Navid Negahban’s most famous alter ago, “Homeland” terrorist mastermind Abu Nazir, was certainly no fan of Israel. But Negahban, whose quiet, almost sympathetic performance of the jihadist shot him to fame in 2011, fell in love with the Jewish state while filming “Homeland” in Tel Aviv, so much so that when he was offered the lead role in an Israeli helmer’s low-budget debut, he jumped at the chance to return.
“Baba Joon,” the first feature from newcomer Yuval Delshad, above with Negahban,is a coming-of-age story set in an immigrant-heavy Israeli farming village. Negahban plays Yitzhak, a turkey farmer struggling to pass his Iranian traditions onto his precocious Israeli-born son. Delshad, himself the child of Iranian immigrants, penned the semi-autobiographical script, which features mostly Farsi dialogue and offers a window into Israel’s oft-forgotten population of Iranian Jews.
Filming on the pic, a Metro Prods.-United King production, wrapped this summer after five weeks in Sde Moshe, a tiny farming community at the northern edge of Israel’s Negev desert. Negahban, who appears alongside fellow Iranian-born actors David Diaan and Viss Elliot Safavi, with a supporting cast stuffed with Iranian-Israeli non-actors, says he was drawn to the project because of its similarities to his own life.
“I could understand Yuval when I read the script,” he says. “It felt like he has been working on this story forever, and struggling to find himself. And I called him and told him that I remember when I left Iran, that’s how it was.”
Some 200,000 Israelis are either Iranian-born or first-generation descendants of Iranian immigrants, with Iranian cuisine and culture touching all aspects of Israeli society. Tel Aviv’s iconic Levinsky spice market hosts dozens of Persian grocers, and Negahban – who left his hometown of Mashad, Iran, at the age of 20 to forge an acting career – laughs as he recounts visiting one to purchase ingredients for kashkeh bademjan, an Iranian eggplant dish, and despite his fluent Farsi still being spectacularly ripped off.
Stripped of his “Homeland” turban and dressed in farming duds of denim and flannel, Negahban is almost unrecognizable on set. Asked if he is concerned that his appearance in an Israeli film could have a negative political blowback, he shrugs.
“I don’t feel any borders,” he says. “It doesn’t matter where the film is. If a story if appealing to me, I will go for it. And if anyone has a problem with me being here in Israel, they have to deal with, not me.”