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The Wrestler, the Ride, Christmas Movies and More!

Multi-talented film producer, race car driver, Ali Afshar has had an exciting life. Part of his life story inspired a movie.

Sylvia: Ali, I get much satisfaction out of movies that feature an underdog facing a great challenge. This is the theme of one of my favorite film of yours, American Wrestler: The Wizard. It tells the story of a young man who, after escaping from Iran to America, against all odds becomes the High School wresting champ! Is this film your personal story?

America wrestler is based on me and my family coming to America during the 1979-1980 Iraq hostage crisis and the Irani revolution--which it looks like, they are in a revolution again after 43 years.

The film is not word for word accurate for what happened, but it is inspired very much by my family’s life and by what transpired by me just trying to fit in, in the small town of Petaluma and get acceptance, get friends, find love and all that kind of stuff. This is really the backbone of all our movies, which are feel good, do the right thing, underdog, diversity driven. Our first 7 movies were more female led, next ones were African American and Middle Eastern led. We were doing diversity before it was fashionable.

Sylvia: I noticed the diversity and the breaking of gender roles early on, and I admire that you did that.

Ali: They were the stories we wanted to tell already before everyone jumped on the diversity band wagon.

Sylvia: I love the chemistry between the actors in the films.

Ali: Thank you. I come from an acting background. So, I have a little bit of a shorthand with good performances and recognizing raw talent.

Sylvia: In another one of my other favorite films, The Ride, which is about an abused boy--did it actually happen that way? So, the young boy was raised a racist by a violent father, had a swastika tattooed on his ear--then, when he was taken away from his parents and went into the foster care system, he was adopted by interracial parents, much to his horror?

Ali: Yes, it is. In fact, John and I are still in touch. I can put you in touch with John to interview for this blog if you like.

Sylvia: Wonderful. So, then this blog will have a part 2 next month! Readers, be sure to check back in December for John Buultjen's story.

Ali, How did you uncover John’s unusual life?

Ali: I rode this bicycle brand Haro and I started collecting them in the 80s. I still have a bunch. I went to buy some bikes from Haro and John was the brand manager, and he said, “I’d love to tell you my story. It might make a good movie” And I thought, “Yeah, whatever. Everyone says that”. But then I heard it and I thought, oh wow, this would make a good movie! Then we got Sasha Alexander, Ludacris, Shane Graham and just a great cast together. Alex Ranarivelo directed it, the same director who did American Wrestler.

Sylvia: Why do feel it was so important to bring a story to the public about a child with racist ideology, whose life was turned around by the loving, mixed-race couple who adopted him?

Ali: I like underdog stories. I like stories that are feel good, do the right thing, overcoming racial barriers and this was just the epitome of that kind of story. The father purposely adopts a disturbed, abused kid. He teaches him how to ride a bike and they overcome their differences, and the kid goes on to become the BMX world champion.

And regarding the part with the racism, you know, whether it’s Middle Eastern, black or Latin, Hispanic, Asian, I think everyone relates to that. One thing our movies do that I think a lot of other movies don’t do--being an immigrant myself--is shed a light on the American Dream. I think a lot of Americans take America for granted. Is it perfect? —no. Is anything perfect?—no. Look what’s happening in Iran right now. Looks what’s happening in the Ukraine. We can walk around, can make a living and be safe-ish. We can be successful-ish. Just work hard. You can get a job at McDonald’s and live in Kentucky and at least have water, food, shelter, which so many people in the world don’t have. By international standards, with the extreme poverty around the world, most middle-class Americans rate as a 1%er, with an income of $32,000 or over.

Sylvia: That’s what I love about the film, it encourages us to have the courage to go for it in life and pursue our dreams, but like you said, in some places in the world, the circumstances are bleak and opportunities are not available to people. In the U.S., I understand what you are saying, there is more of a sense of possibility. Though I should add that there can still be enormous challenges for some people, even here.

Ali: The day is going to go by whether you do something or not. We are getting older and the day passes. We can win or lose. 24-hours will go by and by the end of it you can have done something fun, have had a great experience and win, or this time you lose. It’s not like you are going to save time by not doing anything, so you might as well try.

