Films rarely get more culturally diverse than Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming.
The locally animated film centres on the naive only child of a Chinese mother and Iranian father who heads to Shiraz for an international poetry festival. The voice work was cast with equal diversity behind the scenes, with Korean Canadian Sandra Oh taking on the role of the lead, Rosie, and several prominent Iranian actors voicing the roles of others. (Shohreh Aghdashloo is a Tehran University professor and A Separation’s Peyman Moaadi reads a moving Rumi poem.)
There’s dialogue in Farsi, Mandarin, and German, as well as English.
For actor Oh, who’s been a pioneering force for strong Asian characters in her hit TV show Grey’s Anatomy, it runs in stark contrast to the other cartoons she’s seen cast on the big screen.
“I have strong thoughts about how Hollywood is casting animation,” she told the Straight from the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, where the film was premiering, back when a Trump America and an Iranian travel ban were almost inconceivable. “We have characters that can be voiced by different cultures and stories from different cultures and those voices are never reflected. I have never faced issues of race in Hollywood as I have faced in animation. So you have a film, say, where the main character should be Japanese or mixed race and it isn’t reflected in the voices.”
Oh had met Vancouver filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming years before she was offered the role in Window Horses, making the connection, as she recalls, through Mina Shum, who had helmed such star-making Oh vehicles as Double Happiness. And she already knew who Stick Girl was, the primitive, unformed little figure that stands in as Rosie amid the lush, multi-artist tapestry of Window Horses’ unique visual world.
“I had read her graphic novels,” Oh said of Fleming’s work. “The simpler the character, the more the audience can read into the character. As Ann Marie has said before, Rosie is almost unformed and she’s still forming through this process. And the simpler it is, the deeper the symbolism.”
Oh said she loved the story, part coming-of-age tale and part cultural awakening for the naive character. “This film has such a heart and talked about diversity in such a warm way that I said I would do the role.” Oh added she’s partial to the transcendent Persian poetry of Hafiz and Rumi that appears throughout the film.
Rosie’s culture shock arriving in the strict but warmly hospitable Middle Eastern country, and her journey finding her own identity, makes the Nepean, Ontario–born Oh think back to her own journey to acceptance in an adopted homeland.
“As a Canadian I moved down to the States in my early 20s and that was one of my first real culture shocks,” Oh said. “The States are such a big sibling to us and share the same kind of pop-culture references. But I would say my major cultural awakening came when I moved there.”
The rising xenophobia there, and elsewhere, is what makes Window Horses—a film that showcases the beauty of diversity and the need to listen to each other’s stories—resonate so much now. And a big part of that, Oh said, is the cultural richness of the actors behind the scenes.
“One of the reasons we got some amazing actors for this is because they said ‘We love these characters,’ ” she said. “So often you’re put in a special box because you have a specific skin tone or you look a certain way.”