Film Experts Examine Persian Culture through the Cinematic Lens

On May 19, 2012, award-winning Iranian filmmaker Shahin Parhami; executive director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia Anne Démy-Geroe; and Asian film scholar Dr. Wimal Dissanayake participated in a symposium at Shangri La that focused on aspects of love and devotion in Persian culture. The symposium capped off a week of related activities that included film screenings at the Honolulu Museum of Arts’ Doris Duke Theatre and a public forum at the East West Center. All the events were made possible through a major grant from Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute to Asia Pacific Films and NETPAC/USA, and they were co-sponsored by the Honolulu Museum of Art and Shangri La.

Award-winning Iranian filmmaker Shahin Parhami; Jeannette Hereniko, founder of Asia Pacific Films; executive director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia Anne Démy-Geroe; and Honolulu-based film scholar and University of Hawai‘i Academy of Creative Media professor Dr. Wimal Dissanayake at the Persian film symposium at Shangri La.

Director Shahin Parhami (Nasoot, 1997; Lahoot, 1998; Jabaroot, 2003; Faces, 2007) opened the symposium with a talk entitled “The Roots of Iranian Cinematic Culture.” His lively presentation, which included clips from many classic Iranian films, examined the influences of Persian storytelling, poetry and visual culture on Iranian cinema. Parhami’s most recent documentary, Amin (2011), kicked off the Persian Nights film series at the Doris Duke Theatre.

In the next presentation, “Iranian Cinema and the Poetry of Rumi and Hafez,” Honolulu-based film scholar and University of Hawai‘i Academy of Creative Media professor Dr. Wimal Dissanayake explored the relationship between modern Iranian cinema and traditional Persian poetry in terms of themes, style, imagery and vision. He stressed the significance of poetry in contemporary Persian culture and underscored how strongly the works of Rumi and Hafez resonate in modern Iranian cinema.

Next up was Brisbane-based film scholar and executive director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia Anne Démy-Geroe. In her talk, “The Complications of Allegory and Metaphor in Iranian Cinema,” she focused on the themes of love and devotion as depicted in two very different Iranian films: Abbas Kiarostami’s My Sweet Shirin and Homayoun Asadian’s Gold and Copper. Kiarostami’s film focuses on womens’ faces and emotions as they watch a film based on the classic Persian love triangle between King Khosrow, Princess Shirin of Armenia and the sculptor Farhad. The imagery is constructed entirely though close-ups of the audience’s reaction to the movie they’re watching; the soundtrack is that of the movie being seen. In Gold and Copper a Tehran-based mullah-in-training struggles to take care of his ailing wife and their children. This moving film tells a story in a more linear way, and serves as a metaphor for other aspects of life in contemporary Iran.

In conjunction with the symposium, the Doris Duke Theatre hosted a Persian Nights film series. Audiences loved Parhami’s Amin, the opening-night film, which tells the story of a young modern nomad from the south of Iran who dedicates his life to preserving and perpetuating the music of the Iranian Qashqai people. Other films in the series included Bahram Tavakoli’s Here Without Me, an Iranian adaptation of Tennessee William’s play The Glass Menagerie; and Ali Rafi’s Agha Yousef, a film about familial love.

If you’d like to learn more about Iranian films, check out these feature films and documentaries on the topic of “Love and Devotion in Persian Culture” (with introductions filmed onsite at Shangri La by Shahin Parhami, Dr. Wimal Dissanayake and Anne Demy-Geroe), plus a host of additional Iranian film classics on

Journey to the East: Ruminations on a Sixteenth-Century Chronicle

Photo by Paul Chesley, National Geographic photographer

In January 2012, Venetian merchant Marco Polo paid a visit to Shangri La’s Playhouse, where he recounted—often humorously—his travels on the Silk Road and the difficulties he encountered attempting to communicate with Chinese emperor Kublai Khan.  The occasion was the premiere of Journey to the East: Ruminations on a Sixteenth-Century Chronicle, an original puppet theater presentation written and performed by father–daughter team Michael and Layla Schuster of the Honolulu-based Hourglass Theatre. Balinese gamelan master and musician Made Widana accompanied the production with original music.

