Pirhamzei takes Iranian, Armenian cultures to Hollywood

Iranian-American filmmaker Vahik Pirhamzei has taken his Armenian ancestry to Hollywood.

The first American movie starring an Iranian-born lead character, My Uncle Rafael, follows a 71-year-old Armenian (Rafael) who is thrown into a reality television show based on trying to save a dysfunctional American family from falling apart.

As the writer, co-producer and starring actor for the film, Pirhamzei turned what originally was a three-part Armenian stage-theatre play into an American comedy.



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With the help of co-writer and producer Scott Yagemann, Pirhamzei remodelled uncle Rafael to make it more universal.

“I wanted to create something that every nationality would look at and relate to,” Pirhamzei told Salam Toronto in an interview at his Toronto hotel.

“Everyone has a first or second generation story or family member that came from whatever the old country is for them,” said director Marc Fusco.

“This is purely an American movie,” Fusco, who has worked as an assistant with Stephen Spielberg for several years, told Salam Toronto. “We wanted this to appeal to audiences all over the world. Not just Armenian, Iranian or American.”

Vahik Pirhamzei along with his wife Anahid Avanesian (left) and renowned Hollywood actress and co-star in 'My Uncle Rafael', Missi Pyle (right) at the 2011 ARPA International Film Festival.

Vahik Pirhamzei along with his wife Anahid Avanesian (left) and renowned Hollywood actress and co-star in 'My Uncle Rafael', Missi Pyle (right) at the 2011 ARPA International Film Festival.

The filmmakers were in Toronto last week for the 6th annual Pomegranate Film Festival (POM), which celebrates Armenian film productions. My Uncle Rafael concluded the festival with a sold out performance and later won an Audience Award.

Much like POM, the ARPA International Film Festival based in Los Angeles has awarded My Uncle Rafael with ‘Best Screenplay’, ‘Best Director’ and ‘Breakthrough Performance’ awards.

Anahid Avanesian, who is Pirhamzei’s wife both in real life and in the movie was also in Toronto last weekend to attend the film’s Canadian premier at POM.

“If you go see a movie where your culture is portrayed, first you’re scared because you don’t know what they’re going to show,” Avanesian told Salam Toronto. “This is showing the very best side of our culture. I think it’s going to make Persians and Armenians proud to show the film to their North American friends.”

“It was real easy for me to play alongside Vahik because I didn’t even recognize him as my husband while shooting the film,” added Avanesian.

Pirhamzei said the character Rafael, as an Armenian Christian born in Tehran, carries not only Armenian cultural values but also Iranian ones as well.

“You can also see that in the film when Rafael is talking. You can find the 2500-year-old Persian culture in him and his family values,” said Pirhamzei.

Vahik Pirhamzei (left) and director Mark Fusco in the interview with Salam Toronto at their hotel in Toronto. They were in town for the Canadian premier of 'My Uncle Rafael' at the 6th annual Pomegarante Film Festival - Photo by Salam Toronto

Vahik Pirhamzei (left) and director Mark Fusco in the interview with Salam Toronto at their hotel in Toronto. They were in town for the Canadian premier of 'My Uncle Rafael' at the 6th annual Pomegarante Film Festival - Photo by Salam Toronto

Much like Robert Deniro lost and gained weight during the film Raging Bull, Pirhamzei said he had to lose 65 lbs to play both Uncle Rafael and his son Hamo in the film.

“It took about five hours for make-up on Rafael. I would act until lunch and when everyone was eating, I was sitting for more than an hour to clean Rafael’s make-up in preparation to play Hamo,” said Pirhamzei. “The rewards are the laughter of the audience,” he added.

Pirhamzei left Iran in 1978 at the age of 16 because of the civil unrest as a result of the rise of the Islamic Republic. After living in Germany, he moved to the U.S. knowing it was the best location to pursue an acting career.

After arriving in Los Angeles, Pirhamzei connected with several Iranians in the theatre industry and made a name for himself after appearing in more than 300 originally scripted comedy skits and over 25 stage productions.

Iranians may know Pirhamzei from his stint with Los Angeles-based Iranian television show Jame-Jam when he acted in skits like Nika’s café. He also directed music videos for Persian artists like Moein and Googoosh.

Pirhamzei said he will be returning to Toronto to promote the film in March and may also do a theatrical performance as well. My Uncle Rafael will be screening in specific locations across North America in March 2012.

For more information on the film, visit www.myunclerafael.com. For more information on Vahik Pirhamzei, visit www.vahikpirhamzei.com.

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