Iranian-Canadian Navid Khonsari is a revolutionary video game creator. One would think such a title would make Khonsari immune to being labelled “persona non grata” by the Islamic Republic of Iran, but, because of his latest video game project, 1979, he has been branded as just that. Known as the cinematic director of the highest grossing video game of all time “Grand Theft Auto”, the former film student and history buff isn’t satisfied with his pioneering project being the first video game based on the historical events of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. As well as creating the game for PCs, Khonsari has also developed it specifically for smartphones and tablets, the two most regularly used communication devices around the world. He uses the cinematic imagery of the late 1970s to show that the revolution “was never about extremism, mullahs, or women in veils”, but rather about “equality and democratisation”. IranWire caught up with Navid Khonsari in New York City to ask about his goals, his personal history, and why he is convinced that after 34 years, the West is finally ready to examine the Iranian Revolution as “one of the defining moment of the 20th century”.
You were born in Montreal, but spent the first ten years of your life in Iran. What was your childhood like?
I had a very normal childhood. As a kid I was known as an atash pareh (troublemaker) because I was always tearing things up and a bit reckless, which was no different than any other kid. What stood out was the activities I was able to do as a young boy, such as swimming in the Caspian Sea and hiking in the mountains. I recall attending my grandfather’s janitor’s wedding in a very small village outside of Tehran. There was such a massive difference between that village lifestyle and how we were living in the city. Being able to experience all of these different types of activities within a four-to-five-hour drive always stood out in my mind. It was an incredible experience. Obviously, after the revolution, that experience no longer existed. We became just an outpost of our family in Canada, one of a number of outposts around the world.
You have a professional background in cinema. Can you explain your original interest in video games?
Growing up in Canada, my brothers and I played video games and it was a major factor in how we created friendships with most kids in the West. The original barrier I was able to break in order to connect with my friends at school wasn’t by trying to be their buddies, it was to stand on my own two feet and share my opinion on video games like Donkey Kong and Galaga. Iranians by nature very much want to be on the forefront of what's current and what’s kind of trendy. I think for me as a small child I was very much interested in pop culture, which actually came about more from my upbringing inside Iran than Canada.
On the topic of pop culture influencing you in Iran as a child, can you expand on what specifically influenced you?
I was influenced by Star Wars (1976), which had come out when I was in Iran. I also remember my parents telling me about seeing the movie Jaws (1975) while they were in Iran. A lot of the American TV shows were available on certain channels in Iran. I remember I used to watch the Donny and Marie Show. My parents were very much into Iranian music but they were also into Western music like everybody else. I was listening to the Bee Gees as a kid in Iran. I still have all of The Adventure of Tintin comics in Persian that my dad bought me. Between movies, TV and music, I felt very much in tune with pop culture.
Did you enlist the help of cultural and historical advisers in the development of the game 1979?
As we have moved forward, we enlisted the help of Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Navid Negahban, the actor who played Abu-Nazir in Homeland, is one of the voices of the characters (as is Farshad Farahat of Argo and comedian Maz Jobrani) and he’s become a great source of reference because he was 16 at the time of the revolution and was on the streets. We’re using books, newspapers, advisers, personal interviews, even documents from the Iranian Chamber of Commerce. I’ve already reached out to the mosque here in Queens to try to get an understanding of the revolution from spiritual advisers because I don’t want to undermine the spirituality of aspects of Islam for the game.
There have been notable criticisms of 1979 from Iranian news outlets inside Iran such as Keyhan. Has anyone else inside Iran reached out to you in support or in opposition?
In terms of support I can't tell you the number of Iranians that have reached out to me on Facebook. They've been unbelievably supportive and can't wait for this game to come to fruition. In fact, I would say that I have had to deal more with negative comments from Iranians living abroad then Iranians domestically.
Iranians outside of Iran often see political subjects in black and white. The Iranian diaspora’s reception of your game is an example of that. How does that make you feel?
