s wife and son were allowed to leave the country. “This is not a Film,” which premiered in Cannes after being smuggled out of the Islamic republic, is to be screened at festivals in Toronto and London, as well as the 48th Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival in southern Turkey, and to be released in France on Sept. 28."***
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "The 66th Annual UN General Assembly is currently underway in New York City, September 13th through September 27th, and the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be staying at "The Warwick Hotel" while he is here. He will be attending a private dinner with students from Columbia University in midtown on September 21st. Back in 2007 when he visited NY, he made some very controversial comments about homosexuality.
"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it."

What are your thoughts about him expressing his extremely conservative views publicly?
A: SEAN STONE: "There are probably a lot of Republicans who share the same views. It is difficult for me to criticize International leaders because unless I've lived there, I don't want to interpolate my tradition, which is an American tradition based on certain Constitutional principles. I always defend America based on that ground, if not anything else. One can argue with any regime, whether it's Bush, Clinton, or Obama, and fundamentally, what we believe in America, is the Constitutional tradition, which supports the general welfare of our people, The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and that is the foundation of our Republic. Not every country is based on those principles. To be an American and go around telling the rest of the world how to operate is to me, A. arrogant, but also, belligerent. I don't believe we are the world's policeman. If there is aggression by one nation against another, it is up to the International community to respond, as we did in WWII. Who is the greatest aggressor in the World? Presently it's America. At this point, I'm much more concerned by what America does, and America is setting an example of a Republican institution by which other nations should follow, as opposed to denouncing other nations leaders, because we are much more likely, I think to find adherence in other countries, by setting an example, rather than basically being hypocritical and not showing a good example, and then telling other people what to do."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "What do you think this dinner with Columbia University students will accomplish?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I don't know what Ahmadinejad wants to do politically at this moment. I know he is an intelligent man, he has a PhD in transportation engineering, he is able to have discussions. I don't know the actual political force of the country right now, because I didn't deal with any governmental people while I was there. I was hosted by private businessmen who are looking to make money, but also to have cultural dialogue in exchange. So, I always appreciate discussions no matter who they are with. My father and I have had discussions with Fidel Castro, Chavez, Benjamin Netanyahu, Shimon Peres, and people from Hamas. I have no problem talking to anybody, because at the end of the day I know that we are all human, and you can only learn by talking to someone. It's really dangerous to say, "Do not talk to this man." It indicates your own lack of intelligence in deciphering in what you can actually gain and learn from that exchange."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "If you were attending the dinner what would you ask Ahmadinejad?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I would ask about Israel. We all know it has been a bane of the Middle East's existence for the last 70 years. I would talk to him and say, realistically, we know that Israel is not going to go away. Is your issue really the idea of getting rid of Israel? Why don't we talk practically about the Palestinian state, why don't we talk about means by which we can actually achieve negotiation. The problem is that I'm not a diplomat for the US. If the US Government activated me to be a diplomat to attempt some kind of negotiation or discussion with the man, I would be more than happy to do that because I feel very much that I could play an ambassadorial role, because I am not judgemental or either anti or pro any country. Fundamentally, I believe that all humans are created in the image of God, they all born of the same principles of life and the pursuit of happiness, in the American idealistic way. I do believe that all humans have rights. Because I treat all humans equally, I could very well be dispatched by the US Government to talk to Ahmadinejad, but as a private citizen, I don't know what I would be doing in a political role."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "What can we do to improve relations between the US and Iran?"