Sylvia: What sparked the motivation in John?

Ali: He watches the movie E.T. –and bicycles like motorcycles are freedom—it’s probably the first experience of freedom we had as a kid. The first time we got to get away from home was on a bicycle. That was part of the journey for him, in trying to be accepted, to open up to love and finally feeling he was indeed accepted. He was from an abusive, alcoholic father and the bicycle represented freedom.

Sylvia: That freedom helped him feel that he found his place. He found something he could excel at and yes, being loved and accepted for who is by his new family was a big for him.

With there being so much crisis in the world right now, with so many serious issues on our plates...watching a feel good movie can give us a little bit of a break.

Ali: Yes. Climate change, war, the environment, freedom.

Sylvia: Especially if we have kids, we are thinking constantly, trying to come up with solutions. We don’t want to leave this dire situation to them. It becomes hard to relax and recharge our inner batteries. The feel-good movies that show most everyone coming from a more compassionate, kind place gives us a little vacation from what we are surrounded by. It’s soothing for the soul. I have a daughter addicted to the feel-good Christmas movies and you have a few of those coming out this year yet. Tell me a little more about those.

Ali: We have 4 coming out in the next 4 weeks. We have 2 movies that we shot in Petaluma called, Holiday Harmony and A Christmas Mystery, both coming out on Thanksgiving on HBO Max. Holiday Harmony is a Christmas musical starring Brooke Shields and A Christmas Mystery is a film with a younger cast about kids trying to find the city’s stolen jingle bells, and that stars Beau Bridges, Oscar Nunez and Eddie Cibrian and a couple really, really great kids. One of them, the lead Violet McGraw—her mother, Jackie and I went to high school together in Petaluma, and now fast-forward 30 some years and her daughter is the lead in our movie.

Sylvia: Oh, I love that!

Ali: It’s got Christoph Sanders. It has a great adult cast and a great young kid detective. So, those are our 2, Holiday Harmony and A Christmas Mystery that are coming out on Thanksgiving. Then, a week later on December 1st, we have A Hollywood Christmas, which stars our California Christmas Josh Swickard—not as the same character, it’s a different movie. But he’s great in this. He plays a network executive who comes to this small movie set and is shutting it down and this movie set is for a Christmas movie. He is coming down as a big network bad guy to shutdown this movie and he and the director of the movie, played by Jessica Vann, they fall in love and you can imagine what happens. That’s A Hollywood Christmas, we shot that in L.A., at my office here at Warner Bros. Studios.

Then there is another one that come out on December 14th, called, I Believe in Santa and that will be on Netflix. It’s about a 40-year-old lawyer who still believes in Santa Claus. A cute rom-com. It stars our own, Christina Moore, and her real-life husband, John Ducey.

Sylvia: Smart casting an actual couple, you can usually feel that natural chemistry.

Ali: Then, next year in January, we have our series coming out on Amazon, called Casa Grande. Casa Grande is a show that’s like Yellowstone but with a Latin-x infusion. So, it’s kind of like this upstairs, downstairs story about the rich landowners and the illegal immigrant farm workers—a little Romeo and Juliet love stories and some drama, around how they co-exist, literally on the exact same piece of land, but have such different experiences. There are 5 episodes already shot.

Also, we just released That’s Amor about a month ago now, on Netflix.

Sylvia: Oh, I enjoyed that. I loved the lovely mom and daughter relationship. I noticed that usually those relationships are shown as dysfunctional in films, instead of supportive.

How did you shoot Casa Grande? Were the exteriors shot on location and then the rest in L.A.?

Ali: No, we shot it all on location in 2020 and 21.

Sylvia: Wow--on location. You have done so many films recently, and now a series. That’s impressive. I don’t know how you do it! Thank you, Ali, for sharing the wonderful information. I have marked my calendar for the Christmas movies and look forward to my interview with John for next months blog!


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The views and opinions expressed by the interviewees do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Conscious Media Movement.


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