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The Creator of the Live Animation Shadow Play “Feathers of Fire: a Persian Epic” Wants to Combat Modern Stereotypes

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You could say that Hamid Rahmanian isn't a man who commits halfway to projects.

How else do you explain his 592-page, lavishly illustrated version of the Persian epic poem "Shahnameh," a feat which took 10,000 hours over the course of four years to complete? Or the year it took to create a pop-up version of one of the stories from "Shahnameh"? Or the two years it took to create "Feathers of Fire: a Persian Epic," a cinematic shadow play based on the poem.

The latter, which features 160 puppets, 137 animated backgrounds, 15 masks and eight performers, comes to the Modlin Center for the Arts this weekend. Since the show debuted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music two years ago, it's played to packed houses in Canada, Taiwan, Poland and the United States.

"'Shahnameh' is the longest poem written by a single poet," explains Rahmanian, reached by phone last week. "It's a millennium-old epic tradition, which was put together and collected by a poet named Ferdowsi. It contains four tragedies, four love stories and lots of battles. It's similar to the 'Iliad' and 'Odyssey' from Western culture."

"Feathers of Fire" tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, one an outcast boy brought up by a mythical bird, the other a princess. Asked why he chose an epic poem from more than a millennium ago as the genesis for his many works, Rahmanian, a Brooklyn-based Iranian filmmaker and graphic artist, says he wanted to combat negative stereotypes about Iranians circulated in western media.

"I wanted to sort of counterattack that notion," says Rahmanian, who was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014. "Throughout my work, I try to highlight the strength of my culture."

Initially inspired by the 1926 German feature film "The Adventures of Prince Achmed," which uses silhouette animation, Rahmanian set out to tell a tale from the epic poem with shadow puppets. To create the 70-minute-long "Feathers" – which Rahmanian calls the largest shadow play ever produced – he collaborated with renowned "shadowmaster" Larry Reed.

With nearly 1,168 cues and 140 animation "cuts," Rahmanian compares the live shadow play to a film, combining puppets, masks and digital animation to tell the story.

"It's basically a live animation. It's building up live in front of the audience," Rahmanian says. "When the audience is watching the show, it's like a movie. It's seamless."

Born in Iran, Rahmanian earned a degree in graphic design from Tehran University before coming to America at the age of 25. He landed a job at Disney in the late 1990s, working on animated films "The Emperor's New Groove," "Dinosaur," and the trailer for "Tarzan." He describes the audience that he wants to reach with "Feathers of Fire" in Disney terms.

"It's not just Chinese that see 'Mulan,' or Greek that see 'Hercules,'" he says. "[The Shahnameh] are great stories that I think a Western audience should be introduced to."

Rahmanian's work has its share of admirers, including legendary filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola. The director of "Apocalypse Now," "The Conversation" and "The Godfather" trilogy loves "Feathers" so much that he saw the show three times and contributed the introduction to a 12-hour audiobook version of the "Shahnameh" produced by Rahmanian.

"Francis is a big fan," Rahmanian says. "He was kind enough to read four minutes of audio."

For as long as he's been working on "Feathers of Fire," Rahmanian says it still retains its charm to him.

"I've been involved with this show close to five years, but when it's performed, for that 70 minutes it's [still] magic."

While Rahmanian's projects often take years to complete, he says he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I have nothing else to do," he says. "I sit around and create." S

"Feathers of Fire: a Persian Epic" plays Jan. 26 and 27 at the Modlin Center for the Arts, 28 Westhampton Way, 23173. For information, visit modlin.richmond.edu or call 289-8980.

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