“I always envisioned premiering Journey to the East in the Playhouse at Shangri La,” said Schuster, who played Marco Polo. “I felt that the integration of materials from the Middle East and South Asia collected by Doris Duke during her travels tells a visual story appropriate for Journey to the East.  The Iranian Qajar tilework that surrounds the fireplace and the stained glass window in the Playhouse provide the perfect backdrop for the performance.”

A variety of puppets, including marionettes from South Asia, represented the colorful cast of characters Marco Polo encountered on his journey. Textiles, costumes and objects that Schuster collected during his extensive travels throughout the Middle East and Asia decorated the stage and provided plenty of ambiance.

Photo by Paul Chesley, National Geographic photographer

Schuster, who has a doctorate in Asian theater, got the idea for Journey to the East two years ago in China. He saw an Afghani kilim (carpet) in a bazaar in Beijing and started thinking about Marco Polo’s travels and the complexities of trade and communication along the Silk Route.

As Curator of the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Schuster has devoted his professional career to using material culture to tell stories and to increase understanding between East and West.  His daughter Layla, who played  a young traveler and several other characters in Journey to the East, has a background in South Indian puppetry and modern dance. She currently works as an educator and artist in projects that link theater and community. Michael added, “It was such a great experience working with my daughter Layla and having the opportunity of passing forty years of puppetry experience to her.”

Interpretive Guide Training for Shangri La Tours

Guide Training at the Honolulu Academy of Arts
Deborah Pope, Executive Director, presenting at the Honolulu Academy of Arts on Visitor Services and Security at Shangri La.

This is an exciting time at Shangri La! As many of you know, we have recently completed recruiting a dozen new Interpretive Guides for Shangri La tours and I couldn’t be happier!  All of the new guides have a diverse range of previous employment and personal experiences, but they all bring intelligence, enthusiasm and style to their tour that has already brought in a host of compliments from visitors.

A ten week training course for both new and seasoned guides commenced in August and explored the latest in Islamic art research, educational interpretation and museum visitor motivations. The highlights of the guide training included dynamic lectures by Shangri La staff, such as our Curator of Islamic Art, Keelan Overton, Executive Director, Deborah Pope and yours truly. The training took place at both the Honolulu Academy of Arts and Shangri La, with the last three sessions being full-day events held at Shangri La. During the Shangri La sessions, staff and guides collaborated to integrate key interpretive goals and themes into each space.

 This fall has also afforded the opportunity for Shangri La staff to critically evaluate the existing tour route, its contents, and the general visitor experience.   Through this self-reflective process I’m pleased to share that we’ve made some changes which make the visitor experience at Shangri La even better! These recent changes include rotations and adjustments to the display of objects in several of the rooms, such as the Living Room. Previously only viewed from behind stanchions, visitors can now enter the Living Room and walk through it. By entering the Living Room through the Diamond Head door visitors can now clearly see the importance of the East-West axis which Shangri La was architecturally designed along. In one sweeping panoramic view visitors can take in the sight of Diamond Head, the South Shore of Oahu, the Playhouse, pool and cascades, and Living Room; with the sight line terminating in the beautifully framed Mihrab. This carefully orchestrated view and significant architectural concept was previously minimized in the tour route. This and other enhancements allow for greater appreciation of the art, natural beauty and ambiance of Shangri La (if you haven’t been on site lately, you’ve simply got to come now!).

Living Room with runner
New Living Room Tour Route

The high point of guide training came at the end with a Recognition Ceremony and Pau Hana Party in Shangri La’s Moon Garden.  Stacy Pope, a new Interpretive Guide, summed up the guide training experience best, stating “the training really opened up a new world for me, a world filled with the beauty of Islamic art and the diversity of the Islamic world. This has been a great experience and continues to be — I feel so lucky to be a part of Shangri La and share it with the public!”

