One of the most famous poets from the Middle East was Omar Khayyam, a Persian astronomer and mathematician whose work, known as the Rubaiyat, has been translated into every major language. The story of Omar Khayyam has now been brought to the big screen by a first-time filmmaker and Iranian immigrant living in Houston, Texas.
Using fabulous ancient palaces and exotic locales in Uzbekistan, the movie The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam , brings audiences to the splendor of 11th century Persia.
The screening of this film is a moment of triumph for Kayvan Mashayekh, who came to the United States from Iran with his family at the age of 11. This former Houston attorney took film courses in New York and then spent the past seven years putting this project together.
He shot parts of the movie here in Houston and in Europe, as well as Uzbekistan, and its story moves back and forth in time between the 11th century and present day.
The Keeper, of the title, is an Iranian immigrant dying of cancer in a Houston hospital. He inherited the responsibility of keeping alive his family's oral history of Omar Khayyam, a task he passes on to his younger brother.
The story presents a loving portrait of a Middle Eastern family that American audiences seldom see in movies. But horrific events almost dashed Kayvan Mashayekh's dream of bringing this story to the screen. He was in Morocco on September 11, 2001, scouting possible shooting locations when news came of the terrorist attacks in the United States. He says he and his project suffered from the backlash caused by the tragedy.
"When those two planes hit the World Trade Center back on September 11, 2001, it also devastated people of Middle Eastern ethnicity as well, who lived in America," he explained.
Although investors shied away from the project, Kayvan Mashayekh persisted, drawing on the inspiration that had come to him the first time he read Omar Khayyam's words.
"I immediately was taken by the message and the purity of the philosophy of this great man who is a part of Persian history, who was able to balance reason with faith, and also was able to have an equilibrium between science and poetry," he explained.
Eventually, Kayvan Mashayekh found people who shared his vision and who were willing to back him financially. He was also able to recruit top talent from around the world for his cast and crew. Acclaimed British actress Vanessa Redgrave has a small part and Omar Khayyam is played by Bruno Lastra, a Spaniard.
Kayvan Mashayekh, who served as both producer and director of the film, says he hopes the view of the Islamic world he brought to the screen can counter, to some extent, the negative images westerners see in news reports from the region today.
"A movie can only do one thing, it can provide an opportunity for people to think and to feel, to reflect, to do something positive, and if this film can achieve that, it would be an enormous success," he said.
The Keeper: The Legend of Omar Khayyam is in limited engagements in several U.S. cities now and will soon go into international distribution. As for Kayvan Mashayekh, he is now working on another film, set in present-day Houston, which he says involves "baseball with an ethnic twist." Shooting for that film is expected to begin later this year.