Most Iranians are sceptical of how they are going to be portrayed in the media and I can appreciate that. But that's never going to change unless we actually support people from within who are pushing for that change. The Iranian diaspora represents one community within this entire global community, and my goal is to appeal to the entire world. I don't need to tell Iranians about their own history. But I can tell the rest the world about how Iranians actually went through this revolution and the impact that it had, and it could actually provide a greater possibility for understanding and open dialogue.
What do you want Iranian gamers inside Iran to take away from playing your game 1979?
The first thing I want from them is for them to smile. I want them to see the world they live in come to life in a form of entertainment that they love, and to create a sense of pride for them. Hopefully through this game they can see that revolutions within their own lifespan, like the 2009 Green Movement, or their parent’s lifespan (the 1979 revolution), have taken place and have altered Iran's trajectory and that they can still do it. My Kickstarter campaign, which ended last Sunday, doesn't mean that my revolution is over. It means my revolution is just now getting started.
In a recent interview you said that you saw Iranians in the best of lights and in the worst of lights through your own personal experiences during the revolution. Can you expand on that?
When my family and I were leaving Iran we saw people that my family had considered close friends turn away from us and not support us in our time of need. We saw people who had little or no means at all show an immense type of kindness and generosity. I was taken aback by that. Iranians are no different from anyone in that they have an amazing capacity to love and be generous and to be caring, but at the same time, they have an amazing capacity to be foul, manipulative and dishonorable. I think this is more important in terms of the story of Iranian people, then, say, the dates that the Shah left and Khomeini arrived. Facts don't necessarily create the emotions and the journeys of people.
The tagline of the video game is “there are no good guys”. Is this tagline a reflection of your fascination with revolutions?
Games traditionally come from a foundation of being designed as if the game was Checkers. Black pieces against white pieces. And that’s great for a game, but life isn’t like that. I wanted to illustrate that people aren’t black and white, or good or bad. People are shades of grey, and that is really true of most historical situations; it’s that moment that defines you. Shit happens and you find good guys and bad guys doing different things. I wanted to show that whether people were soldiers or revolutionaries, pro-monarchy or pro-Khomeini, these sides were not the deciding factor for determining whether they were “good guys” or “bad guys”. That’s my greatest goal and yet it’s also probably been the toughest message to get across, primarily to Iranian Americans or westernised Iranians because they cannot break away from saying it’s this side or that side.
With the recent Geneva preliminary nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 being called a success by some and a failure by others, do you see any parallels with your comment about "shades of grey"? Are people on opposite sides seeing the negotiations in a black and white context only?
What’s taking place with the current negotiations on behalf of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States is that there has been a gesture, at least the extension of an olive branch to another. With my game 1979, I’m holding out an olive branch as well, and trying to strip away how the Iranian Revolution has been so magnified into being this almost demonic kind of event. Now that this gesture has been made after almost 35 years, we’ve matured enough to the point now where we can take a look at the 1979 revolution and be objective about the events – the good, the bad, the ugly – and digest that the event as a whole affected millions of Iranians, both domestically and abroad.
Being in the West for a majority of your life, what do you miss the most when you think about Iran?
The last time I was there was 2006, and before that, it was 1980. I don’t think for anybody it’s ever the big things. It’s all about the little nuances that makes Iran Iranian, that makes the culture Zoroastrian, that makes the food taste amazing, that makes people laugh about things that maybe other parts of the world wouldn’t find as funny because it’s cultural humour. It’s about looking at people on the side of the street having a picnic and rather than looking down upon it as “why are they on the side of the street?”, appreciating it as a family enjoying their time together. I’m never going to deny the fact that I’m not from the West because I love everything that I’ve done from the West as well, the good and the bad. But when I went back, I didn’t try to capture being Iranian, as if “I’m going to get back to my roots.” Screw that. I grew up here, I grew up there. I don’t fit in as an Iranian, and I don’t fit in as an American, so I’m not going to try and fit in, I’m going to be exactly who I’m going to be and appreciate and love everything about me that’s Iranian, and what my parents have taught me.