Portobello Storyteller – interview with Carolena Sabah and Tadeh Daschi (15 January 2009)

Introduction

About a month ago, Carolena wrote to tell me about her newest project. Intrigued, I hopped over to her site and knew, immediately, i wanted to interview her. As per her suggestion, I also agreed to interview Tadeh Daschi. They have both told such fascinating tales about their lives and the journey to make their project a success. I have no doubt you will enjoy reading their story. Without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing you to Carolena Sabah and Tadeh Daschi …


Aneeta: Carolena, I’m delighted that you contacted me to request an interview. Added to that is this opportunity for me to interview Tadeh as well. Thank you.

Carolena: Thank you for the opportunity to share our work with you and the readers of your wonderful website!

Tadeh:  And I’m equally delighted.  Thank you for providing such a wonderful opportunity.

Aneeta: Please tell me a little about your lives thus far – where were you born, where did you grow up, where do you live now and what do you do for a living?

Carolena: I was born in Iran, although I’m Armenian. I moved to Los Angeles at a young age and it’s where I consider home. Most of my family speaks Russian as well as Armenian and Iranian. During the 1915 Armenian Genocide, my ancestors moved from Armenia to Russia, where my grandmother was born and grew up before moving to Iran. I come from a family of athletes; I myself was in my high school’s swim team. My great uncle was a Boxing Champion in Iran, my mother was in the Olympics in 1964 representing Iran in Shot-put and Discus.  She still holds the record in Iran.  Recently I heard an interesting story about my grandmother Arsha Lucia (in Armenian her name means- light at the break of dawn).  She went to the same high school as the King of Iran’s daughter. At that time Persia was a monarchy.  Lucia, my grandmother, won first place in the school’s Track race. The king’s daughter, being angry at coming in second, insulted Lucia calling her a bad Armenian.  Lucia in retaliation pushed her to the floor, hit her or something to that affect.  Of course she was called in by the head of the school but luckily she didn’t get into too much trouble for it.  So, many years later, when the king’s son succeeded the throne, he personally presented Lucia with a medal of honour for her parenting accomplishments and thus honouring my mother Juliet, an Olympian and the travel liaison to the royal family. Even though I grew up without my grandmother around, I feel close to her. We’re both Leo’s and I have the same beauty mark as she did, on the left side of my face – the same kind Marilyn Monroe always wore.

Aneeta: How fascinating! What happened next?

Carolena: During the Iranian Revolution in the early eighties, we were forced to move out of Iran. Travelling is one of my favourite hobbies. I’ve been lucky to have lived in Greece as well for a few years. I travel as much as I can. I just love seeing different places, hearing different languages, ways of life and living, it’s fascinating. In 2000 I travelled to Iran since I didn’t remember much and of course I went to Armenia. I’ve been to France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, the UK, and India. India was a spiritual journey; I backpacked through Mumbai, Goa, Agra (for the Taj Mahal), Calcutta and Varanasi.  So many countries still I want to see. Yes, I wear vagabond shoes.  Even as a little kid, when I was 4 years old, I was at a shopping mall in London with my mother and grandmother.  I walked off on my own, and got lost, for an hour or so I was lost and eventually got scared and was crying when the security found me, called over the speakers that there is a little boy who is lost.  I was mistaken for a boy.  But they gave me bubble gum and a balloon, so I was happy.  Now I live in Los Angeles, I’m an actress, a producer and a licensed dental hygienist.

Aneeta: I read the material on your website, http://www.myspace.com/tadehdaschi, Tadeh. Still, I’d like you to know, what is your background?

Tadeh:  I’m of Armenian descent and was born in Tehran, Iran in 1980, amidst the start of the Iranian revolution.  My parents had to flee the country when I was just three weeks old.  Like many Persian/Armenians at the time, the closest escape was to Greece.  There, we sought refuge until my grandfather, a prominent lawyer in Iran, was able to speed up the process of getting us the proper paperwork needed to travel to our next destination.  At just six months old, I boarded a plane and took flight across the seas to reach our final destination… the United States of America.

Since then, I’ve been raised in California, in and around the Los Angeles area where I reside today.  I’m now a filmmaker whose prime focus is on narrative films, commercials and music videos.  A graduate of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California– I’ve gone on to direct several award winning projects which include producing and directing a Public Service Announcement (PSA) for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals campaign, currently in circulation at the gallery of the U.N.

In recent news, my film, ‘The Witch of Portobello’ was announced a winner in the “Experimental Witch” International Film Competition. I will tell you more about it later.

