A documentary film by
George Csicsery

Production Plan

We plan to film in Iran and in the United States.

In Iran we plan to interview Mirzakhani’s parents and childhood friends. We plan to look at the schools that produce such highly talented and well-trained female scientists and mathematicians. At Sharif University of Technology, we hope to interview students and educators who can tell us what they think produced a mathematician of Maryam Mirzakhani’s quality. Mirzakhani was on Iran’s 1994 and 1995 IMO teams, and we hope to include interviews with her teammates, team leaders and coaches, and watch how the girls on Iran’s current team train for the competition. Former and current members of Iran’s IMO team can also contribute to understanding the educational environments that cultivated such exceptional talent.

We would also like to film at Isfahan Mathematics House, where extra-curricular math training is offered, and which now features a Mirzakhani Hall. Another venue is Tehran Mathematics House, a community center for extra-curricular math training focused on project-based learning. Other sites for filming include The Maryam Museum in Taleqan, home town of Mirzakhani’s parents; and the Fatemi Publishing House, the most famous scientific publisher in Iran and publisher of a book on Number Theory by Mirzakhani and Roya Beheshti.

The film follows Mirzakhani’s education to the east coast where her time at Harvard is described by fellow grad students and professors, including Cumrun Vafa and her PhD advisor Curtis McMullen. Peter Sarnak at the IAS will also talk about her work.

Much of the filming is planned for California. A May 2018 conference at Stanford in tribute to Mirzakhani’s work was filmed and a number of key mathematical collaborators were interviewed. Completed interviews include Mirzakhani’s husband Jan Vondrák, and colleagues at Stanford with whom she either worked or established friendships, including Jenya Sapir, Maryam Mirzakhani’s only grad student.

Several mathematical collaborators (see list of potential subjects below) will be asked to discuss the significance of Mirzakhani’s work, and to explain through layman-accessible anecdotes, facets of her contributions and why they are considered breakthroughs. Some of these concepts will be illustrated with animation, and with analogies. Animation artist Andrea Hale, working with mathematician Jayadev Athreya, has completed three animation test sequences which are prototypes for what’s to come.

In the end, the biographical sections will be edited to inform the mathematical questions at the center of Mirzakhani’s story. Wherever possible, her own statements will add to the commentary. Our initial plan is to let the characters in the film drive the narrative. If this succeeds, the film will not need an outside narrator. If not, we will work with narration written by mathematical advisors and select an appropriate female narrator.

We currently plan on between 21 and 30 days of filming, depending on the budget. At the lower end this breaks down to roughly 8 days in Iran, 5 days on the east coast (Boston, NY, Toronto), and 11 days in California (Berkeley and Stanford).

Images from animation tests created by Andrea Hale and Jadayev Athreya

Simple closed curves are ones that do not cross themselves, and are very rare amongst the set of all closed curves.

– Jayadev Athreya

While a piece of paper is flat, a cricket ball, or its mathematical approximation, a sphere, is positively curved, meaning that it bulges outward at all points. There is a corresponding notion of negative curvature, where surfaces bulge inward. In a precise mathematical sense, most compact surfaces are negatively curved.

--Jayadev Athreya

Mirzakhani’s most recent work focused on mathematics that grows out of a simple model problem in Newtonian mechanics. Let P be a Euclidean polygon and consider the billiard dynamical system on P—the motion of a point mass on P with no friction, and elastic collisions with walls (that is, the angle of incidence Æ angle of reflection).

-- Jayadev Athreya

Schedule (February 1, 2018 – April 1, 2020)

  • February-March 2018: animation tests, research, planning, scripting
  • April- June, 2018: Six days of interviews in California, planning and research continue
  • July-September, 2018: Additional shoots in California, planning for Iran and Europe filming
  • September 2018: Filming in Berkeley and Boston
  • November 2018- February 2019: Ingestion of material, editing. Website development
  • January 2019 Filming in Toronto, Chicago
  • February-March, 2019: Filming in Iran
  • March-May, 2019: Final interviews on east and west coast, animation, music composition
  • June-August, 2019: Rough cuts, reviews. Temp music, animation drafts
  • September-October, 2019: Fine cut, reviews, final animation, music recording.
  • October 15, 2019: Lock picture
  • October 16-November 15, 2019: Color correction, sound mix, DVD mastering, production of Persian version.
  • November 16 – December 15, 2019: Replication of DVD, Blu-ray discs, publicity
  • January 2020: World premiere at JMM, begin national distribution
  • January-March 2020: preparation of broadcast version for APT
  • April, 2020: APT broadcast on public television

