The art of making Art of Persia

It was 2016 when I was first approached about the possibility of going to Iran to make a major series about the history and art of Persia.

Teahouse in Isfahan, where we filmed the Arabian Nights vizier story (copyright BBC/Craig Hastings)

It took 3 years to get the visas and we filmed exactly a year ago. I’d last visited in 2002 for a Channel 4 Series Islam Unveiled that focussed on Islam and feminism around the world and always wanted to go back. It seems to me exactly what the BBC should be doing: informing, educating and entertaining.

Fixers Naser Safarzadeh, Meisam Jebelli while filming at the frieze of Shapur’s victory over 3 Roman emperors in the Chogan Gorge (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

Going beneath the news headlines to help us meet the Iranian people and get an insight into how they see themselves and their place in the world. I cannot thank the ordinary people of Iran who welcomed us enough, and hope these films do their rich heritage and resilience justice. Thanks to the UK based-academics you’ll see in the programmes who helped provide context and insight and spoke with passion and expert knowledge about how to interpret these sites and objects.

Not quite sure what producer
Richard Downes and I are looking at in Shiraz, but it was clearly hilarious (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

And there is obviously a real poignancy in seeing the films shot before the Covid 19 pandemic. Some of these photos capture ideas we filmed, like the roses sequence below, but sadly couldn’t fit into the final programmes. 7000 years in just 3 hours!

Piece to camera in the city bazaar from a lost sequence about the importance of roses to the legend of Shiraz
l-r Doug Dreger, Richard Downes (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

You’ll see amazing imagery (including some remarkable drone shots) thanks to cameraman Craig Hastings and hear memorable sounds and insights thanks to Doug Dreger our BAFTA nominated soundman.

Ray Harryhausen moment at the Cave of Shapur (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

I am hugely grateful to producer Richard Downes for his stamina, patience and care, who brought the benefit of his experience on his earlier Silk Road documentary series to work so hard on this and is the shaping force behind it all.

In the desert by the fire temple of Chak Chak. That’s my English
translation of the Shahnameh on my lap (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

Special thanks to Mark Hedgecoe for recommending me for this. And to everyone at BBC Studios and BBC Arts and in post production and publicity for editing and the gorgeous graphics and the promotional work with a trailer and interviews to raise awareness of the series..

Art of Persia: on tour at Pasargarde (left Naser Safarzadeh, Meisam Jebelli, Craig Hastings behind me, driver Ali, Richard Downes to my right) (copyright Meisam Jebelli)

The series wouldn’t have happened without the longterm work and daily support of our colleagues in Iran. Meisam Jebelli and Naser Safarzadeh were on the road with us every day; Meisam translating as well as organising filming access and interviews. Senior Producer Reza Ganji got the whole show off the ground. It was an honour to work with them.

All photographs are copyright of Meisam Jebelli and Craig Hastings.

Further Reading/viewing

Art of Persia starts on BBC4 on Monday Jun 15th 9pm and iplayer

The Art of Being Persian (Financial Times Jun 13th) – my feature on the making of Art of Persia

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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