Aside from writing and directing, I often times produce, helm the camera as a cinematographer, edit and also compose the music for my films.  In addition, I’m known to sometimes lend my talents in front of the camera as an actor.

Aneeta: Carolena, in your email, you told me that you’re an actress. Have you always wanted to be an actress? Why?

Carolena: I wanted to be many things; an author, a linguist, a pediatrician, an astronomer and physicist. But, I was attracted to acting like a bee is to a flower. There were times when I had to take a break and get away from it, but I never could stay away for too long.  Now, I don’t think I’m going anywhere.  There are many things I love about it.  It’s a great outlet for my emotions and I feel a certain comfort being in predetermined circumstances. Though what fascinates me most is that it delves into the human condition. Let me not leave out the fact that I’m a Leo, actually a double Leo (sun and ascendant) and due to my occasional flamboyant character, I love being center stage. And since my ruling celestial body is the sun, quite occasionally I’m stricken with the delusion that the world revolves around me.

Aneeta: And you, Tadeh. Have you always wanted to be an actor?

Tadeh:  No, not at all!  It was a happy accident that stemmed from desperation.  I started, or should I say, I attempted to make films at the age of 11.  As a child, I used to read and write a lot.  I’d read books that were considered too ‘advanced’ for my age.  But they helped influence and fuel my desire to want to tell stories.  It began with writing short stories that later developed into screenwriting after I’d picked up a book by script writing guru, Syd Field, titled ‘Screenplay’.

At 11… this was my bible.  Combined with a handheld VHS camcorder that probably now belongs in the Smithsonian, proved to be my match made in heaven.  I’d start typing out screenplays to short films and begin shooting immediately after the scripts were done.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t blessed with having a handful of professional actors ready and willing to be in an 11 year old’s short film.  So the other solution was to round up friends and family.  I ended up casting myself in my films because of two factors… a) lack of actors… b) I thought to myself, since I’m writing and directing… who better than someone who already knows the story and characters inside out.  Though, if I had a concept of professional casting at that age… the latter explanation would not exist.  But so it began, throughout my teens, I’d star in my films and round up the troops for new film adventures.

Nowadays, I choose to focus my attention more from behind the camera.  If I do step back in front of the lens, it’s usually for convenience factors or last minute desperation of not finding an actor right for the role.

Aneeta: It is stated on your website, http://www.carolenasabah.com/, that you acted in a film called ‘Don’t Gag Me.’ Would you care to tell me about this tale?

Carolena: Sure, I actually wrote and produced it as well.  It all started the day I got fed up waiting for an entire year on another script I had co-written to find financing for.  I decided to write a very short film and to just produce it. I wanted to come up with a clever idea, I spent almost two weeks trying to find an interesting story when one day at work, I was cleaning a man’s teeth who was not being very cooperative and the light bulb turned on. In a flash, right then and there, I wrote the entire story in my head. I wrote and polished the screenplay in a couple of days, was in pre-production for one month with a two day shoot, and a very long 9 month post.

I mixed the dental world with that of domination, and the fine line between pain and pleasure. Most people have a very strong fear and are quite nervous in a dental chair, yet others derive a pleasure although that’s not very common. ‘Don’t Gag Me’ is a 10 min. comedy that tells the story of a nervous patient’s fantasy at his dental appointment. He envisions the hygienist as a dominatrix as he tries to cope with his fear. The DVD is available on Amazon.

Aneeta: Let’s talk about your newest project which involves Paulo Coelho’s book, ‘The Witch of Portobello’. Tell me what happened, how you got involved in this and your success thus far. Let’s start with your view of the project, Carolena.


Carolena:  I remember it was July 2007, my friend’s birthday. I went to the bookstore and bought ‘The Witch of Portobello’ for him and ‘Eleven Minutes’ for myself. That night as I was reading ‘Eleven Minutes’, I wondered if Paulo Coelho would be on Myspace. I took a look and to my surprise, and what a surprise I must say… he was.  Through his blogs and Myspace, I read about ‘The Experimental Witch’ project an international film competition based on his book ‘The Witch of Portobello’. Around that time, Tadeh had released his music video which he shot for the band Visa, for whom I had also, around the same time, modelled for their ‘De Facto’ album cover. Visa’s music is on the soundtrack of our film. I was very impressed with the music video and was sure I wanted Tadeh to direct ‘The Witch of Portobello’ and so the rest is history…

I approached Tadeh around or in August 2007, and on August 24, 2008, on Paulo Coelho’s birthday, he announced the winners and as I’d like to say, of course we were one of the winners.