Target audience

The primary target audiences are public television viewers and educational media audiences. The film will be made to public broadcasting specifications. During the last two decades, director George Csicsery has had six of his mathematically themed documentaries widely broadcast through syndication via APT and NETA on the public broadcasting system. Five of those films currently appear regularly on public stations. This biographical film will appeal to math/science audiences and to audiences interested in the lives of exceptional women.


It is anticipated that a film about Maryam Mirzakhani will be popular among math educators everywhere and will have a strong string of public screenings at science museums, universities, and community centers. Educational and home video distribution in DVD and streaming formats will provide a long shelf life.

Distribution/Marketing strategy

Wider theatrical distribution of a longer director’s cut will be determined by the response to film festival submissions. If the film is accepted and screens at “A” list festivals such as Sundance, Telluride, or Toronto, we will seek a theatrical distribution arrangement. Either way, the film will be submitted to film festivals worldwide, and to broadcasters. Most likely, it will be picked up by a public broadcasting syndicator such as American Public Television (APT) for national broadcast. The film will be promoted on a dedicated website, and self-distributed in DVD format for home and educational use, using all sub-distribution platforms and venues available for these media.

There is a vibrant theatrical network for showing documentaries, and the producer plans to push the film through this network simultaneously with the 18-month film festival life cycle allotted to films.

Perhaps the most important distribution avenue will be downloadable and streaming. On the educational/institutional side several of the mathematical films produced by George Csicsery/Zala Films are available for streaming via Kanopy, Inc., and Fora.tv. Amazon Video Direct, and Vimeo On Demand (VOD) are newer options, but there will be more such venues by the time the film is completed.

Key Personnel

GEORGE PAUL CSICSERY (producer), a writer and independent filmmaker, has produced 35 documentaries on historical, ethnographic, cultural and mathematical subjects, including “Where the Heart Roams” (1987), “Hungry for Monsters” (2003), “Troop 214” (2008). “The Thursday Club” (2005), and “Songs Along A Stony Road” (2011).

His films on mathematical subjects include “N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdős” (1993), which received extensive television distribution in the U. S. and abroad, including on the Sundance Channel, and public television syndication via APT. “Taking the Long View: The Life of Shiing-shen Chern” (2011), a portrait of mathematician S. S. Chern produced for his centenary celebrations with MSRI is currently being broadcast on public television stations via NETA. “Hard Problems: The Road to the World’s Toughest Math Contest” (2008) tells the story of the 2006 U.S. team at the International Mathematical Olympiad. It was produced by the Mathematical Association of America and broadcast through APT in 2009. “Julia Robinson and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem” (2008), a biographical doc about a pioneer woman in American mathematics, was narrated by Danica McKellar, and broadcast via APT. “Counting from Infinity: Yitang Zhang and the Twin Primes Conjecture” premiered at the Joint Mathematics Meeting (JMM) in January 2015 and began airing on public stations via APT in April 2017. “Navajo Math Circles” premiered in 2016 and has been airing on PBS since September 2016.

Between 2010 and 2013 he produced 30 long-form biographical interviews for the Simons Foundation Science Lives series: https://simonsfoundation.org/category/features/science-lives

In 2009 George Csicsery was awarded the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics (JPBM) Communications Award for bringing mathematics to nonmathematical audiences. See www.zalafilms.com for a fuller list.

