Ali Afshar and his family escaped the Iranian Revolution, emigrating to Northern California while they were still able. Then-young Ali sought to fit in with a new culture, surrounded by people who knew little, if anything, about Iran or its history.
But Ali did eventually find a welcoming community in Petaluma, California’s high school wrestling community, where a local school coach encouraged him to excel despite the odds.
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“This movie is about me and my family,” Mr. Afshar told The Washington Times. “Obviously we made it a more entertaining story, so we took some Hollywood liberties. But the whole theme of this movie is hope, inspiration — showing the American dream.”
In “American Wrestler,” George Kosturos stars as young Ali, who is pushed to excel by Coach Denny Plyler (William Fichtner). The film also stars Oscar-winner Jon Voigt, and even features Mr. Afshar in a small role as his own uncle.
“American Wrestler” takes the familiar path of a tournament narrative, with young Ali working to beat not only his opponents, but his own doubts and fears as a young man coming into his own.
Mr. Afshar said his investors were supportive of the film because it “shows an Iranian boy as the hero, not an Iranian bad guy, not a comic relief Middle Eastern guy, [but] like ‘Rocky’ or ‘The Karate Kid.’”
Mr. Afshar said there remains in his adopted land a current of prejudice against Middle Easterners that he experienced as a young immigrant, and which has been somewhat reignited due some of the Trump administration’s rhetoric and proposed travel bans.
“I’m as American as they come,” Mr. Afshar said. “All my best friends are Americans.
“I am very proud of Iranian culture and history. And if you talk to the people of Iran, they love Americans. They love the West.”
Of Mr. Trump’s proposed travel ban, Mr. Afshar says that while there are certainly dangerous people who need to be kept out of America, a blanket ban is not the answer.
“Do it the right way. Judge people for who they are not the color of their skin or religious beliefs,” he said.
Mr. Fichtner, who plays the wrestling coach in the film, is a veteran of over 80 movies including “The Dark Knight,” “Armageddon” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and thus has his choice of Hollywood roles. However, he said he was so taken in by “American Wrestler” — never mind its short shooting schedule and promise of a slim payday — that he immediately said yes.
“I read it on a Tuesday, I had to tell them by Wednesday so I could travel on Thursday, and start working on Friday,” Mr. Fichtner said, adding he often likes to mull over a script for a few days. “I didn’t need to sit back with this. Sometimes you just go on a feeling,” he said.
Coach Plyler “was going through his own rough time, living out of his office and the gym, so somebody reached out to him to give him a helping hand, and he in turn paid it forward and reached out to this young man,” Mr. Fichtner said of the coach welcoming young Ali into the wrestling program. “He didn’t turn his back on him.”
“American Wrestler” was shot in Petaluma, in many cases in the exact same places where the early-‘80s events depicted in the film occurred. Mr. Afshar’s friends and family members appeared in the film alongside professionals like Mr. Fichtner and Mr. Voight.
“Everybody that he want to first grade with was in this movie,” Mr. Fichtner said with a laugh. “I could live there [as now] I know everybody.”
Mr. Fichtner said that having “American Wrestler” be granted a theatrical release by Warner Bros., even if for just one day, is satisfying. Many of the smaller indie films he acts in are never seen in a theater at all, he said, but he pushed hard for Mr. Afshar’s movie, believing strongly in the story and its message.
“This is one of those movies, more than any film I’ve ever worked on, I have no doubt what [audience reaction] will be after they see it,” he said. “It’s a wonderful story and a story that needs to be told now in this [political] climate.”
“American Wrestler: The Wizard” will be in theaters Wednesday for one day only.