The project consisted of making a film of the book, ‘The Witch of Portobello’, each chapter made by a different filmmaker. Each chapter is the thoughts and views of the 14 different people who came into contact with Athena on her quest. The book journeys through her life as she searches for herself, for love and truth in religion and spirituality. The project is quite clever. In the final film, all of the characters will stay the same as Athena changes, the actor playing Athena changes.  This adds to the idea that every person has a different opinion of her.  I play Athena, and we chose the Nabil Alaihi narrator/chapter.

Athena, who later in life became known as The Witch of Portobello, is an orphan born in Transylvania. She was adopted by Lebanese parents, lived in Lebanonin the early part of her life then moved to England where she remained the rest of her life.  Athena from a very young age was drawn to God, she was gifted in a way where she would sense things before they occurred or she could sense things about people. She was very religious and would go to church regularly until she became disappointed at the church for their discriminative and judgemental attributes.   From that point on, she began her spiritual journey. She didn’t believe even for one second that God was confined to the church so she found other ways to connect to the soul of the world. One way was through dance, dancing. Shortly thereafter she was sent to Dubai through her work at the bank, and she took the advantage to meet with Nabil Alaihi, a Bedouin living in seclusion from society in the deserts of Dubai, to gain wisdom from and find the answers she was looking for. This is the chapter we shot.

Out of 6,000 submissions, there are 14 winners and these 14 films are now being edited into a feature film which is set for release around May of this year.  Paulo Coelho had an interview on CNN’s ‘The Spirit of Storytelling’, about his works and the ‘Experimental Witch’ and clips from our film were featured along with the interview.

Aneeta: And you, Tadeh, what is your view of this project?

Tadeh: As Carolena said, in the summer of 2007 we teamed up for the ‘Experimental Witch’ project.  I had just finished Directing/Producing the music video ‘Breakout the Violins’, for the band VISA from their album ‘Maktub’. The music video presents an indulgent feast for the eyes while depicting farce, romance, satire, comedy and rock & roll; filled with artistic, sexy, bizarre and outlandish visuals… the tongue (planted firmly) in the cheek.  The music video has now gone on to win several awards which include ‘Best Music Video’ at the ARPA International Film Fest ’08 in Los Angeles and recently an Accolade ‘Award of Excellence’, an honour granted to  only 15% of entries at the 2008 Accolade TV Awards in La Jolla, Ca.

Carolena and I had a mutual connection through this band.   She was to be featured on the cover of the group’s follow up album titled ‘De Facto’.  Surprisingly, VISA’s album, ‘Maktub’, is actually a direct reference to Paulo Coelho’s novel, ‘The Alchemist’.  It was a word used in the book, which translates into ‘it is written’ or ‘destiny’.

Carolena had seen my music video for the band and felt compelled to approach me at one of VISA’s shows and convince me to team up for the ‘Experimental Witch’, believing I was the right filmmaker to accomplish such a task successfully.  At the time, I was familiar with author Paulo Coelho and had read most of his work, but hadn’t yet discovered his latest novel ‘Witch of Portobello’.

Soon after, I picked up my copy of the book and finished it within two days.  For the film competition we had to select a chapter that we wanted to film.  We both concluded that the chapter titled ‘Nabil Alaihi’ was the best choice for what we wanted to accomplish cinematically.

Pre production lasted several months. Adapting the screenplay, for me, was the hardest part because the book is so internal.  Each chapter has its own narrative and is told through a different character’s point of view, like a journal, and their connection to the book’s central character, Athena.  Trying to find a way to express someone’s internal dialogue, thoughts and ideas into a visual format by creating scenes and scenarios was definitely a challenge.  But that’s what makes it fun and allows the brain’s power of imagination to explore different ideas.

Carolena was set to star as the film’s central character, Athena.  Finding the male lead to play Nabil Alaihi proved to be another great challenge.  We auditioned many actors, met a lot of great talent… however, we could not seem to find the right person for the role.  It’s one of those things that within the first 10 seconds, you can tell whether the actor is meant to play the part.  I knew exactly what I wanted, finding it was the hard part.

Then, just one week before shooting was to begin, we got a call from an actor by the name of Bashar Da’as.  He seemed hesitant and reserved, stating how he was certain the casting call had already come to a close but yet he felt it was worth a try to make an appointment to come down for an audition.  Little did he know of our situation.  We immediately had him come down for a read and within a few seconds I knew we’d found our actor. The decision between Carolena and I was unanimous and within an hour he received word that he’d been cast.  We were all elated!

