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STREET LEVEL HISTORY - Producer Vassiliki Khonsari Brings A Documentarian's Spirit To The "Verite Game" 1979 Revolution

Posted By Justine Neubarth, Friday, February 10, 2017
I would never consider myself a gamer,” says Vassiliki Khonsari, PGA member and executive producer of the groundbreaking video game 1979 Revolution: Black Friday.

“Sacrilege!” her partner, the video game director Navid Khonsari, teases as he types vigorously at his computer. We are in the sleek, light-filled Brooklyn office of iNK Stories, the duo’s narrative media production studio. In another corner, an employee pops in and out of a virtual reality headset. Vassiliki laughs with Navid, then grows serious. “I think that’s part of my strength,” she says, straightening in her chair. “Navid is very much a gamer and comes from the gaming world. And what we pride iNK Stories on is being able to have this fresh perspective from fresh eyes and being able to push the limitations of technology.”

1979 Revolution is an adventure game set amidst the tense, gripping days of the Iranian revolution. Combining the action of a video game with the narrative heft of a documentary, it’s one of the first entries in a genre that Vassiliki and Navid have titled “verite games.” Players must navigate the decisions that an everyday citizen of Tehran— in this case, an aspiring photojournalist—faced during the civil unrest surrounding the ousting of the Shah and the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The game, available for download in a variety of places including Steam and the App Store, has been nominated for three New York Game Critics Awards, including Best Game of the Year and was named by the Los Angeles Times as one of the top 10 games of 2016.

Vassiliki studied both cultural anthropology and film as an undergrad, which led her to the University of Manchester for a master’s degree in visual anthropology. Following school, she said she was “lured” into the documentary film industry, where she cut her teeth on “bread and butter” pieces for TLC like Paramedics. One of the first feature documentary jobs she landed was as an assistant director of a film about the video game Street Fighter II. The project introduced her to both gamer culture and the “monstrous disasters that can take place” in documentary filmmaking: the film’s sound was stored in a building across from the World Trade Center and was destroyed on September 11, 2001.

Vassiliki Khonsari (center) watches a take for 1979 Revolution alongside team member Richard Peasey (additional writing) and lead cast member Farshad Farahat.

iNK Stories was formed in 2006, and more documentary projects soon followed, including Pindemonium, about the cultish world of Olympic pin collectors, and Pulling John, about professional arm wrestlers. Vassiliki served as a producer and director of photography on the first film and directed the latter. The experience both films provided—that of dipping into an odd little subculture—proved to be invaluable. “Coming from the background of cultural anthropology, it was always very inspiring for me to step into these microcosms,” she says. “These little worlds that people create and organize themselves around.”

Navid’s background is in AAA video game direction, including several iterations of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. After working on both documentary and smaller video game content together, Vassiliki and Navid were looking to access different audiences and observed the tremendous power of games to do just that. Navid grew up in Iran until the age of 10, when his family left for Canada following the revolution. When, as an adult, he traveled to a small village in southern Iran, word caught on that “a guy from New York” was visiting … who just happened to be the only Iranian headlining name in the Grand Theft Auto credits. As Vassiliki tells it, “A line formed of these small kids who wanted to meet him and talk about the game. It was really profound to see what impact games make as a cross cultural platform.”

Early 2011 brought the Arab Spring. As the demonstrations unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa, Vassiliki says “you felt like you were limited” in the documentaries and news stories that were coming out about the vast social movement. She and Navid were searching for spaces where audiences could interact with the real events that were going on around them. “What if you were to throw someone into the fire of revolution?” she remembers thinking. “What would they do?” And the idea for 1979 Revolution was born.

 Vassiliki Khonsari

Initially the idea was met with both excitement and resistance. “Some publishers,” says Vassiliki, “were very open: ‘We are not ready to handle anything remotely controversial.’” But the pair felt that it was the right story at the right time, and they further incubated the idea at the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Lab. Navid’s roots gave them access to plenty of primary sources, and they also felt that enough time had passed to explore what had been, for many, a painful and violent period. “There was a huge exodus that took place after the revolution,” Navid tells me. “So the next generation has been born in the United States and Germany and Canada, and they’re kind of at an arm’s length from understanding. And rightfully so, because their parents had to escape their homeland, so it’s not something that they want to talk about.” A video game, they felt, could be a good way to bridge that understanding between the generations.

For Vassiliki, a first-time producer of a large video game project, the initial step in developing the game wasn’t much different than that of a feature documentary: a huge amount of research and outreach to the Iranian community “across gender, across religion, across political ideology.” But there were plenty of other new skills to acquire. In particular, she says, she had to wrangle budgetary considerations that would have never popped up when shooting live action or documentary, like the unique costs of adding additional main characters. “You have to start with motion capture. You have to design a character build. You have to have the concept art. 3-D design is expensive in terms of memory, in terms of art and in terms of building it.

They also wanted the story world to look as authentic as possible, beginning with the motion capture portion of the design. Initially, Navid wasn’t thinking too hard about the actors that they would be using for “mo-cap.” “I was just thinking of it in a technical way, like no one’s going to see their faces because they’re wearing these spandex suits,” he tells me. Vassiliki, however, pushed for an all-Iranian cast; this paid tremendous dividends, Navid says, when it came to “the nuances, the mannerisms and the details.”

