Section Leaders of the Silver Screen

One might say it’s impossible for an anthropologist to get too much hands-on experience in the field. Ramyar Rossoukh, teaching

One might say it’s impossible for an anthropologist to get too much hands-on experience in the field. Ramyar Rossoukh, teaching fellow for Anthropology 120, “Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and Film,” almost did. While shooting the film Coming of Age on location in Tehran, Iran, he nearly drowned.

The first-time movie actor was playing a character based loosely on himself—an American-born half-Iranian, half-Latino young man, who travels to Iran to find his roots. His character attempts suicide after a confrontation with his father. Rossoukh, who did all his own stunts, had to jump into a deep pool of water with a rock tied to his ankle by a rope in a slipknot. Though he had practiced untying it, during the actual filming, while resting on the bottom of the pool and acting as if he were drowning, Rossoukh had trouble releasing the rock. After more than a minute underwater, he finally freed himself and rose to the surface, only to be greeted by cheers and applause. The crew said he had never acted more authentically.

“I told them if I were ever down there again for more than a minute, they should come in and get me,” he says.

As a child in Berkeley, Calif., Rossoukh’s early role model was Indiana Jones; that his hero was a cinematic archaeologist perhaps affected his choice to study anthropology here at Harvard. A more immediate influence, however, was the two-and-a-half-year period after his graduation from Dartmouth in 1996 that Rossoukh spent observing the Bakhtiyari, a pastoral nomadic tribe in southern Iran.

It was his research with the Bakhtiyari that led, however circuitously, to his role in Massoud Jaffari-Jozani’s feature film. While studying monuments in rural tribal cemeteries, Rossoukh and his assistant were arrested because villagers found them suspicious. A police officer, while driving the two men back to the station for interrogation, related the folkloric tale of ‘Abde Mamad Lalari, a famous sheep thief and infamous Iranian Don Juan. Rossoukh had thought Lalari to be an entirely fictional character, like Robin Hood. This police officer said differently. “He told me, ‘I arrested him last week,’” Rossoukh said.

This possibility that Lalari might not only be real, but also still kicking, set Rossoukh off on an epic journey of his own—one that culminated in a meeting with the Persian player himself. Back in Tehran, he relayed these adventures to Jaffari-Jozani, a friend of his and a renowned director. Jaffari-Jozani thought the tale would make an excellent film and wanted Rossoukh to star as himself. While that never quite panned out, he did offer Rossoukh a role in Coming of Age (which, coincidentally, the Museum of Fine Arts will be screening on Nov. 23).

“I was really broke at the time, so it was either this or teaching English,” Rossoukh said.

Now, though, Rossoukh can teach from his own experience. “We’re very fortunate to have our sections run by someone with such an insider’s knowledge of the Iranian film industry,” says Tara A. Kamangar ’04, a student in Anthro 120 this semester. He may only be a TF on campus, but elsewhere he’s a certified somebody. “I will have to tell my cousins in Iran who my section leader is,” Kamangar says. “I’m sure they will be suitably impressed.”