Soon after, towards the end of April 2008, principal photography began and lasted for 2 weeks into early May.

Our production crew consisted of six actors along with a production designer, a wardrobe designer and a production assistant.  A lot of us wore multiple hats on the project.  I directed, adapted the screenplay from the novel, did the cinematography, produced and then in post-production… did the editing and even composed the original music.

Carolena Sabah, who’s the star of the film, produced and executive produced the film as well.

As they say, a lot of our own blood, sweat and tears went into the film.

Also, like every production, we had our share of tribulations.  Filming took place at the Imperial Dunes in Imperial Valley that doubled as our location for the Dubai Dessert. We faced temperatures which reached triple digits.  No electricity… except for a small generator that would consistently fail on us during the times we needed it the most.  Also, we faced winds up to 60-70 miles per hour that ended up blowing away and almost destroying an Arabian-like tent we had constructed for the film.  But needles to say… I was part of a great team and we all pulled through to make the best of the situation as we possibly could.

‘The Witch of Portobello’ tells the story of the mysterious Athena (Carolena Sabah) and her quest for truth, love, and spirituality.  In her single-minded pursuit for enlightenment and escapism, Athena sets out on a journey with her son in search of Nabil Alaihi (Bashar Da’as), through whom she hopes to find a more inclusive and harmonious understanding of her spiritual longing.

The setting of the chapter drew me in because the desert plays an additional character in the film.  Its vastness and isolation much reflects Nabil’s solitude. Nabil is a Bedouin dessert dweller, living in isolation in the sandy dunes of the Dubai Dessert. He’s not only well versed, but in-tune with religious doctrines and rituals of different faiths (sort of like a Middle-Eastern/Bedouin Yoda).  He leads a solitary life practicing Arabic calligraphy, cooking and providing shelter for the occasional passer-by and/or tourists.

I also connect with Athena’s quest for individual identity, trying to find her place in the world, an ideal to belong to.  Part of why I admire Paulo Coelho’s work is that I view his material as modern day Aesop’s Fables for adults.  He’s able to incorporate life’s lessons, philosophies and different ideals mixed with spirituality all in one neat package.

Post-production lasted a little over a month as I tried to piece the puzzle together in editing and composing some original music.  The soundtrack to our film also features songs from the band VISA, a Los Angeles based group whose music has been described as an ‘eight-member, world music phenomena’.  Front man K’noup makes a cameo in the film alongside Soseh Keshishyan, a prominent singer from the band Element’, who also lends her vocal talents to the film’s score.

We submitted our film and patiently waited for the announcement of the winners that were to be revealed on author Coelho’s birthday, August 24th.

The date finally approached much sooner with all our anticipation and I found out on my own when checking Coelho’s blog to find the list of winners.  It was 3 in the morning and I think my scream was heard through several neighboring cities when I saw my name listed next to our submitted chapter amongst the group of winners.  I immediately called Carolena, waking her up for the good news.  Our combined screams must have covered several more zip codes.  Soon, even more screams of joy as I called all those involved, waking them up.  Luckily I brought them good news and they had forgiven me for waking them from the confines of their dreamlike state.

It was truly a great feeling to succeed in what we’d set out to accomplish and have all of our hard work and efforts pay off.

I had written the script with the desire to make our selected chapter stand on its own, rather than a small piece in a much larger puzzle.  We were able to obtain festival rights from Coelho’s team and are now in the process of showcasing our work at various festivals.  In October ’08, we held our Los Angeles premier screening of our winning submission at the ARPA International Film Festival to a full house and a great response from the crowd.  The goal for us now is to promote our film and reach out to fans by giving them something in return with our own interpretation of Paulo Coelho’s material.

The winning films will be included and released as part of a full-length feature film in 2009.  Also, clips from our film were recently showcased on CNN’s ‘The Spirit of Storytelling’ which featured an interview with the author discussing his work and the ‘Experimental Witch’.  We’ve submitted to various film festivals and should be expecting upcoming screenings, just to name a few, at the following events: Beverly Hills Film Fest, Los Angeles Film Fest, Atlanta Film Fest, Ann Arbor Film Fest, New York Film Fest, Seattle True Independent Film Fest.

Aneeta: How exciting. I wish you much luck. Clearly, with your background in writing, producing and acting, you have much experience in the art of storytelling. Which particular aspect of storytelling did you find hardest to master and how did you master it?

Carolena: Master? I’m only a slave to them… but the hardest? Well, producing comes very easy, it’s a lot of work, especially on a limited budget where one has to wear a lot of hats, but I’m good at it. Acting, there’s always more to strive for, to prepare for, to be truthful and believe in the moment of a characters life. I would say writing is probably the hardest, to write a good story, a good script, is not easy.

