Zia Mohajerjasbi is an Iranian-American filmmaker hailing from Seattle, a city that has served as the primary focus of his work. He has shot & directed critically-acclaimed music videos for Macklemore, Blue Scholars, Jake One and Common Market, as well as a 2007 mockumentary short with standup comedian Hari Kondabolu, Manoj. In 2009, Zia became the youngest winner ever of the “Genius Award,” presented by The Stranger, a Seattle weekly. In 2015, he wrote and directed the award-winning narrative short film Hagereseb, and is also the cinematographer and director of an ongoing storytelling series, The Charcoal Sky. In April 2022, Zia’s debut feature film, Know Your Place, which he wrote and directed, premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival where it was awarded the New American Cinema Grand Jury Prize and the Golden Space Needle Award for Best Film. It will next screen at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.
“Let’s go right now.” It wasn’t so much a suggestion as a mandate. No way around it. How long had it been at this point? About 18 months. I stood in the corner of the room, leaning against the railing at the top of the staircase. I contemplated the proposal, fear-stricken and angry with myself.
“Let’s go right now,” she said again. I sat down on the couch. She sat next to me. I watched the maple tree through the window, the last of its yellowed leaves catching colors of dying sunlight, shifting orange to red, before falling below the roofline of the house across the street. I wanted to stay just like this. This I could do. But to go right now? My nerves tightened, on the verge of synaptic collapse. She said it again, but with an addendum: “We’ll go together once, and then you can go by yourself, and then you’ll be on your way. Back to life.” Uh-huh, I thought. Cue the dirge as we usher me into the grave. Alas, we slowly got ready. By the time we’d stepped through the living room, down the stairs and out the front door, the sun had set. Pink and blue hues set the sky aglow in one last firmamental display as darkness settled on the world around us.
It was warmer than usual for a January evening. We walked across the street to her burgundy Toyota Tacoma and climbed in. She placed her phone on the dash, Maps illuminating the screen. One hour and eight minutes to destination. The destination? That consumerist oasis in the middle of dead-ass nowhere off the Southern California interstate, a nomadic roadside pitstop paradise par excellence: The Outlets at Tejon. My mind was racing. One hour and eight minutes. I’ll probably die. Fuck. I started doing the math. 68 minutes. Four minutes to the freeway. Four minutes off the freeway on the other side. An hour on the freeway. Wait – breathe. Maybe you won’t die.
She started the car and my heart leapt. Definitely gonna die. I think she could sense my brain buzz. “Just breathe. We can talk if you need to.” I couldn’t talk. The headlights flipped on, sending a coyote skirting away into the dusky gloom. The engine revved as we rumbled down the street.
We drove in silence. The rhythmic rattling of the truck began to soothe, lulling me into a distracted daze for a few minutes. We were on the freeway heading north through traffic when I snapped back, somewhere near the furthest edge of development. City lights flanked the wilderness, which rose in hilly layers into the pitch black beyond. I checked the map on the dash: ETA 57 minutes.
My chest tightened, and I asked if we could press pause for a moment. I didn’t want to float away from the earth. Not right now. We pulled off the freeway and took the first right into the last bastion of human civilization this side of the mountain: a McDonald’s parking lot. She put the car in park. “Let’s go outside.” I got out. As doomed as I knew I was, the breezy warm evening had that good-omen feel to it; scented with dust, sweet grass, exhaust and McDonald’s hamburgers. America the beautiful.
The freeway hummed just beyond the far end of the parking lot, where we stood under a solitary streetlamp. We had stepped out near a few trees which hung low over the concrete. She pulled on the lowest branches, and gently nudged me underneath. Dust, sweet grass, exhaust, McDonald’s hamburgers, and now eucalyptus. I was grateful that she took me, and all of this, seriously. Everything had been so confusing the past year and a half. I didn’t want this. I wasn’t making it up. It just happened. As I stood there, a memory flashed: me directing that film. Our cast and crew, a scene with 40 extras. Holding that creative intention; being a Part Of. And now I was under a tree in a parking lot by a random stretch of highway, petrified into silence. Both scenes suspended in juxtaposition, I couldn’t help but feel life was oddly wonderful this way, even though it might fuck you up with its plot twists.
We got back in the truck and on the road: ETA 53 minutes. We climbed the mountain on a black ribbon of freeway, which stretched endlessly into the abyssal darkness. Threads of light undulated over hilltops as cars made their way back and forth through the pass. I suddenly felt the expanse might swallow me up with dispassionate coldness. My brain jumped again into existential algebra. There aren’t any exits for at least six miles. No hospitals or fire stations for many more. My chest hurts. How long can I live while having a heart attack? What about some type of fibrillation? I glanced over at her driving. Does she know how to administer CPR? I noticed the speedometer. She was speeding. I hadn’t accounted for this. What if we get pulled over? What if the panic comes quick and my heart … explodes? How long can you live after your heart explodes? 44 minutes. The map, not the heart. A familiar tenseness as I felt a stabbing in the left side of my chest. My fingertips started to go numb, as my feet felt frozen and nausea came in waves. Nowhere to go, I began to float upward, glancing over at her to see if she’d noticed I was both expanding like a balloon and being crushed inside a vise.
