Cinequest Guide 2016

SJSU Filmmaker Kourosh Ahari

SJSU's Kourosh Ahari has two films at Cinequest, a nod from Cannes,
and a directing job offer

James Franco | Festival Highlights | Rita Moreno | SJSU's Kourosh Ahari

STIR CRAZY: In 'The Yellow Wallpaper,' a woman is kept under lock and key in an effort to cure her postpartum depression. But the treatment only makes things worse.

As he lay dying in a rented room, Oscar Wilde supposedly quipped, "Either this wallpaper goes, or I do." Eight years prior to this parting shot, a Pasadena woman named Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote a story titled "The Yellow Wallpaper." It has been likened to Poe, and it was praised by H. P. Lovecraft. The story has also been an inspiration to generations of feminist writers.

It's a fantastically unusual tale for someone in 1892 to have written. The style is fierce, confrontational and devoid of the labored, flowery language so common to most literary works of that era. It's almost colloquial in its first-person description of a walled-in woman's incipient madness. Gilman said she wrote it "not to drive people crazy, but to keep people from going crazy."

Following a bout of postpartum depression, a Victorian woman is kept in a room by her physician husband. In the name of rest to cure her nerves, she is forbidden to read, write or walk in the house's garden. With very little to occupy her time, the entrapped lady's attention falls to the wallpaper. In its vague patterns, she sees "no radiation, or alternation, or repetition, or symmetry." Soon, she sees silhouettes beckoning to her.

Rising student filmmaker Kourosh Ahari has adapted scriptwriter Amy Robert's version of The Yellow Wallpaper for SJSU's Spartan Studios. He'll be presenting a rough-cut screening of the film for Cinequest—on March 2 and 12 at the Hammer Theater, former home of the San Jose Rep.

"The current version is a work in progress," he says of the film, which is running somewhere between 70 and 80 minutes in its current, unfinished state. "We still need to get a few more shots."

Since moving to the U.S. at age 19 to pursue filmmaking, Ahari has made quite a name for himself. He has worked on eight short films, claiming writing and directing credits on four of them and earning a nod from Cannes Film Festival for Malaise. The film, which he produced and directed, was selected for the Cannes "Short Film Corner" in 2015.

Now in his mid 20s, Ahari is as busy as ever—working to finish The Yellow Wallpaper, as well as The Secret of 40, a film to be screened in Cinequest's Barco Escape showcase, demonstrating a new triple-screen format. "I wouldn't be lying to you if I said I only got three hours sleep last night," the director says.

Born in Iran, Ahari originally planned to major in animation at SJSU. However, there wasn't room in the class. He considered waiting a year but switched to film instead. It wasn't long before he was working on his first short film, which he screened at San Jose State's annual moviefest.

Though Ahari had never thought of himself as a filmmaker, he turned out to be a natural. The Cannes-accepted Malaise, shot in 2014, was one of his very first shorts. "It was, of course, exciting," he recalls. "It was something I did not expect for a short film—suddenly, I was in this world of filmmakers, and I went to Cannes to see how it is in real life."

Ahari chose to adapt The Yellow Wallpaper, a book he'd read in an English class, because he was interested in exploring the inner workings of a mind on the brink. "Some people would read it as a gothic, as a horrifying story," he says. "It is horrifying, but what we're focusing on is the process of how the character Eleanor gets to that point of insanity, and starts to see the ghosts in the wallpaper."

Ahari and his crew are using a little CGI to manifest Eleanor's demons, but the essence of the film is focused on her interior life. This version is set in the 1960s—"right before the Mad Men era."

Spartan Studios has been participating in Cinequest for many years. "Spartan Studio usually starts getting different scripts for the summer, and they seek out a director who has a crew and a plan," Ahari says. "I was lucky to be the person."

Ahari had planned to tackle The Yellow Wallpaper later; he wanted more time to research it. But Spartan Studio coordinator Barnaby Dallas suggested to Ahari to do it at once. So he jumped right into it.

"After the script got picked, we had basically one month for pre-production: building the set, casting and so forth," Ahari says. "We had eight days budgeted for shooting. ... We were shooting 12-14 hours every day." Fortunately, the director says, his crew was great. "They were all very dedicated and wanted to make the film happen."

Still, the Barco Escape project also made demands on Ahari's time. The Secret of 40 is the first horror film ever made for the Barco Escape format, and editing a three-screen film can prove to be quite tricky. "We were lucky enough to go to L.A. and do a test screening at Barco," he says. "Everything has worked ... so far. "

Indeed, it would seem things are working out for Ahari. Just one class short of earning his degree, he has already fielded an offer to direct a feature film. All that's left for him to do is keep up. "It's all happening so fast," he says, "almost before I'm ready."

The Yellow Wallpaper

Mar 2, 7:30pm & Mar 12, 2pm

Hammer Theatre, San Jose

James Franco | Festival Highlights | Rita Moreno | SJSU's Kourosh Ahari