They shot all of the game’s motion capture—the equivalent of a feature-length script—in four days in Los Angeles. Despite the brutal schedule, Vassiliki calls it a pivotal moment for the cast. “Each of the actors had experienced the revolution to some degree in their personal lives, whether firsthand or as echoes through their family. […] And you know, of course there are limited opportunities for a lot of these actors, who are sick of playing terrorists or prophets.” They were later able to use the same actors for the characters’ voices.

The iNK Stories team next turned to the challenge of artwork. In an industry that doesn’t often veer from what Vassiliki calls the “existing template of most games, which is, ‘I’m a big buff white guy with a shaved head and a machine gun,’” this proved to be a distinct challenge. Crafting the “naturalistic look” of an everyday, 18-year-old Iranian who “isn’t super buff” was, in Navid’s words, “a huge responsibility.” Explains Vassiliki, “It’s hard to redirect artists to unlearn what they’ve done so many times over. That’s really the challenge. You work in an industry where people are rewarded for doing fine work in one direction.”

But the possibilities of the project far outweighed the challenges. Vassiliki hopes to continue to revisit history through the lens of the everyday citizen, not just the “top down” overview favored by so many documentaries. And she wants the genre to reach as many people as possible. “Part of our mission in making verite games is making it accessible for the global citizen,” Vassiliki says. “We localize in Turkish, very specifically because of what’s going on right now in Turkey. We localize in Farsi. French. German. Spanish.”

They see the genre having social implications domestically as well. One time period they are considering for a future verite experience is the volatile years of the late 1960s and early 1970s in America. “I think we’ve become complacent over the past 30-odd years,” Navid tells me. “It’s time to start giving people the idea that revolutions were taking place. People actually took to the streets in this country in that time. You think of it as something that happens ‘over there,’ but it’s happened here, and it might need to happen again.”

Vassiliki has been buoyed by both the overwhelmingly positive response to 1979 Revolution and the variety of audiences it has reached. “It’s not just mere novelty, this idea of making decisions,” Vassiliki says. “There’s a valid story to it. It resonates with people.” iNK Stories has received accolades from everyone from “deeply, deeply moved and overjoyed” Iranians to a Christian gaming organization called GameChurch, which named 1979 Revolution one of its top picks from 2016. It was also featured in a UNESCO working paper titled “Empathy, Perspective and Complicity: How Digital Games Can Support Peace Education and Conflict Resolution.” The game has also done very well among female players. “Incredible,” says Navid. “Two to one, women over men are engaging with 1979.” As one of a handful of female producers in a heavily male-dominated industry, Vassiliki is eager to bring more women both in front of and behind the screen. “For the first time, publishers and people who are looking at the demographics are realizing that female gamers are a growing population and that they’re here to stay,” she asserts. “They can only benefit from this, by making more female-oriented content. And by doing that, you have to have more people. There has to be a movement to bring more women—not only behind the cameras, but also in the development process and the execution process.”

Director Navid Khonsari (standing) works with cast
members Bobby Naderi (kneeling), Ray Haratian (on-
back) and Omid Abtahi (right), on a stage at motion
capture facility House of Movies in Los Angeles.

The project’s reception was not universal; perhaps most notably, the Iranian government banned the game. Iran’s National Foundation for Computer Games called 1979 “anti-Iranian,” while its director said in a press release that “games like this can poison the minds of the youth and young adults about their country.” The response put the studio on high alert. “We had one of the guys who was working on the game here under an alias,” Vassiliki says. “A number of people who provided really crucial research, content and personal photos had to remain nameless to avoid jeopardizing their safety in Iran.”

But for the time being, iNK Stories will continue to explore the Iranian revolution through game experiences. Their next project is titled BlindFold, a virtual reality experience set in the universe of 1979. Again, the player embodies the part of a photojournalist (although a different one from the protagonist of 1979) who is being held in Evin Prison and is charged with making propaganda against the state. Vassiliki partnered with both Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists, who helped provide research for the VR experience.

 Vassiliki and Navid see this approach—combining verite with virtual reality—as the new frontier. “There are an incredible amount of possibilities [in] creat[ing] virtual reality experiences that are actually narrative driven. It’s literally the one area people haven’t jumped into because they haven’t figured it out,” Navid says. “But,” adds Vassiliki, “we’ve teamed up with the right partners. Really nailed down the tech. We’ve gone through the school of hard knocks, really cracking this cinematic, interactive narrative.” They have several more projects looming on the horizon that they aren’t quite ready to divulge, but they are excited about pulling in more partners from outside of the video gaming world—from both the nonprofit sector and Hollywood.

Like Vassiliki, I do not consider myself a gamer—my fast twitch gaming muscles only get me as far as the pinball that came with Microsoft XP. But I downloaded 1979 Revolution onto my phone and have been playing it all over New York—on the couch, in cafes, on the subway during my morning commutes. It is especially then, when I am simultaneously crossing the Manhattan Bridge and on my phone walking along Tehran’s Sharheza Avenue, that I think of Vassiliki and Navid, tucked in their studio in the shadow of the bridge’s overpass, creating the next form of revolutionary media. 

In response to the recent executive orders regarding immigration, iNK Stories is donating February’s proceeds from 1979 Revolution sales to the ACLU. Standing in solidarity with immigrants and refugees—including Navid Khonsari as well as many other Iranian natives from the studio’s production team and cast now living in the U.S. on visas or as citizens, some of whom were at various times registered as refugees—iNK Stories has doubled down on its conviction that our nation’s diversity makes us stronger.


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