ETA 32 minutes. I remembered reading somewhere that marathon runners’ heart rates average about 165 beats per minute for the duration of the 26.2-mile run. Wait – pointless. I’m not a marathon runner. I tried to speak; silence abounded. ETA 17 minutes. Don’t check your pulse. You know that just makes it worse. Just breathe. It hurts to breathe. Maybe you have a pulmonary embolism because of that stabbing pain in your left side underneath the rib cage, and you’ll be dead soon. 12 minutes. You’re still breathing. You’re still alive.
I rolled down the window a bit. The whir of wind and road noise filled the car, thick, like water. My head swirled, neck tightened, vision tunneled. Eight minutes. Finally. Single digits, like my bank account since we’d wrapped production on the film 18 months ago. Yo brain, why you gotta bring up these dire financials during an acute crisis like this?
I looked out the window again as the scenery began to open up. The San Joaquin Valley stretched to infinity below us as we took the last gentle curves through Tejon Pass. As we descended the hillside, darkness broke with the illumination of corporate familiarity. A wave of comfort (and shame) washed over me: Starbucks. Cue the angelic chorale.
We departed the freeway, looping our way around to the brightly lit parking lot. Aside from a few other cars, the lot was mostly empty, surrounded on every side by seemingly endless space. The great American Southwest: dreamscape wasteland in all its liminal glory.
The truck came to a stop. She pulled the parking break, turned off the engine. The warm metal clicked under the hood for a few moments, then silence. I was still breathing, and therefore, likely still alive.
She turned to me. Eyes glinting warmly through the darkness. A hint of a smile. “How are you feeling?” I cracked open, shaking as I cried. I felt glorious. Stupid. Confused. Joyful. Angry. Relieved. Judgmental. How did this happen? To me? Why, oh divine intelligence of the universe!? Oh queen of cosmic chaos, whyyyy?! [echo, echo, echo] I stepped out of the car. The scent of burnt coffee, exhaust, dust and sweet grass, and then, like a ton of aromatic bricks: cow shit. That shit hit like an olfactory orgasm. Pungent, acrid, indelibly delicious. Sinuses swirled, sensorially satisfied. I breathed deep, kneeled on the concrete, and sobbed.
A new feeling. Light. Warm. Hold up. Are we dying? No. No, this was real. Gratitude. My body was here. On the ground, and I was smelling cow shit. This was real. I hadn’t smelled cow shit in so long. Yet here I was, an hour and eight minutes from my front door, in the middle of nowhere, smelling it to the fucking fullest. Mother of methane, praise be.
She took my picture in the empty parking lot. In the background was a gas station and an empty field. I felt stupid, but hope glimmered for the first time in 18 months. It felt weird looking at that picture. To feel so bare, and broken, and scared, and alone, and dead, and alive. We went inside and got a coffee. It was early January, so the cups were still festive as fuck. Aptly celebratory.
We went back to the burgundy Toyota Tacoma. She ate a cookie. I sipped decaf. I cried some more. Grateful. “Thank you. I love you.” “I love you too.” We drove back to the edge of the San Fernando Valley, ate falafels on red plastic chairs and talked about movies. She dropped me at home about an hour later. I sat outside.
At that point in my life, driving out to the middle of nowhere was something my panic-stricken brain had determined as an existential impossibility in which I would meet a certain, sudden and excruciating death. I had been struggling with agoraphobia for five months, and an almost constant string of panic attacks for 18. Whether from burnout, illness, the untimely death of loved ones or creative vulnerability pushed to the point of existential exhaustion, a cascade of one-after-another events that I still don’t fully grasp had somehow broken me open, scattered any sense of self-location, and was now (possibly) reconstituting. That evening, we’d driven one hour and eight minutes from where I lived. My Seattle-born, rain-watered heart had escaped the dusty climes of Los Angeles County, and on the outskirts, in a sad-looking parking lot, I’d found a piece of me again.
I sat on the porch listening to the crickets and cars pass through the nighttime. The neighbor’s sprinklers had just come on, and the mist carried with it the first blooms of jasmine and orange blossom. The title of the film I’d wrapped production on, my first feature, which had heralded the burnout and breakdown, came floating into consciousness: Know Your Place. That title had always meant a few different things to me, but I was never enamored with it. I’d slapped it on the first completed draft of the screenplay, always thinking I’d change it. The film was midway through post production, and getting it finished, let alone in front of an audience, remained entirely uncertain for me. Sitting there, I decided to keep the title for good.
Unmoored by isolation in this wander through the wasteland for the past 18 months, I’d finally discovered a crack. The smallest of openings that might lead me back. A bridge of empathy to some ethereal oneness, and I could see myself somewhere, in whatever small way, in the world again. As the whisperings of anxiety sleuthed somewhere at the edges of my mind, questions swirled about the film. Would it ever be finished? Would it be any good? I let the thoughts float on as I tucked my knees to my chest, and savored the evening’s etching into memory. Know Your Place. Mingled with the sweet-scented shit of a cow playing the olfactory hits, for the first time in the longest, I had an inkling of hope that maybe I’d be blessed enough to find mine.
Featured image shows Joseph Smith and Natty Moges in Know Your Place; all images courtesy Zia Mohajerjasbi.