Csicsery is the author and co-author of several screenplays: Ida (1989), Meeting With Darkness (1992), East of Evil (1995) and Alderman’s Story, set in King Philip's War in New England in 1675, which was awarded first prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival Screenplay Competition in 2005. Csicsery's articles, reviews and interviews have appeared in Salon.com, Amerasia Journal, Asia Times, Heterodoxy, Film Quarterly, California Magazine, Savvy, the San Jose Mercury-News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the East Bay Express, the Oakland Tribune, The Japan Times, The Forward, Lufthansa Bordbuch, Release Print, and many other publications. His articles and interviews have been reprinted in several anthologies, including Conversations with Ishmael Reed, University of Mississippi Press (1995); Without Force or Lies, edited by William Brinton, Mercury House (1990); and Burden of Dreams, by Les Blank & James Bogan, North Atlantic Books (1984).

He has a BA in Comparative Religions from UC Berkeley (1969), and an MFA in Film Production from San Francisco State University (1972). Csicsery has taught film editing at Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco (1982-1997), and general cinema courses to undergraduates at San Francisco State University (1996) and at UC Davis (1998).


SKIP SWEENEY is the founder of Video Free America. Besides its award-winning television and corporate communications programs, the studio leads with such diverse projects as Skip Sweeney’s interactive video/performance production co-developed with actor and clown Bill Irwin for Seattle Repertory and performed on Broadway —or new media like “Psychic Detective,” an interactive movie developed with director John Sanborn.

Video Free America personnel have produced, shot and edited hundreds of documentaries, travelogues, children’s features, dance and art performances creating programs for PBS and international broadcast. Commercial productions include TV spots, music video promotions, Public Service Announcements, digital entertainment and dynamic new media for companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Columbia University, Electronic Arts.

Skip’s autobiographical documentaries, “My Father Sold Studebakers” and “My Mother Married Wilbur Stump” were aired on PBS stations across the nation. “Stump” was included in the 1987 Whitney Biennial and was awarded first prize in the Global Village Documentary Festival. “Studebakers” is in the Museum of Modern Art’s media collection. Both received various awards and were seen at San Francisco’s International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and The American Center in Paris, among others. Sweeney’s media art has been featured at the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art (NY), the Sao Paulo Biennale, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Center, the Pacific Film Archive and more.

ASHLEY JAMES holds Bachelor and Master of Fine Arts degrees in Filmmaking and has national television credits.  He is the co-founder (with Kathryn Golden) of Searchlight Films. Former newspaper journalist, The Hartford Times, (Gannett News Service) Hartford, CT; instructor of graduate studies in Department of Cinema, San Francisco State University and station manager of KTOP/Channel 10, Oakland, CA. which won 32 national awards for excellence in television programming during his 12 year tenure.

Recent documentaries include: Director, Kitka and Davka in Concert-Old and New World Jewish Music (PBS); Producer/Director Gordon Parks—The Man and His Music a 90-minute television special featuring Isaac Hayes, Danny Glover and the Oakland (CA) Symphony Orchestra; Director/Cinematographer, Bomba – Dancing the Drum, (PBS), a one-hour portrait of the legendary Cepeda Family of Puerto Rico; Producer/Director Home and Almost Free, a one-hour film about ex-convicts in the San Francisco Bay Area; Director of photography for Zen Brush Mind & Kazuaki Tanahashi – Painting Peace for the Buddhist Broadcasting System (Netherlands)

Other films include: Director of Photography for the 2012 Academy Award nomination for Best Short Documentary, The Barber from Birmingham; Producer/Director, We Love You Like A Rock – The Dixie Hummingbirds, the feature-length film about the legendary gospel quartet; And Still We Dance, a one hour portrait of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and the premiere program for KQED’s From San Francisco series; Producer/DP for Zenju’s Path & Moments of Illumination for the Buddhist Broadcasting Network (Netherlands); Producer/Director American Treasure, and Tchuba Means Rain, two ethnographic films about the Cape Verdean-American community of New England. Other Director of Photography credits include: Blacks & Jews by Snitow Kaufman Productions; Street Soldiers by Avon Kirkland; Crumb, a portrait of cartoonist Robert Crumb; Isadora Duncan – Movement From The Soul; I Can’t Believe You’re Forty, Charlie Brown; The Color Of Honor; Booker; Ethnic Notions; Cut Loose; and Ancestors In America, among many other programs for international broadcast, and cable television.

