Maziar Ghaderi is an Iranian Canadian artist, filmmaker, producer and partner in Holding Space Films, a ‘boutique’ production company based in Toronto. Holding Space Films was founded back in 2017 by director, editor, cinematographer, and Maziar’s wife, Patricia Marcoccia.
The company’s first feature to hit screens was entitled Shut Him Down: The Rise of Jordan Peterson, an up close look at the professor, clinical phycologist and author of the title. The film would later be developed into a longer feature length documentary, again with Patricia directing and Maziar co-producing. Released in 2019, the film is a balanced and fascinating exploration into one of modern times most polarising academics.
I catch Maziar whilst on his honeymoon of all places, and thankfully, he’s still willing to give me his time. We chatted about his own inspirations and sacrifices as an artist, how his background as a young Iranian making the move West influences his work, and ofcourse, the process, dangers and joys of making his documentary about Jordan B. Peterson.
Maziar, can you tell me about where the idea or interest to make a film about Jordan Peterson came from initially?
Patricia has been a reader of his work since ‘Maps of Meaning’ (Jordan’s first book). She was also a psychology student undergraduate back then, so this is when she first came across him and his work. In 2015 she simply approached him after class to see if he’d be open to having a film he made about him. Jordan Peterson has always been a professor that students would always line up to talk to after class. He was seen as a life-changing professor throughout his time at the University of Toronto. Patricia has always been moved by his research in the psychology of meaning and this is what prompted the initial interest to do a project about him. We arranged and went over to his house to meet his wife Tammy, showed him our portfolio and the rest is history.
Presumably, the controversy around the use of gender pronouns and Jordan’s rejection of Bill C16 (A Canadian bill which sought to make the use of gender pronouns mandatory) helped the film, given the attention brought upon Jordan and subsequent ‘controversy’?
Yes, I would say that that’s what’s giving him that initial global attention but I think it was actually the book that gave him a more sustainable popularity. ’12 Rules For Life’ was very well received and sold millions of copies so I think this is what made him and gave him the rise that we know today. I actually didn’t know anything about him until Patricia introduced me to him at his house. I saw him as an eccentric, an interesting guy with an open mind. He always had a very fatherly demeanour to him, with an interest to help out young people. Looking into some of his ideas, I found some of them quite compelling, especially the ones that delved into mythology.
You both spent a lot of time with Jordan and his family – were they ever suspicious of your intentions and how they would be portrayed in the finished film?
To his credit Jordan was never prescriptive and gave us a lot of space to make this film. He truly does respect artistry and we did earn his respect throughout the production. We started filming in the spring of 2015 and ended in December 2018. Patricia’s documentary style is more ‘a fly on the wall’ to capture all of the subtle moments.
The finished film is balanced, it does give time to his critics – How did Jordan feel about putting the criticism in the finished piece? He seems like someone who can handle it.
Jordan respected the fact that the film doesn’t tell people what to think. It’s challenging for viewers. But I actually would disagree with you here re: Jordan’s temperament. My experience of seeing Jordan in interviews is that he can get quite defensive with criticisms, but this wasn’t the case with us, for the simple fact that’s he’s grown to understand that we’re not coming from a nefarious place but simply trying to tell a good story that is rooted in truth. Partisan advocacy films from either side of the aisle have a short artistic life on the shelf but films are able to transcend are more the types of films we prefer to make. We don’t feel that for this project it’s our job to make people feel certain way about Jordan. We wanted to do a documentary that was more about showing and not telling because with the subject like Jordan Peterson, everybody’s always trying to tell you something about what they think. We wanted to do something different. We wanted to make a human story that doesn’t use anybody as a punchline. We’re pretty happy with the final result.
How has your opinion of Jordan shifted (maybe it hasn’t) and what did you learn from making it?
I’ve realized the extent to which people identify with what they think and when you attack their ideas they take it personally. But when it comes to academia, where Jordan comes from, and film and arts industry where we come from, it is a more progressive social justice culture that is dominant. It can tend to be a bit authoritarian at times. I think this makes conservatives a bit desperate and they felt out of the conversation which is partly true, so some of them stick onto a sense of cruelty and ridicule towards a dominant culture coming from the left. It’s really funny to think that in a way conservatives/libertarians are like a subculture now.
Apart from agreeing to be filmed and obviously be interviewed, did Jordan have any other influence in getting the film made?
Jordan had no influence in the films production. We had total editorial control. In fact, the film was already finished when we showed it to Jordan. This is important for journalistic integrity.
The first time I came across Jordan was the interview with Cathy Newman at Channel 4 in the UK – it was a huge thing at the time (it still is). What were your thoughts on that interview?
I thought Cathy Newman acted quite silly and really hurt her reputation of course and I was very impressed to see the way Jordan handle that. He wasn’t emotional and he represented his views very well (unlike GQ and VICE interviews, oh and that French one). But I actually have a different take on that interview and the response online from most people. I know Jordan pretty well and I know he likes strong women that are very disagreeable (like his wife Tammy) and after watching the interview I actually thought they quite liked each other even though they fought. And I do like the more British style of journalism where the interviewer never tries to be your friend, but they actually focus on getting to the facts of the matter. I think the digital response to the interview changed the way Jordan thought about it, it was a classic example of how people in the peripheral can change what the participants of the actual exchange thought about the exchange itself. This is the digital sculpting the physical world without anyone noticing.
