A people's parable: The people of Chile are the main character in "Pushing Towards Democracy," says Cyrus Omoomian.

Cyrus Omoomian's 'Democracy': From Iran to Chile

Michael Fox May 26, 2009

Cyrus Omoomian is an inveterate traveler who distills his extensive experience into a cut-through-the-haze phrase: "Anywhere you go, the truth is on the wall." I take his meaning to be literal, a reference to the political graffiti spray-painted by the powerless everywhere, as well as metaphorical. I’m only half-right. The Iranian-born filmmaker, currently in postproduction on his long-form debut about Chile’s protracted post-Pinochet rebirth, Pushing Towards Democracy: Voices of Chile, isn’t particularly interested in symbolic representations. As his title indicates, it’s unfiltered talk from the source he’s after, served straight up.

"I don’t want to beat around the bush," Omoomian declares. "I want to go right to the point. If you make a documentary about a demographic—any country, any location—the responsibility is this: You better deliver people’s voices of that place. That’s the main thing. It really doesn’t matter what you think. You have to deliver what they think."

The son of a journalist, the 49-year-old Omoomian inherited his father’s commitment to unvarnished reportage. His one-hour Pushing Towards Democracy eschews the current documentary fashions of dramatically shaped narrative and a main character pulling the viewer forward in favor of a fast-paced amalgamation of interviews. "The character who stays throughout the whole film," Omoomian explains, "is the people of Chile."

Omoomian moved to the U.S. in his teens to attend college in Michigan, and stayed on to work as an engineer for GM for more than two decades. He started making short documentaries in 1999 with Truth Lies in the Village, a 27-minute piece about Iranian farmers living in the shadow of a nuclear plant. He subsequently went back to his homeland to explore prostitution and poverty in Women in Hell.

It became increasingly dicey for Omoomian to return to Iran with a camera, so he turned his focus to Chile. It’s not as random as it sounds; he learned about Chile from a young age in the numerous newspapers and magazines his father received, and read translations of Pablo Neruda. "Chile, like Iran, had a lot of poets and writers because the whole political arena [encourages] poets," Omoomian explains over Moroccan mint tea in the Casablanca Cafe on Polk St. When the media can’t or won’t offer viewpoints critical of the government, poets step into the void with allusion and parable. Alas, those in power can read between the lines, too. "[Chilean poets] have been repressed all these years, just like Iran. They get tortured, killed, disappeared," Omoomian notes.

Pushing Towards Democracy
centers on transnational corporations’ influence in maintaining the status quo, the pivotal issue of human rights and freedom of speech (including media censorship) and, lastly, education (the key to the future). Chile is flashing early signs of winning the struggle of emerging from a dictatorship, Omoomian reports. Twenty-seven percent of the country’s population is under 25 years of age, and the nation boasts a high degree of literacy. However, 80 percent live below the poverty line, fueling a pent-up desire for change.

"This is a wakening era for Chile," Omoomian declares. "It’s so encouraging. Other people should see it, and see how brave and outspoken these people are. I hope it happens in my country, too, someday." Indeed, part of his distribution plan is to make the film available on the Internet so that people in Iran, Burma, North Korea and elsewhere can adopt Chile as a model-albeit on a faster timetable. (We’ll leave aside for the moment the practical matter of dictators restricting and censoring the Internet in their countries.)

With producer Miguel Angel Astudillo, cinematographer Aleixo Goncalves, and executive producer (and wife) Jessica Omoomian, the director spent two-and-a-half months in Chile in the last year, shooting some 30 hours of video and 3,000 photographs. (Still images are an important aesthetic component of Omoomian’s films). He made sure they were in Santiago last Sept. 11 to record the 35th anniversary protests of the 1973 coup d’etat that resulted in Salvador Allende’s death and Pinochet’s installation. His goal is to finish Pushing Towards Democracy in time for release on 9/11/09.

The determined Omoomian, who moved to San Francisco with his wife in 2003 and has his production office in the Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley, has every intention of presenting his documentary in Chile. "We’re going to show the film in Santiago," he says, without a hint of doubt. "This movie’s going to be shown there, whether underground or upper ground, offline, online, whatever." To check out the rough-cut trailer, go to and click on "Media" and then "Film."

Notes from the Underground

Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro wasn’t screened at his recent SFIFF tribute in deference to Cannes’ "request" for the world premiere. If you couldn’t arrange to be on the Riviera, the Smith Rafael Film Center unveils the maestro’s latest tonight with producer Anahid Nazarian on hand to field questions. A tad further north, the Seattle International Film Festival hosts FFC and his movie June 10. Or you can simply wait for the June 19 Bay Area theatrical opening…. Arne Johnson (Girls Rock) has been enlisted to curate Oakland’s 2nd Annual Temescal Street Cinema. The free outdoor series of local films sounds the first notes at 49th and Telegraph at 8 p.m. June 11 with Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s SFIFF hit Speaking in Tongues.

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