A: SEAN STONE: "The nuclear power issue is very interesting, because I am a proponent of nuclear power as an energy source. That's the reason that I said what I did about Iran's right to nuclear weapons. I know that the nuclear program in Iran might be oriented partially towards peaceful purposes, but also has a potential for the dangerous weapons side of it. In order to have the ability of nuclear energy, you also have the potential to create nuclear weapons from it. So, I went to the logical extreme and said, 'I believe in nuclear power, so hence, I am basically saying they have the right to nuclear weapons'. The region is armed. We know Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Israel all have weapons. Iran is surrounded by countries with nuclear weapons. We arm the world. An outcome of it would be the countries have the right to defend themselves only in case of invasion. I would never support any country aggressing another nation. I believe every country has the right to its self determination between it's own borders. I would urge Ahmadinejad if he wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes, that he might consider other forms of alternative energy, like vortical energy and other very hi-tech energies that have not been divulged yet, that are being withheld for monetary reasons. If you have a country like Iran or are working with say, a China, or Russia on other alternative forms of energy, and I'm not talking solar and wind, that is a great test case to then prove that the American people have actually been deceived by their own government. In a sense he could foil the West by helping in scientific endeavours, with Russia and China specifically. That's the most important dialogue that I would have with Ahmadinejad. The West aside, we know the East is growing, between China and India, we are talking about almost half of the world's population. Iran is actually at the heart of the heartland of the world; it is really the center of the heartland, Eurasia. Why not try to create an axis of trade and economy that basically shows the strength of innovation and science industry of these people; high speed rail technology connecting them, and new forms of power to energize within this industry. If I told Iran to engage that course of action with China and Russia that would be a much smarter tactic against the West. They would actually win his case as opposed to trying to be belligerent, even in words. Even if he may be right, in any case, a war between these countries, at the worst, would only end in nuclear destruction, and at the best would achieve nothing for the benefit of any of them."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Any thoughts about the two US male hikers who still are awaiting freedom?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I don't really know the situation. There are two things to be said, 1. They were picked up on the Iraq border to Iran which is highly suspicious, obviously. What were the hikers doing in that region? More importantly, we can say that Iran is wrong in detaining them, and maybe Iran is wrong, maybe they are not spies, but what about the hundreds of people we have detained from Afghanistan to across the region, and put in Guantanamo and other places and tortured? It's completely hypocritical. It's saying that we are allowed to do it, but you can't."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "What did people want during the 2009 elections and what is left of their spirit?"
A: SEAN STONE: "I wasn't there in the country at the time, so I can't say what occurred. I don't know if there was a theft. It's another irony of history. Look at the Gore/Bush election. We have this whole debate as to whether or not there was a theft in 2000. Meanwhile, then we say that Ahmadinejad stole the election in 2009. Again, the hypocrisy. I think there is an anti-Ahmadinejad sentiment of the majority now. It may be 50-60%, I really don't know, but I do think that it will swing in the opposite direction in the next election. You probably will get a more liberal regime coming into play. I believe the next election is next year."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Were they happier with the Ayatollah Khomeini?"
A: SEAN STONE: "In fact I have heard stories about various kinds of palace coups. A lot of this has to do with internal politics. We think it all has to do with some desire for war by the Iranians. Iranians haven't invaded an outside country since Greece when they invaded the Greek city states in the 4th Century B.C. I could be wrong, but they don't have a history of social expansion. What you get is not this desire to reclaim some region. Israel actually has a call for greater Israel. Not saying Israel would do it, but there are factions that want a greater Israel, which would include parts of Lebanon, and neighboring countries, as far as Egypt. It's difficult to say that all Iranian politics have to do with foreign policy. A lot of these issues are domestic, and has to do with economics. Fundamentally, people tend to vote based on economy, and which President offers you the better form of economy."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "What are people's biggest concerns? Economic well being or civil rights?"
A: SEAN STONE: "It's very difficult to say. I think, in my heart, that things will change. I think that there is going to be a generational shift. You get young people who are seeing Western cinema. There is a great irony in Iran. There is a different kind of logic. The government bans Facebook, or blocks Facebook with a filter, but you can also pay the government, or the same company, $100 and you can break the filter. There's a pretty large middle class in Iran. It's not like India, where you see squalor in many places. This does not compare in any sense. I'm sure in the rural parts of the country, like in the farming areas, I'm sure there is more poverty, but in the cities you don't see that kind of squalor. It just doesn't have that contrast, that even America has between the extremely wealthy and squalor within the same city. Iran's fundamentally a functioning economy, which is probably hurting a little now because of the embargo. I know it will hurt the people more than anything. How they will react, I don't pretend to know, but I do feel that the young people will open up in time. The whole issue of sexuality, the issue of taking off the veil, of going back to where they were heading in the time of the Shah. Iran, at that time, was probably the most Westernized, modern state in that region until the Shah was overthrown in 1978-79. I think it will go back in that direction. What happens occasionally historically you have these kinds of upheavals, and within a few generations, it will shift back to where people want it to go. So you have to have faith. My faith is in people and not in the rulers necessarily. The leaders reflect the people. People only get the leaders that they deserve. If the people are changing, if they recognize the flaws of their leaders. In time they will overthrow them, their leaders will fall, it's the nature of history. You can not be too caught up in the moment, you have to always look towards the future. In my view, frankly, Iran and Israel will be very good friends. Maybe not in the next ten years. But, they are two of the only non-Arab countries in the region, and they share a basic sense of piousness. They are both Republics, they are probably two of the most stable countries in the region, and they have respect for the rule of law, within the construct of a pious system. Remember, at the end of the day, Israel is a Jewish Democracy, or Republic, and Iran is an Islamic Republic. They both respect the rule of law. It's not an arbitrary system of detaining people and throwing them in jail, because there are laws, there is a sense of prosecution. The irony is that the American government and media portray Iran as some kind of rogue state enemy of America, but meanwhile, the Chinese government commit probably the same abuses, if not worse, against their own people as are committed in Iran, and yet China is our greatest trading partner. So people have to open their eyes and realize there is some manipulation going on, and it has more to do with their higher levels of policy making going on. We know, for example, that in the weeks after 9/11, the Bush administration, under Cheney, specifically, and his task force, had outlined a policy of regime change in five countries; Sudan, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. To this date, four of those countries have fundamentally been changed, they have suffered regime change. Iran, is the one we have left. Frankly, overthrowing Iran is an ideology we have of the neocon's going back to the early 1990's, going back to their drafting of the document for the new American century. I understand Iran's fear of this so called Zionist element which is very pro-Israel and sees Iran as an enemy. Aside from the Zionist conception, there is just a fundamental respect that the Iranians have for Jews, because there are plenty of Jews in Iran; Persian Jews, Persian Christian Jews, and they are tolerant of them, the same way that most Israeli's are tolerant of Christians and Muslims, but you can't look at the extreme faction in any country and say that is what the country is, because in that case, America can be a very barbaric civilization as well."
Q: SHARON ABELLA: "Are people interested in international assistance in achieving their political goals?"
A: SEAN STONE: "It's a really tricky question. In this case, if anyone tries to invade that country, that will be their graveyard. I don't care if it's America or Israel, unless they nuke Tehran, they will not win that war. The Iranian people will fight. There will not be a mass uprising. It's not the Iraqi people suppressed by the Ba'ath Party. The invader will be brutalized. I would completely warn this to any American who thinks that they are going to go in there and win. Obviously Iraq, to this day, we are still under attack, from the people living there who are upset with the occupation. It would be even worse in Iran because it's a Republic, they vote. It's like if someone came into America and overthrew our regime, and even if you are a Republican and you don't like Obama, you are going to fight the person who invaded your country. That's exactly the principal in Iran. It doesn't matter if they are anti-Ahmadinejad, or not. They vote. They have a sense it's their country. It's their republic. They are still citizens and they consider themselves as such. And their country has a continuous history far older than most any other on this planet."


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