This Local Documentary Talks Inclusivity and “Otherness”

We sit down with Scarsdale producer Sherry Mirafzali and director Shidan Majidi to find out what went into creating “Me, the ‘Other.’”

Newly minted Westchester residents, Sherry and Saeid Mirafzali, are bringing their documentary film, Me, the “Other,” to Bronxville’s Bow Tie Cinemas on September 25. The two produced the film, which centers on issues related to diversity in higher education communities.The screening starts at 7 p.m. followed by a conversation with the film’s director, Shidan Majidi, and cast members, but we thought we’d start you off with some behind-the-scenes info from our interview with Sherry and Saeid, where they share the motivation for the project and how the film is continuing to create conversations around the word “other.”
WM: How would you give a quick pitch of this documentary to someone who has no idea what it’s about? Majidi: Through the series of short stories, Me, the “Other” explores the lives of 12 students from very diverse backgrounds living in Michigan. A rich mosaic of the human experience emerges from their stories, allowing us to see what connects us and what keeps us apart as a human race.The stories comprise a wide range of experiences with racism, sexual harassment, chronic illness, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious prejudice, immigration, incarceration, mental health issues, and more.
What was your involvement in diversity movements prior to your work on the film?Sherry Mirafzali: As members of the Baha’i faith, Saeid and I have been naturally inclined to promote diversity, since the oneness of humanity is a central tenant of our faith. For example, we have been involved in youth empowerment projects, often focusing on traditionally disempowered minority youth communities. Our focus is helping kids recognize and develop their potentials and use these potentials to transform their communities for the better.Majidi: I started my professional career as a volunteer at New York’s 52nd Street Project, an after-school theatrical project focused on inner city youth telling their own stories through theater. The confidence-building scope of this program inspired me to create The One People Project, an award-winning, conflict/resolution-based “reality theater project,” which was supported by Mayor David Dinkins’ Stop the Violence Program. The project aimed to bring people of all different backgrounds together and, through shared stories, draw them closer to the understanding of our “oneness” as a human race.

What made you choose the medium of film to deliver the message you set out to spread?Mirafzali: Shidan and I originally considered various mediums, such as theater, concerts, and TED-type talks. We chose to make a film because it was the quickest, easiest, and most economical method; it took six months from the moment of inception to the first screening! This wouldn’t have been possible without the unified vision and heart-felt collaboration of our team, given that Saeid and I had no prior experience in filmmaking.
What made you, Shidan, take on the directorial role of a documentary, considering your background in theater?Majidi: I double-majored in film and theater in college, and I got my first job in the film industry before moving to Broadway. I love character study and the intimacy the camera is able to achieve, especially in a documentary interview setting.
Why was Ann Arbor, Michigan chosen as the film’s location?Majidi: Sherry lived in Ann Arbor and worked at the University of Michigan. She reached out to me by asking if I’d be able to create an artistic project that would celebrate diversity on the three local campuses (University of Michigan, Eastern Michigan University, and Washtenaw County College), in honor of the bicentenaries of the university and the founder of the Baha’i faith. I was intrigued by the idea of a college town and its diversity. It made me wonder how millennials were coping with the current climate of prejudice and polarization that has permeated not only our nation, but the world.Mirafzali: Shortly after our move from Shanghai, China to Ann Arbor in 2015, the United Stated started to experience significant political turmoil related to issues of diversity. Ann Arbor happened to be the right place at the right time, a highly diverse community in Washtenaw County that contained three institutions of higher learning, which value and attract great diversity. We couldn’t ask for more!
What parts of the film will be relatable for Westchester residents?Mirafzali: We moved to Scarsdale in mid-June, so we’re still learning about the community. However, every aspect of this film will be relatable to viewers in Westchester in its own unique way, because all humans deal with personal struggles. Since we are parents and work in healthcare [I work] in Hawthorne and Saeid in Bronxville), we often meet individuals in Westchester with similar issues to those presented in the film.

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What do you hope Westchester residents learn from the film to make their own communities more inclusive and understanding? Mirafzali: Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, mental/physical health, etc., we are all members of one human family with feelings and personal struggles. Nobody deserves to be “othered” in families, schools, workplaces, or the general community. We hope the film will allow each viewer to see that regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the choices or lifestyles individuals choose, we should look at what unifies us at a more important and fundamental spiritual level as humans.
The film’s tagline is, “Otherness is never one thing.” What things make you feel “other”?Mirafzali: I experienced a severe form of “otherness” at a young age. My family and I escaped from Iran shortly after the 1979 revolution. As Baha’is, we were singled out for ridicule and persecution. My mom and I often had rocks thrown at us on the way to elementary school. Some of our friends were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the government. The persecutions became so severe that we feared for our lives and escaped Iran, with the help of smugglers, through the mountains of Turkey.Majidi: I’ve always wondered if anyone in this world hasn’t felt like the “other” at some point in their lives. Aren’t we all outsiders in some shape or form at some point? I often ask this question of audiences after screenings, and to my surprise, 99% agree that they’ve felt othered. Otherness happens even within othered groups. Sam Su, the Asian cast member in our film, talks about the Asian stereotype and how within his own community he’s regarded as “other” for not following the path of education that was the expected norm.

How has creating this film changed the way you think about the word “other”?Majidi: “Otherness” is about the physical/material form of life. Oneness is about the soul. I’m convinced now more than ever that the soul, which animates our existence, consists of love and light. None of these issues, like sexuality, age, and religion — which seem to be the cause of our fear and separation in this world — exist in the world of the soul. At our core, we were meant to be one, and the substance of oneness is love.Mirafzali: The film has expanded our understanding of otherness. It can happen to anyone based on background, personal attributes, or any condition that makes them unique or different. We now respect diversity even more.
What is the impact you’ve seen the film have on discussions around diversity and inclusion?Majidi: Michigan State University created a study guide that accompanies the film to facilitate dialogue around diversity and inclusion issues raised. The film’s success is in its simple storytelling dialogue technique, which draws audiences into the hearts of each student featured and creates a safe and open atmosphere for post-screening discussion. Our intention was for the film to build bridges and break down walls, and it has been very successful at achieving that.
Me, the “Other” screens at Bow Tie Cinemas in Bronxville at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25. Tickets are $5.

Photos courtesy of Shidan Majidi

Saeid & Mirafzali

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