Iranian-born Kataneh Vahdani immigrated to America in 2000, and spent seven years studying at CalArts. She now works in animation at Walt Disney in Los Angeles. In addition to working on her childhood favorite, Mickey Mouse, Vahdani has produced six short animated films on her own.
Avocados, her latest short, was recently screened at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Inspired by her own experiences watching people interact on trains and buses in Tehran, Vienna, Paris, and L.A., it depicts people from different cultures and backgrounds interacting in an unnamed city.
AFAR caught up with the filmmaker soon after she received the news that Avocados will be shown in competition at the Annecy 2012 festival in Paris this June.
Can you tell me a little about the plot of Avocados? Who are these characters you are depicting?
The story is like a slice of life, of people from different cultures interacting in a city over the course of one day. The camera shifts from one point of view to the other. It starts and ends through the eyes of a black cat, and in between you see experiences and conversations through the eyes of other people in the city—an American tourist, a group of Persian women, a blind misogynist German soldier, a British “Guerrilla Girl.”
Why is the film called Avocados?
On the bus in L.A. one day, this man got on wearing dark sunglasses, and he started talking about avocados, talking about how they are so nutritious and contain Vitamin A. And everyone was looking at him, thinking this man is crazy. But suddenly, as he’s starting to get off the bus, he starts telling me about how he lost his eyes in a chemical factory, and how his doctor told him that avocados are good for him. And then he says: “You know what? I hate avocados!”
And at that moment, I realized that all these ideas are out there. And I feel like, rather than try to figure those ideas out on my own, I should be looking everywhere. The avocado man allowed me to open myself to what’s out there, to listen without judging.
Do you have a favorite moment or interaction in the film?
I enjoy the film because it’s all about conversation. I have different favorite moments. I tried to come up with this recipe of this whole world, and just enjoy it.
It has no subtitles, so when I show it to different audiences, I see that when something is said in Farsi, the Persian speakers might start laughing, or when there are French lines the French people will start laughing. So it’s like this orchestra of laughter.
You were born in Iran, went to college in L.A., and then spent time living in Paris. How have all of these experiences influenced the stories you want to tell?
Some people don’t get the opportunity to see both sides, to live in both worlds. When I lived in Iran, I could understand where they were coming from. People there are open-minded, it’s just that the system is not. When I visited Vienna, where my Dad’s side of the family lives, and then when I came to the United States, I realized that despite the obvious differences, there are so many similarities.
After coming to the United States, I decided that I wanted to travel more. I went to Europe, Japan. Even though I could have just looked at the world with one perspective, I got opportunities to be able to see different sides of everything.
Why was it important to you that the city in the film be anonymous?
I wanted it to be an unknown city, so French person could say: “Oh, that reminds me of that place in Paris.” Or a German could say: “That reminds me of the metro station.” The butcher shop, for example, is something I remembered from Tehran. So it can be whatever city you want it to be.
You did research by sketching people you saw in metros and buses. How have your experiences making the film influenced the way you want to approach storytelling in the future?
This is the first time that I chose not to focus on just one character. It’s a formula that is used in a lot of animation, and I’ve used it in my other films, like Boxes, because I’ve always been trying to say something. Avocados was me pushing myself outside of my limits. In some ways, it was more about letting the journey tell the story. I’m just trying to absorb the people.