Story by Jenn McKee
New York-based theater and film artist Shidan Majidi is no stranger to stage musicals, having worked as associate director for the touring revival of “Miss Saigon,” and been part of legendary British producer Cameron Mackintosh’s team for hits like “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera,” and the film adaptation of “Les Miserables.”
So when U-M dental school faculty member Shahrzad Maghsoudloo Mirafzali reached out to Majidi in April 2017 – the two knew each other from earlier days, when Mirafzali had lived in New York, too – to see if he might be able to help create a new stage show to celebrate U-M’s bicentennial, as well as U-M’s Baha’i Club’s bicentennial, in October, Majidi had said, “There’s no way. That’s only five or six months away, and something like that would take at least a couple of years.”
But Majidi just couldn’t shake the idea of doing a project focused on celebrating difference. “I started obsessing about doing something artistically to give a voice to the state of the world that we live in.”
The result is “Me, the ‘Other,’” a locally-produced documentary film that puts a spotlight on the personal, often painful stories of a diverse group of twelve different students in Washtenaw County (from Washtenaw Community College, Eastern Michigan University, and U-M). Fittingly, since all the narratives focus on the experience of being viewed as “the other,” the film will have its premiere screening at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday, Jan. 15) at 7 p.m.
The students were among forty who responded to a casting call last spring.
“I thought, if we get a handful of people, we’ll be lucky,” said Majidi. “I really was amazed, I’ve got to tell you. And we’d originally cast a few people who said they regretted their decision and felt fearful that their story being out there might cause them even more problems, so they bowed out. They were strong stories, but we had so much back-up – all these people to choose from.”
The film was funded by businesses, organizations, and individuals who contributed to the project, and students from across the county stepped up to volunteer their services (and gain practical professional experience) behind the camera.
When it came time to start shooting the film, a sense of spontaneity and naturalness was of utmost importance to Majidi. “I wanted the process in the studio to be organic and in-the-moment,” he said. “We went in hoping to create a space of trust, and allowing it to be a heart to heart conversation.”
And while the interviews proceeded in a way that was in keeping with Majidi’s original vision, the stories sometimes took turns that surprised him.
“There’s a gay couple in the film, … and the issue of homosexuality just wasn’t an issue for them,” said Majidi. “A lot of millenials who are gay don’t suffer the same consequences that those before them did, so you might think, well, there’s nothing to talk about. But lo and behold, this other story unfolded about one of them having Asperger’s, and the other one suffering from chronic Lyme Disease, and how these two souls living with challenging conditions became each other’s companion and caretaker. One’s a Republican, and one’s a Democrat, and I thought that would be an issue, too, but it’s not. The issue is that these are two human souls helping each other through life. It’s this perfect love story.”
Following the movie’s Ann Arbor premiere, the production team aims to screen it for industry professionals in Los Angeles, and get feedback on how to most effectively distribute “Me, the ‘Other.’”
“We haven’t even had time to respond yet,” said Majidi. “But we’ve been getting messages from all over not just the country, but the world – schools, libraries, religious groups – saying, ‘Please, this is what we need to spark a conversation about these issues. How can we share this with our community?’”
Since the democratic ideal of a “melting pot” society has come under serious fire recently, in myriad ways, the seemingly urgent hunger for antidotes is hardly surprising. But Majidi is nonetheless heartened by hope.
“In the darkness comes the opportunity for every human being to stand up and make a difference,” said Majidi. “Change happens in the world of individuals. You can’t expect it to come from government or from politics. … We need to feel empowered. We can’t be passive and expect the world to be changed for us.”