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Shahin Parhami.

Shahin Parhami

In a village in Iran’s Fars province, Shahin Parhami found what he wasn’t looking for.

Mr. Parhami – an Iranian-Canadian experimental filmmaker who told stories about artists and their relationship to history, politics and culture – had travelled to the village to meet a nonagenarian Qashqai musician. In the street, he happened upon two small children singing. As he always did when a spontaneous moment occurred, Mr. Parhami reached for his camera.

In the film, Jabaroot, the moments are edited together: the voice of the old master reflecting on the end of life, and the unbridled bellow of a child singing a Qashqai song, a symbol of the passage of knowledge.

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“He had a really unique voice,” filmmaker Atom Egoyan said of Mr. Parhami. “He was committed to this idea of the value of culture and art, and how even the most hidden aspects of cultural legacy can still reverberate in unexpected ways. He was really a chronicler of that. I would say that was his major contribution.”

Mr. Parhami was among a wave of young people who fled Iran in the 1980s, and many of his films reflected the experience of displacement and marginalization through the eyes of artists. At the time of his death, Mr. Parhami was finishing Marcel, a documentary more than 15 years in the making, about Montreal-based sculptor and Holocaust survivor Marcel Braitstein, with whom he forged a remarkable intergenerational friendship.

In another film, Shahrzaad’s Tale, he tracked down Kobra Amin-Sa’idi (stage name: Shahrzaad), a famous actor, director and poet known for her glamorous and risqué roles in Iranian movies of the 1960s and 70s. Her films now banned and in some cases lost, Mr. Parhami found her living in poverty and struggling with mental illness, and told her story.

“I love that film so much,” Mr. Egoyan said. “I always felt that film really deserved to get more attention.”

But while his work received awards at international festivals, and often received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts or the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, Mr. Parhami was not widely known in Canada outside of Montreal’s art scene.

Mr. Parhami made abstract and lyrical short films, and brought the same aesthetic sense to his feature-length documentaries, often adding fictional or staged sequences. He believed that documentaries were a kind of performance, and that all art was a kind of documentary – even popular films reflecting the culture around them and their moment in history.

“He has a very specific cinematic language,” said Arash Akhgari, a Montreal-based artist who did animation sequences for Marcel, which was nearing completion when Mr. Parhami died. Mr. Akhgari is now finishing the last edits and hopes to submit the film to festivals. “I feel very proud that he trusted me. At the same time, I am very sad that he wasn’t able to see the result of his work.”

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Shahin Parhami was born June 11, 1967, in Shiraz, Iran, the adored youngest child of Parviz Parhami, a military officer, and Farangis Zand.

A creative child, he loved sketching and painting. His favourite subject was people, including his parents, brother, Shahram, and sister, Gilda. Later he began writing poetry and learned to play guitar, dreaming of being a rock star. He loved to spend time in the kitchen with his mother, learning the culinary skills that would welcome people into his home for years to come – with dishes such as perfectly crisped tahdig and aromatic fesenjoon.

As a teenager, after the 1979 revolution, Mr. Parhami decided to leave Iran. His parents sold their house to pay smugglers to take him across the border to Turkey. The smugglers abandoned his group in the mountains, leaving them to navigate the treacherous passage across snow-covered peaks on their own. Mr. Parhami nearly died of dehydration and exposure, his running shoes breaking during the trek and his toes poking out as he walked through the snow.

He spent two years in Turkey before Canada accepted him as a refugee. He landed in Ottawa in 1988, and worked to learn English and adjust.

It was while making a short film with a friend that Mr. Parhami discovered his medium. In his view, film offered a synthesis of all the art forms he admired, including poetry, music and visual arts. He studied at Carleton University before enrolling in a film production program at Concordia, graduating in 1998.

Mr. Parhami made Montreal home for the rest of his life. He was forever documenting the world around him, photographing the view from his window or the alleyways of his Plateau neighbourhood. Though friends suggested he do commercial work to supplement his income, he resisted taking time away from his own projects, and lived and worked on meagre budgets.

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“The family worried about him. But all he thought about was making films,” his brother, Shahram, recalled. “He lived life the way he wanted to live it, as an artist.”

On most of his films, Mr. Parhami was director, writer, cinematographer, editor and sound designer all in one, though he also drew in collaborators.

“He was so original and so creative that he found his own path and his own way of expression with his films. But he kept his roots very strong,” said Kiya Tabassian, a Montreal-based musician who was the subject of Mr. Parhami’s film Jabaroot, and contributed music to other projects. Mr. Tabassian sees influences from Persian mysticism, for example, in the way Mr. Parhami explored the concept of time, favouring long takes and a meditative cadence in many of his films’ sequences.

“That was the way he looked at everything, at all of us – a slow, clear, focused gaze,” said Lara Braitstein, Mr. Parhami’s former wife and close friend, whose father, Marcel, was the subject of his last film. “He was so gifted at being present.”

Though he was serene, he was not sedate. Mr. Parhami was always up for an adventure, a party, or a goofy photo shoot with friends. His deadpan expression and placid, cooing voice never wavered even as he told outrageous yarns – such as being hassled for cigarettes by Turkish police after they found a photo of James Dean in his wallet, saw a resemblance to the teenaged Mr. Parhami, and insisted the cigarette in the picture was proof he was holding out on them.

In the spring of 2020, Mr. Parhami was diagnosed with plasma cell leukemia. “They say it’s very rare and aggressive,” he wrote in messages to friends at the time. “So am I!”

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Throughout his illness, Mr. Parhami called himself a warrior, but his cancer was not so much a battle as it was a bombardment, a painful reminder that the strong do not necessarily survive. A fighting spirit is no match for a bomb when it drops. While Mr. Parhami was clear-eyed about his odds, he held on to life defiantly. But after 10 months of treatment, he developed a fever, declined suddenly and died on March 13, with his girlfriend, Sandy El-Bitar, and a few close friends by his side and his family online.

Mr. Parhami leaves his brother and sister, half-sisters Nazila Parhami and Felour Kashanijoo, nieces and nephews, a wide circle of friends and a long list of films he still wanted to make.

“He faced so much hardship,” said long-time friend Anurima Banerji. “And he always answered with beauty.”

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