Recognition Reception in Moon Garden
Recognition Reception in Moon Garden

My sentiments exactly Stacy! We’re lucky to have you too and all of our excellent new and seasoned guides.

New Interpretive Guides at Shangri La
New Interpretive Guides at Shangri La, Front Row: Azadeh Nikou, Yoko Shimoyoshi, Kelli Meskin, Blyth Kozuki; Second Row: Jayne Hirata-Epstein, Stacy Pope, Sheri St. Germain, Farideh Farhi, Matthew Luttrell, Susan Killeen and Angela Ameling.

East-West Center Senior Journalists Seminar at Shangri La: Bridging Gaps Between the United States and the Muslim World

East-West Center Senior Journalists Seminar participants onsite at Shangri La.

On August 25 and 26, 2011, 12 senior writers, reporters, editors and television producers from the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and the United States gathered in the Playhouse at Shangri La to discuss U.S. Muslim relations, Islam in Asia, religious diversity, and the problems journalists covering these issues face.  Bridging Gaps Between the United States and the Muslim World was the theme of the East-West Center’s 2011 Senior Journalists Seminar, a travel and exchange program for journalists from the United States and Asian countries organized by the East-West Center and co-sponsored by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.  

 This year’s Asia participants traveled to Washington, D.C., New York, Colorado Springs and Honolulu to meet with government officials, community leaders, religious authorities and others active in the dialogue on Asian–U.S. relations; their American counterparts traveled to Manila and Mindanao, the Philippines, and Dhaka, Bangladesh, to do the same. The journalists were pleased to comment on the hospitality and openness on the part of the Muslim religious leaders who welcomed them during their travels. “[I was surprised by] the many varieties of and differences between countries in the way they practice Islam. It makes it clear that no one political size will fit all in terms of U.S. relations with Muslim majority countries” reported Jason Scanlon, FOX News Channel.

The theme of the seminar was "Bridging Gaps Between the United States and the Muslim World."

The two-day program’s wrap-up sessions at Shangri La were characterized by lively discussions touching on religion, politics and economics in Asia and the United States. “By bringing together participants from diverse religious backgrounds and allowing them to debate various issues relevant to the relationship between the U.S. and the Muslim world, we were better able to understand the religious diversity of the places we visited and to analyze the real causes of conflict,” said Md. Zahir Shah Sherazi, DawnNews, Pakistan.

For more information about this program, please visit:

Shangri La’s Curator of Islamic Art

Keelan Overton, Curator of Islamic Art at Shangri La

Following an international search, The Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art welcomed Keelan Overton into the position of curator of Islamic art at Shangri La on June 27. I am so pleased to have Keelan join our staff. She is a very thoughtful and well-regarded young scholar who is passionate about the educational role museums play in today’s society—especially at a time when we all need to have a better understanding of the Muslim world.

Keelan will be responsible for the research, interpretation, and display of Shangri La’s collection, which includes more than 3,500 pieces of Islamic art. She will also develop programs to enhance Shangri La’s role as a center for education, scholarly research, and exchange. We’re looking forward to helping her plan exhibitions, residencies for scholars and artists, educational outreach programs, and occasional symposia and publications.

Even though Keelan has only been here for a little over two months, she has adjusted quickly and really hit the ground running! She says she’s “very pleased to be back at Shangri La and grateful to once again be surrounded by the Aloha spirit. This is a very exciting moment for the institution, and I am currently focusing my efforts on exhibitions planning, guide training, and increasing Shangri La’s exposure within the international community of Islamic art history.”

Keelan holds a Ph.D. in Islamic Art History from the University of California, Los Angeles (2011) and a master’s degree in Art History from Williams College in Massachusetts (2004). She is also no stranger to Shangri La. She first came here as an intern in 2003 and returned as assistant curator from 2004 to 2005. Keelan has since worked as a research assistant in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and as an instructor and teaching assistant at UCLA. She is the recipient of a University of California President’s Fellowship and a Theodore Rousseau Fellowship from the Department of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which supported extensive travel and research in the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and India.

Welcome, Keelan. We’re thrilled to have you here!