As valuable as it is in life and art, perspective belongs only to those who’ve logged the miles and hours to get it. After living on Beacon Hill his entire life, a few years ago Zia Mohajerjasbi relocated to Los Angeles. The filmmaker, who’s directed music videos for Macklemore and Blue Scholars as well as last year’s award-winning short film about Yesler Terrace Hagereseb, was still maintaining his creative projects in the Northwest, but found LA offered commercial work. Since moving, Mohajerjasbi has regularly returned to Seattle, and with every trip home, the time and distance accumulated between visits provided the inspiration that led him to his latest project.
Released in mid-July, The Charcoal Sky is a series of seven personal monologues shot in elegant cinematic style. All but one are by Seattleites, filmed in Seattle; most are people of color or refugees from other countries speaking in their native tongues. The throughline is subtle: These are people, like Mohajerjasbi, assessing their relationships to particular places, both of which are in constant flux.
“Every time I came back to Seattle after a three-month stint in LA, [I realized] the acceleration of change is extreme, especially for someone who grew up there,” he says by phone from LA. “If the nature of things is to change, fine, but the accelerated pace in Seattle is almost traumatic. [Charcoal Sky is] putting down a memory within the context of a relationship that was formative for me, growing up in that place.”
The first segment that Mohajerjasbi shot is his uncle, a practitioner of Bahá’í who was persecuted in early-’80s Iran and subsequently relocated to Seattle. Drinking tea and smoking a pipe in his living room, he tells a story that’s both tragic and transcendent. As with most of the segments, Mohajerjasbi lets the camera settle in one spot over a single take.
Another centers on the Phams, owners of Pho Bac, one of Seattle’s oldest and most beloved pho shops. Seated with their daughter at their Rainier Avenue restaurant, the couple boasts about the flavor of their famous broth before recounting their flight from Vietnam during the Viet Cong era. The camera circles the trio as they talk and eat, juxtaposing the commonplace scene of customers coming and going as the family dines together with a harrowing immigrant story that spans dozens of years and thousands of miles.
Other segments similarly collide the mundane and the remarkable: an African immigrant witnessing a drug deal on Beacon Hill; a Black man recounting his first experience of love and death; a white man’s run-in with racist Southern cops in the early 1970s. The segments run between five and 12 minutes long, intimate, diverse and compelling.
To gather the stories, Mohajerjasbi started with a list of people he grew up around, people who he knew as good storytellers. Interviewees pointed him to other interesting folks they knew and friends suggested friends. Mohajerjasbi gathered a small crew and mostly got out of the way of the stories “in a way that I’m not laying claim to someone else’s emotional narrative,” he says. Though each segment is shot with few or no cuts, each took multiple takes to nail lighting, pacing, speech. Each is self-contained but also part of a larger web of collective authorship.
“Nostalgia is a disease but history is a resource,” he says. “I have a personal connection to these people and places, this idea that life is richer when you’re in contact with as much humanity as you can be.”