‘Laleh’ Biopic Tells The Revolutionary Life Story Of Iran’s First Female Race Car Driver

If you aren’t yet familiar with the incredible story of Laleh Seddigh, the first female Iranian race car driver who broke barriers and revolutionized the sport in the country forever, you are in luck because you have the chance to watch it on film!

‘Laleh’ directed by Iranian filmmaker Essy Niknejad, released the film in the United States during Women’s History month in theaters, and it couldn’t have been a more fitting time to bring Laleh’s powerful story to an international audience.

‘Laleh’ tells the story of a beautiful, brilliant, Ph.D. student, a young Iranian girl Laleh Seddigh, an underdog struggling against all odds to break through the male dominated Car Racing clique in Iran. She faced the biggest challenge of her life, not on the race track but on her path to getting there by confronting the old traditions, such as family pressure to get married, a suitor from the Silicon Valley, backstabbing friends, drivers who ran her off the track, and right wing politicians. The Car Racing Federation believed her ambition was inappropriate for a woman in an Islamic society, so they did all they could to force her out of car racing. Nevertheless, she continued fighting against right wing politicians and professional drivers even under the threat of her life, over seven years of her life.

The production, which filmed in Tehran, Iran, was produced in association with award-winning DEFC Production company in Tehran and the Movie Drive, Inc. a Canadian corporation. The film was produced by Essy Niknejad who is also the writer and director. The film stars newcomer Sara Amiri as Laleh, Homayoun Ershadi (The Kite Runner, Zero Dark Thirty), Nicholas Guilak (Bones, General Hospital), Mitra Hajjar (Wishbone, Romantic Nostalgia), Iraj Nowzari (The Ransomer, A Friend Made of Fire), Leila Otadi (Melancholia, Filicide), and Niki Karimi (FInal Whistle, One Night). 

At a young age, after Laleh expressed a desire to race against men and the ability to consistently beat them on the course, she experienced the full fury of Iran’s patriarchal and repressive society. Despite the opposition she faced, Laleh overcame societal, familial, and government oppression in order to achieve her dreams because driving was more than a sport to her. Laleh was racing for her freedom. This movie takes the audience into every hairpin turn of Laleh’s epic journey to not only cross the finish line ahead of the pack, but to do so in a way that empowers women around the world.

Director Essy Niknejad faced just as many treacherous events in his own harrowing trek to bring Laleh’s story to the screen and a worldwide audience. While filming in Tehran, he was opposed at every turn by conservative forces within the government and the Iranian entertainment world. After production was well under way, his offices were raided by an opposition group who stole his footage and only after endless court battles was the director able to have his precious film returned to him. Out of money, Niknejad returned to the U.S. to raise the funds necessary to complete filming and post production. Unable to do so, he sold his own home in order to return to Iran and finish what he started.

He wanted to stop at nothing to bring this story to the world, and we knew we had to speak with him to learn first hand what it meant to make this film, and work with Laleh herself on set.

How did you first hear about Laleh’s story, and what made you want to make a film about it? 

In the summer of 2008, I heard that Laleh Seddigh was racing in Tehran. I was able to track down her information and we had a long phone conversation and she told me about her story. I knew right then I wanted to make this film. I invited her to Los Angeles and when she got here I learned even more about her car racing exploits and we made an agreement and signed papers. 

As part of my research I decided to go to Tehran in 2009 after 34 years of being away from my homeland and was exciting to see so much material for me as I thought about the script and how I could make this story as authentic as possible. Much of my inspiration came from talking with women about their hopes and dreams for their lives and their aspirations for the future and more importantly their freedom in Tehran. 

This was the starting line for what would turn out to be a ten-year race in bringing this film and Laleh’s story to the world.     

What were the most challenging aspects of working on this film?

Our team overcame so many obstacles in making this film. It was a ten year uphill battle. Due to a lack of production facilities in Tehran, I had to make and modify normal cars into the race cars we would use in the movie. We had to build a racetrack, make uniforms for the drivers as well as other costumes and because of a lack of equipment we had to build a variety of camera rigs. More importantly was casting with so many characters to cast. We brought in actors from US, Canada, Turkey and Dubai. 

Much of the early production went as expected, but then as we were about 40% of the way done, government agents rushed into our production office and confiscated everything, including the hard drive containing our raw footage. The next day the official order came to us that the productions office was closed and production was shut down. Everybody, including myself, had to go home since government permission for shooting had been revoked. 

It was September 2012 and it was the saddest day of my entire professional life. I was alone I had no power, no one to protect me, no one to go to, nobody was there for me. I began to go and ask for the reason of closed down my movie production, but no one wanted to respond to me. I had to go ever into parliament to get permission to go back to production, but there was no chance to find anyone to listen to me.

A still image from the motion picture ‘Laleh’

After three months of getting nowhere, I realized I had two options: One was to give up and move back to Los Angeles,. The second option was to continue to fight and standing for your rights and the future for this movie. Since December of 2012, I made my mind to fight and get my movie out of their corrupted hands. I did not care what is going to happened to me. I had to go to war with the powers that be that did not wanted me to make this movie. They believed making this kind of movie would open doors to empower girls with dreams in that closed society. 

These powerful men sought to discredit me publicly and wrote more than eight thousands article from Dec.2012 until 2018. I fought back as much as possible, but because of their control of the media, my responses were never published. Throughout these eight years I did not stop fighting but I was losing so much of my money and more importantly time, but it was too late for me to go back.

As if all of this wasn’t enough I was also involved in an incident where I was hit by a car on set. I was told it was an “accident”, but the end result has been several eye surgeries and vision that is still damaged.  It was during these difficult times that I relied on my own message of this movie to NEVER give up on your dream. My hope was that this film would give strength to people to also never give up on their dreams. 

A still image from the motion picture ‘Laleh’

‘Laleh’ premiered in the US March 18, during Women’s History Month. What do you hope American audiences will learn most about her trailblazing story

I don’t like to tell people what to do and what to think, but I would like to see people standing for their rights no matter who is opposing them. I believe god made us to be like him, asking us to be good to one and other and helping each other get along. When people get excited or get inspiring by watching my movie I’m happy to see that.  That is our responsibility: to help each other to create a better society.  

What has been the reaction from Iranian audiences who have seen the film, and may be familiar with her story?

Based on my experiences with Iranian audiences since our premiere in selected theaters in southern California, most of the people that I have seen on video interviews, when they are coming out of the theaters, with happy faces and with hope inside their heart, they have been inspired, they have related with Laleh. Audiences have encouraged others to go to see this movie. That’s the best advertising I can ask for. That’s so wonderful for me to see and it helps me to forget the pain I’ve gone through. 

A still image from the motion picture ‘Laleh’

As the director of ‘Laleh’, why was it important for you to work with the real life ‘Laleh’ in bringing her story to the screen, while directing actress Sara Amiri on set? 

Laleh’s story was great material for me to tell all the other girls’ life story in this movie, and tell the rest of the world what is happening back in Iran. This is not just about Laleh’s story anymore.  This movie is about women and young girls all around the world who struggle against evil and oppression. 

What message do you want to share especially young female audiences through this film? 

I want them to go and watch this movie. If they get the message of this movie, then I would feel better about all that I have lost so far. I have so much confidence that if girls go see it, they will come out of the theaters with a much more powerful mind than before.

To keep up to date with future screening and VOD announcements about ‘Laleh’, visit the website!

A still image from the motion picture ‘Laleh’

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