Students submit short film Madaran to film festivals

An all-USC student film crew wrote, directed and produced a short film, Madaran, which is now being submitted to film festivals worldwide. The film follows the true story of an Iranian mother who has to decide whether or not to execute her son’s killer.

Rayka Zehtabchi, a senior majoring in film production, was inspired by the story when she first read about it in The Guardian. The story’s images stuck in her mind, and she was struck by the strength of the woman in the story, whose character resembled her mother in her resiliency and fragility. An Iranian-American herself, Zehtabchi was so moved by the story that she decided she had to make it a film.

“Both of my parents are Iranian, and so that was part of the reason I was so inspired with the story,” she said.  “The older I get, the more interested I become with my own culture and the more I want to be involved in it.”

Zehtabchi finally got the opportunity to write and workshop the script in one of her introduction to screenwriting courses. During the spring semester of 2015, Zehtabchi took CTPR 310: Intermediate Production with Rachel Ward, in which she had an assignment to write and direct a five-minute short film with a budget of $1,500. Having received positive feedback on her script, Zehtabchi chose to follow through with Madaran and officially make it a movie.

The day they were supposed to start the shoot, however, Zehtabchi’s father passed away after a long battle with cancer. The group had to cancel the project, and Zehtabchi left school to take a weeklong break. After returning to USC, she opted out of making the film, and instead, she did a scene study in which she analyzed one of her characters as if a journalist were interviewing them. However, Zehtabchi said something told her that she had to push through with her original idea.

“I didn’t want to miss out of making anything, even if I was in a very unsound mental state,” she said. “I wasn’t doing too well emotionally, but I decided I still wanted to make something, and I worked with some of my group mates to create the short film based on the film I originally wanted to make.”

Determined, Zehtabchi got together with a team of USC students to help her during the summer. Avery Regen and Nicholas de Bellis, both seniors majoring in film and television production were the producers; Sam Davis, a senior majoring in film and television production, was the cinematographer and editor; and Adrian Ehlman, a senior majoring in film and television production served as sound designer. Mehrdad Sarlak, a graduate of MIT, was the executive producer.

Though Zehtabchi personally identified with the story because of her Iranian descent, her group members felt just as passionate.

“Rayka is my friend, and what happened was really horrible. She didn’t get to make the film she wanted to make,” Regen said. “We had that chance, so she should have the chance, too. It was a really good idea, and it was really well thought out.”

Because the movie was shot outside of the classroom and after the class had ended, the group could not enjoy the usual perks SCA students get from USC. Without access to cameras, lights, insurance or the computer lab, the students had to rely on themselves and the principles they have learned in class to make their project a reality.

“Things were a little bit more real world and less academic, so there was more pressure to perform and to do well,” de Bellis said.

With the help of SCA faculty and staff, the group started a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $6,000. The students scouted for actors and ended up with a cast and crew of more than 80 people, most of them of Iranian descent. They shot the movie in San Pedro and edited it throughout the summer of 2015. The group has recently submitted it to various international film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, hoping it will open doors for them.

Madaran was created as a proof of concept film, a short film with the intention of eventually becoming a feature length film.  The group hopes that they can get funded with a budget that is much larger and that they can eventually turn their short film into a longer movie.