People told Vahik Pirhamzei that he should write a movie about his life. At 19, the Armenian living in Iran during the Iran-Iraq War decided to escape the death and destruction by taking a daring trip over the dangerous mountain terrain of Turkey in the dead of winter. Often alone, cold, hungry and in fear for his life, Pirhamzei pushed through his two-week journey driven by one desire -- to make movies.
It's been 24 years since he escaped to Germany, and Pirhamzei has made it to the big screen with his film "My Uncle Rafael." Not only did he write the script, based on characters he created for a stage production, but he also plays two roles in the film. It opens in select theaters today, including in Fresno.
Pirhamzei came to America in 1989 on a sponsor visa through his brother-in-law and ended up in Glendale. He worked in a variety of jobs, but the desire to act remained strong.
"When I got to America, I discovered that all the Persian-Americans who had come here after the revolution, the older stars, could not get work. So they wrote plays. Where I was living there were a lot of people who said I should write something in Armenian," Pirhamzei says.
He wrote a play, that roughly translates to "Kindness Is Lost on Us," that included the 68-year-old Armenian Uncle Rafael, which he played on stage with the aid of makeup, hairpieces and a fake limp. Although Uncle Rafael was on stage only 12 minutes, he was such a hit people wanted more of the character.
They're getting more in the new film. As he did on stage, Pirhamzei plays both Uncle Rafael and his son. On stage, he gained weight to play the older uncle and hid that weight when he played the son. For the film, Pirhamzei lost 68 pounds to play the son and used a body suit for the slightly heavier Uncle Rafael.
Being able to talk to himself on screen goes back to what he observed watching America TV shows like "Columbo" or movies like "Kramer vs. Kramer."
"When I was a child, I wondered: 'How could these people be emotional?' I realized it's understanding the character in front of you and that's easy when I am playing both characters," Pirhamzei says.
He's so comfortable as Uncle Rafael, even his wife, actress Anahid Avanesian, says that while she knows it's her husband under the makeup, she has more respect for him when he's Uncle Rafael.
The release of the film is a big deal for Pirhamzei, but he's trying to remain humble. He has a "60-second rule" when it comes to the praise he's getting for his work -- that's how long he lets a compliment go through his "soul and body" before it must leave.
Working in Hollywood has been Pirhamzei's goal, but he doesn't see the release of "My Uncle Rafael" as the end of his journey.
"Maybe when I started, this was the dream. But years ago I learned, when I came to America and started going to acting classes, that I had to learn the industry," Pirhamzei says. "My thought is no longer what I'm going to do, but how I can help others to achieve their dreams."
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, email@example.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.