A young filmmaker’s journey to Aspen Shortsfest, and beyond

April 14, 2023

A young filmmaker’s journey to Aspen Shortsfest, and beyond

There’s nothing like watching your film amongst an audience and feeling the validation that you made something that actually affects people — 25-year-old filmmaker Julia Elihu looks toward this moment tonight when “In the Garden of Tulips” makes its world premiere at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest.

Elihu is an Iranian-American writer and director based in Los Angeles. She’s attending her first-ever Shortsfest this week, also marking her first trip to Aspen, because her 14-minute film, “In the Garden of Tulips,” is one of 79 shorts selected for this year’s Oscar-qualifying festival.

“This is huge for me, like I’ve always wanted to get a short into Aspen,” Elihu said. “I’ve always admired Aspen and I’ve submitted every year, so when we got the acceptance, it was a really big deal — we were like, ‘OK, we’re coming out, we’re gonna meet people in the industry, we’re gonna meet so many filmmakers and get inspired by them and learn from them.’”

Elihu, who directed “In the Garden of Tulips,” is joined in Aspen this week by her core filmmaking team, including the writer of the film, Ava Lalezarzadeh, and its producer, Aaron Lemle.

Set in 1988 in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, “In the Garden of Tulips” follows an Iranian-Jewish teenage girl (Caroline) as she takes a final car ride with her father to the Iranian countryside. Lalezarzadeh — who Elihu said is a long-time collaborator of hers — wrote the script based on her own mother’s escape story from the country. Lalezarzadeh also plays the younger version of her mother in the film, cast as Caroline.

Telling these types of moving, immigration stories has been a natural attraction for Elihu as a filmmaker, she said, and aligns with most of the work she’s done thus far.

“What I love about filmmaking, and the special thing about making these types of films is like, finding the real stories that you could never make up and then bringing them to life,” Elihu said. “So I think that’s what attracted me so much to ‘In the Garden of Tulips,’ was that it’s based on [Lalezarzadeh’s] mom’s story — like, you see this person who now lives in America and is so established and did so well for themselves, but you would have never thought that at 15 they were smuggled out of the country and had this experience.”

Elihu started making short films when she was 17 years old. She said her passion for storytelling was born out of learning her own family’s stories about their previous lives in Iran and their experiences moving to the United States.

Elihu’s parents left Iran for the U.S. in the late 1970s. She and her family are Jewish, she said, and her parents fled their homeland having faced persecution during the Iranian Revolution.

Born and raised in sunny San Diego, California, Elihu said her mom encouraged her to engage in the arts early on, having seen her daughter’s knack for creativity and storytelling endeavors. In high school, Elihu was involved in after-school arts programs — one of those being a film program, she said, through which her love for filmmaking was nurtured.

She went on to attend college at Chapman University for film production and made a handful of successful shorts while there. Though this is her first Aspen Shortsfest experience, the young filmmaker is no stranger to the festival circuit.

Elihu’s first short film, titled “Yasamin” — which she made while she was still in high school — was a grand jury prize nominee at the 2018 AFI Film Festival. The film is based on her mother’s immigration story and her own life growing up in San Diego, she said.

In college, Elihu produced the short documentary, “Team Maryland,” which made its mark on the festival circuit — hitting ones like Palm Springs and Big Sky — and was acquired by The New Yorker and PBS’ POV Shorts Program.

Elihu also made “Winter of ‘79,” an action-thriller short that’s set in Iran and is an “amalgamation of family stories” and how they escaped the country, the filmmaker said. That film had its world premiere at the Oscar-qualifying Rhode Island International Film Festival and went to Short Shorts in Asia and HollyShorts in California.

After graduating from college amid the pandemic, Elihu headed to L.A. where she now works as a director in the commercial industry, aside from her creative film projects.

“In the Garden of Tulips” is the first short that Elihu has made out of college — or, as she put it, “being in the real world.” Without the financial backing of a film-school program, Elihu said she and Lalezarzadeh had to work at raising all the funds, and “it’s not easy and it’s not cheap to make a short film.”

They launched a crowdfunding campaign and managed to connect with the production company, Public School Pictures, which came on board as the film’s executive producers.

Elihu explained that when Lalezarzadeh first approached her about directing this film project, she was enamored by the “beautifully written” script, she said, and its simplicity.

“And so what I wanted to do with this film was really explore the slowness, the simplicity — not too many shots, not too many cuts in the editing room — just being very selective of what we shot and how we shot it,” Elihu said. “And I wanted to really catapult the viewer into this world and make it feel super real, since this isn’t going to be something that most of us have experienced, so I felt like the best way to do that was this like fly-on-the-wall, really real and gritty style of filmmaking.”

The director said every choice she made was intentional — from the camera placement to the sounds and final music selection.

As Elihu enters the next chapter in her career, she said that while she wants to continue telling these stories rooted in her own heritage, she also looks to make more contemporary films that relate to her experiences as a woman in her 20s navigating the world.

A feature is on the horizon for Elihu, who recently wrote the script for a potential feature project, with the logline: “Four 20-somethings struggling to navigate young adulthood come together to write a self-help book based on doing everything completely wrong.”

Lalezarzadeh also is writing a feature version of “In the Garden of Tulips,” Elihu said, and they hope to pursue that in the next couple of years. In the meantime, the film team is waiting to hear back from a handful of other festivals to which they’ve submitted their short. Its world premiere in Aspen is significant, Elihu said.

“Aspen is an amazing launching ground,” she said. “So having world-premiered here, I have very great hopes for our festival run and I think the film’s gonna have a long life, hopefully.”

Elihu went into this week hoping to meet people in her industry and find potential collaborators for her future projects, she said. Aside from these networking aspirations, the young filmmaker has been anticipating tonight’s screening at the Wheeler Opera House, where she’ll watch her story take its shape on an audience for the first time.

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