Mr. James’ awards include the Prix Bartok Award for the best music film at the Bilan du Film Ethnographique (France); an Isadora Duncan “Izzy” Dance Award for special achievement in film; the American Film Institute Independent Filmmaker award; three CINE Golden Eagles; two Telly statues and three Pegasus awards for excellence in television programming; screenings at the Kennedy Center; six National Endowment for the Arts production grants; grants from the PBS Latino Public Broadcasting Consortium, National Black Programming Consortium, and National Initiative to Preserve American Dance (NIPAD); the Newark Museum, Paul Robeson Award for best feature documentary of the decade, the San Francisco Black Film Festival and Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame,

James has been a panelist and consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities (American Studies program), Pennsylvania and Illinois Humanities Councils, the Independent Television Service, and the KQED/Channel 9 Independent Initiative Advisory Board. James also served as three-term president and 15-year board member of the Film Arts Foundation and is a past governor at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Northern California chapter.

Supervising editor

TAL SKLOOT’S feature length documentaries “4-Wheel Bob” and “Freeway Philharmonic” have been broadcast nationally on PBS and toured the globe as part of the U.S. State Department/IDA sponsored American Documentary Showcase, showing worldwide in film festivals in Ecuador, Czech Republic, Poland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Belarus, Turkey, Indonesia, Jordan, Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tal recently produced a web series on SF Bay Area artists funded by The National Endowment for the Arts and is currently completing his feature length documentary film “4 Wheel Bob.”

Tal is also a skilled producer, cameraman and editor with a credit list of thirty feature length documentaries and narrative films that have won multiple Emmy awards, been shown in movie theaters, broadcast nationally on PBS, NBC, ABC, CBS, and appeared in numerous national and international film festivals.

Tal is a graduate of the American Film Institute (AFI) and is an adjunct faculty member of the Diablo Valley College Film and Broadcast Arts department. When he's not filming, Tal enjoys hiking, biking, playing soccer, and sampling new restaurants after all that exercise.

The Motivation and Role of MSRI

Maryam Mirzakhani was deeply involved with mathematics and mathematicians at MSRI. She was a key member of the MSRI Scientific Advisory Committee from 2012-2016 – that’s the committee charged with choosing both the programs and the members who spend time at the Institute.  During part of that time she was very ill with what turned out to be her terminal cancer, but she never missed a meeting—even when she couldn’t travel from Stanford to Berkeley she attended by video—and she faithfully did the (substantial) committee homework.

She was also directly active, in many roles in MSRI mathematics: she was one of the main organizers of the semester-long program on Teichmüller Theory and Kleinian Groups in 2007, and a Research Professor for the Spring of 2015 (she represented that program in a talk to the Trustees, too). She was even a member of the complementary program when her husband, Jan Vondrak, came to MSRI for a computational program in the spring of 2005. 

Finally, in the Spring before her death, Maryam had agreed to be nominated as a Trustee of MSRI—although she warned David Eisenbud that she might well not live to take office.

Maryam’s engagement with MSRI came from a close alignment of priorities: First, for mathematics of the highest quality, done in a playful collaborative style. Second, for the cultivation of talent also in young women, and the support of women with children (Maryam’s own situation, and one on which MSRI invests resources.) And, finally, the welcoming of mathematicians from abroad, understanding that they enormously enrich the U.S. mathematical scene.

Because of this deep involvement and alignment of priorities, MSRI is the right institution to shepherd the production of a film about Maryam and her work. We have already made numerous introductions for the Director, George Csicsery. Deputy Director Helene Barcelo is the editor in charge of the forthcoming article in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society about Maryam, and has thus been in direct contact with virtually all the mathematicians who are in a good position to comment on the work. One of David Eisenbud’s past postdoctoral supervisees, Roya Beheshti, was Maryam’s best friend in college and subsequently. Both Eisenbud and Barcelo are committed to helping frame the treatment in the film, and generally putting the resources of MSRI at the service of this project. In addition, MSRI will take fiscal responsibility for all aspects of the film production