Tadeh:  Storytelling has existed long before our humanity has had language to communicate.  It’s an art form that allows us to visualize and see images through the use of imagination whether it’s through spoken word, written form, pictures, paintings, performance etc.

My passion is to tell stories and film is the media I use to export my imagination.

The hardest, for me, is the process that kick starts everything into motion and that’s starting with an idea and writing it down.  Coming up with an idea is easy.  Expanding on that idea into a well-developed premise and story can be a challenge.  There are times when I can sit down and write a screenplay in less than a week and there are times that I’ll be caught staring at the computer screen for hours on end, hit with the spell of writer’s block.

Storytelling is very much dependant upon the storyteller’s reservoir of experiences and the vision through which he/she sees the story taking form and eventually being presented.  On the other hand, storytelling can be formulaic.  With enough practice, like everything else, it can be easily mastered.  But what makes the difference is the visionary lenses through which the storyteller forms the story.  It’s the vision of the storyteller that brings uniqueness to the finished product.

Aneeta: This website, as you know, caters for storytellers. What advice would you give to people who would like to venture into storytelling?

Carolena: Well, I don’t feel like I’m in a position to give advice. I think every person must experience on her or his own. I’d say if you have a story to tell, tell it, Welcome!

Tadeh:  A story should have substance and the storyteller should have the vision to match the content of the story.  You can argue in the same fashion as ‘the chicken or the egg’ paradox… either the ‘story’ comes first then the ‘vision’ of how to present it – or you have a ‘vision’ and then, within it, you try to find the story.  That’s where I believe imagination should be a prerequisite for a good storyteller.

As a filmmaker, I believe that an effective director is first and foremost a good storyteller.  Art Center College of Design gave me the freedom to discover my personal style and my own unique approach to storytelling.  I have a strong passion in my heart towards filmmaking.  My first love and main objective in life is to make movies.  Everything else is secondary.

I don’t know the exact time when the idea of becoming a director entered my mind but one thing I am sure is, that when I am involved in directing, I feel whole. As if all the tiny pieces of the puzzle in my life fit together.  Filmmaking is a transportation business.  It takes you from one level of consciousness to another level… hopefully higher.  It is not an occupation for the easily daunted.  To me it’s been worth the struggles so far, because there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Filmmaking is not a vocation for me, but rather an evocation of my visions and imagination fuelled by the stories that I try to tell.

Aneeta: Carolena, this is all I have to ask. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Carolena: Yes, I’m anticipating the release of the final film ‘The Witch of Portobello’ and would like everyone’s support in spreading the word and keeping an eye out for ‘The Witch of Portobello’ coming in May 2009.

Aneeta: You certainly have mine. Tadeh?

Tadeh:  Yes, I actually would love to mention the greatest influence in my life, whom I have to thank for being where I am today… and that person is my mother.  I am a great admirer of her strength, courage and independence.  She is also my greatest supporter in a profession that others might disbar as a tough road to success.  Then again, what’s success if it doesn’t require hard work along the way?  Since my parents’ divorce at age 6 and not having seen my father since, my mother took on a large task playing both roles of mother and father.  She was maintaining a full time job along with a full time son.  She was capable of doing both flawlessly.  If I am to say from whom I have learned something about the nature of creative work, about its depth and everlastingness, it is my mother.

As an only child I grew up nurturing a vivid imagination.  At a very young age I skipped the clichéd future plans of wanting to be a doctor, a policeman or anything else of that sort.  I knew that my passion was for wanting to tell stories. At an early age, my mother had asked me ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’ My answer has never dithered: ‘Film director.’  When I knew that this was what I wanted to do, she never resented my future plans.  Instead she highly supported my decision and pushed me to follow my dreams.  It was always a constant reminder that anything could be achieved as long as you put your mind to it.

Like many mothers, mine never hesitated to try and provide the best for me.  I foster a deep friendship with her.  She has offered me guidance as a part of helping structure the path for my future.  She has demonstrated the acceptance of my choices in wanting to be a filmmaker by respecting, validating, and being tolerant towards my decisions.  She has also given me the freedom to be authentic, the freedom to risk, explore and do what is spontaneous and necessary for me to achieve.

Aneeta: Thank you both, very much.

Carolena: Thank you Aneeta!

Tadeh:  Thank you for providing such a wonderful opportunity and a creative forum for storytellers to share their stories. It is immensely appreciated.


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