Why do you think Jordan gets the criticism he does, being likened to the ‘alt-right’ etc ?
I think the reason that happens is the fact that things are so polarised. If you are criticising one side then people assume that you’re on the polar opposite. It’s a black-and-white sort of framing that is pretty disappointing. But also to be fair in Canada, Jordan Pearson became well known because he criticised human rights law, and when you do that and people don’t know you it’s natural for people to be suspicious about you. The only people that came to Jordan’s defence were conservatives, some of them very shady, like Rebel Media for example. So as soon as that happens some people simply put them in a box.
Have you or Patricia experienced any negative responses for making the film, i.e. giving ‘a platform’ to someone as divisive as Jordan?
We receive some messages from friends showing their disappointment but most of these people don’t know about the situation as much as we do nor have they seen the film. Alas, people are going to think what they are going to think, but overall the response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive. We were threatened by Antifa for a screening in Portland but alas no one showed up. We think it has to do with the fact that one of their members was killed in a hit-and-run the night before screening.
How do you feel about the current ‘culture wars’ for want of a better phrase which are ongoing?
People are living in completely different worlds and I can’t remember time more polarised than it is right now. People talk about politics and their identity more now than ever and it hurts cross cultural contamination and dialogs in good faith, with social media making things so much worse. It’s pretty disappointing but it also leads an opportunity for courageous artists and filmmakers to carve out space that is able to transcend without coming across as trying to appease either side.
I understand you came from a Iranian secular background. How do you feel about Jordan’s occasional focus on Christian iconography?
When I started to film the Bible lectures my eyes kind of rolled because I simply don’t respect dogma, but as I saw the way Jordan was talking about focusing on psychology and mythology in the power of story. I began to become more interested because it’s coming from more of a artistic narrative point of view. It’s actually maybe more interesting to delve into my own heritage with respect to Zoroastrianism. It’s been a fascinating journey so far and that’s been a bit of Jordan’s influence ironically enough.
Moving away from the documentary, in terms of you as an artist, how much of your own politics influence your work?
Probably greatly. Probably more then I would like to admit. But it doesn’t dig too deep because my artworks tend to come from a cultural human perspective with very abstract elements incorporated into them.
When did you set out to make films – what kind of things inspired that decision?
My background is more in media arts and Patricia did a masters in journalism which led to video production. We both have a lot interest in expressing the complexity of the human condition.
And the human condition is of course a great subject to work on.
The human condition has a familiar feeling to it, like rain on your forehead. Everyone can relate to it because it offers a starting point that’s rooted in a common ground. But at the same time as ineffable as understanding the origins of the universe, it’s also something unimaginable to us because we can’t quite agree or understands the reason that we’re here. Creating art that delves into the human condition is a way for us to loosen the valve on this curiosity through our own personal creations.
What things most inspire you when working as a creative?
This is a bit hard to answer of course but generally speaking I think I like to offer artistic experiences for people that they don’t expect while still being linked into something that they’re very familiar with almost at a primal level. One way this is manifested is in the synthesis of cultural intangible practices and new media technology.
Can you tell me more about your background – your coming from Iran to the West, what that change was like and how its had an influence on your work and output?
I was five years old when we came to Canada so the divide happened more between my public life at school and my private life back home. Each of these has her own very different sort of dance so any immigrant kids in a similar situation learns to dance both ways. My work is very much from a western urban perspective however I do like to remediate and remix traditions from my family’s heritage and put them together in new ways.
What kind of sacrifices have you had to make as an artist?
A sacrifice you have to make is that you simply don’t make as much money that’s someone who chooses a more conventional vocation. I’m a bit luckier because I can always lean back on my graphic design, video editing or other technical skills to get designed gigs in between projects. The life of an artist means you go to restaurants and look at the numbers first then the letters if you know what I mean!
Being a creative partner with ones spouse must be a great thing to have – does it always go smoothly, in terms of the production and usual relationship business which might get in the way?
To be honest people have told us horror stories about working with a partner but for us it’s never been like that. We have different styles that’s work well together with enough common ground to be able to reach a focal point.
Future projects – do you have any other people in mind who could be as interesting as Jordan?
We are going back to do the original film we set out to do, with regards Jordan’s friendship with the indigenous carver Charles Joseph, who’s a pretty interesting guy too. Charles is a true artist, a raw individual that has no lying in him. Camera lenses are naturally drawn to people like this. The most striking project it is the documentary about Nizar Zakka, the innocent man who is held captive in Iraq for years. There are so many lost voices stuck at Evin Prison and I want to help amplify their story.
How do you manage so many projects at once?
It can get very difficult but it’s always good to have projects at different stages of production. But because we are a two person team we can divide and conquer, but it can get difficult at times.
2020: Some new projects we’re working on this year (Coronavirus permitting)
Mixala: The first Peterson film we were making before the “Rise” story unfolded.
Finding My Father: An artist’s journey through creation, identity and memory.
Third: Exploring third genders in indigenous cultures around the world.
George: A Hungarian migrant’s survivor story from the gulags to Olympic stardom.
The Hooded Ones: How two college roommates overcame their political divide.
Left Behind: How families of political prisoners held illegally in Iran persevere.