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Iranian filmmaker urges cultural understanding
Speaker shares the feelings and thoughts of youth in Iran
Iranian-American Neda Sarmast shows a clip at Gainesville State College from “Nobody’s Enemy: The Youth Culture of Iran.” a documentary she filmed in Iran. Sarmast said she wants to quell misconceptions Americans have about the people of Iran. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

OAKWOOD — Iranian native Neda Sarmast encouraged those in her mostly student audience to become "cultural ambassadors" wherever they go, whether they are representing their school, Georgia or America.

"Every single one of you has so much you can offer, so much wisdom and information within your community," Sarmast told an audience at Gainesville State College Monday. "You're a powerhouse."

Sarmast aimed to motivate the group through the telling of her story, from her early life in Iran to living in America, working in the music industry and making a documentary aimed at sharing the thoughts and beliefs of Iran's youth.

She moved to the U.S. at age 9 and returned at 13 for a two-week summer vacation. She then was unable to leave Iran for two years, becoming instead an eyewitness to the Iran-Iraq war. She lost her best friend in an Iraqi aerial raid.

At different times in her life, Sarmast found herself defending Iranians and their beliefs to Americans, and, in turn, defending Americans and their way of life to Iranians.

Fearing that Iran was on the brink of war with the U.S. in the years following 9/11, she left New York, where she was living, and traveled back to Iran to produce "Nobody's Enemy: The Youth Culture of Iran."

Sarmast, who said 70 percent of the country's 70 million people are under age 30, showed about 30 minutes' worth of the film to the Gainesville State audience.

The film features conversations she had with Iranians and familiar scenes from Iran's past, including the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the taking of U.S. hostages.

The Iranians spoke openly about their own government's repressions and country's woes as well as their impressions of Americans and what they thought Americans' impressions were of them.

One woman said she feared Americans thought Iranians were "small minded" when that is not the case.

Several Iranians, speaking on the eve of the presidential election, said they know about and crave freedom.

"My focus wasn't trying to be a political one — that has been covered so much in the media," Sarmast said. "I really wanted to show that I, as an average person, can use the power of art and culture ... to communicate another dialogue."

She added, "I really want you to understand the power of your voice, the power of your strength and how you can communicate that and open up a dialogue about something that's important to you."

Sarmast said the issue of Iran-America relations is important to her, for several reasons.

She still has family in the Middle Eastern country, but also "I don't want to be part of another conflict," she said. "I don't want to see another war."

Sarmast speaks at conferences and universities across the country on the subject, particularly focusing on the importance of cultural diplomacy through entertainment and the arts. Most recently, she was invited to screen her film at the U.S. Library of Congress.

Sarmast has scheduled a presentation at noon today at Gainesville State's Oconee County campus.