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by Behrouz Bahmani
June 18, 2004

For some strange reason Iranian artists have gravitated toward film, showing an impressive and uncanny knack for this relatively foreign medium. It seems odd that we would produce so much talent in an area that on the surface does not appear to be mated to our identity.

But then again what is our identity?

If we look at film as purely an American dominated entertainment and amusement vehicle, it doesn't really make much sense. We're always carrying way too much angst for that. But if we look at film as in intimate and highly evocative storytelling or metaphorical vehicle, now it starts to make much more sense.

Now as to our identity.

Some would say a rich and vast storytelling history, from the verses of the ancient seductive Sufis, the symbolic gardens of sensual Saadi, the fantastic fables of Ferdowsi, and of course the insanity inducing hallucinatory and holiest Hafez. We have provided the world more than our fair share of stories to be told.

And this tradition and legacy continues on in the modern medium of film, it seems.

The seemingly unending parade and phenomenon of Iranian filmmakers have brought a fresh new perspective to what has in recent times become almost boring. Filmgoers desensitized to even the most detailed and realistic special effects and digital fakery have been consistently reawakened by the likes of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Majidy, considered neogods by their peers. A younger generation have also burst onto the scene one after the other like fireworks, people like Ramin Serry, [insert 2, and [insert 3].

One area that has been not as noteworthy but remains a vast and powerful branch of this art, is the documentary film.

An entirely different approach, documentaries show truth literally rather than the elaborate ruse that is the basis of traditional filmmaking. But merely letting the camera roll and hoping it catches a poignant moment, is not really what a good documentary does. The art is in the subtlety. On selecting and deconstructing the story to present truth in it's full power and glory.

One such artist is Gita Saedi.

Gita has recently produced an outstanding documentary series for PBS entitled "The New Americans" a fascinating 4 part series airing on PBS at various repeats (check your local PBS listings). As it's title suggests, this series attempts to portray the issues facing new American immigrants. The subtlety? Today, America is still mostly (close to 80%) of white or European descent. While this is true for the whole of America, in both coasts and in the more cosmopolitan urban areas like New York, LA, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington DC, you can definitely see the coming change in the ethnic makeup of America. Hispanic, Asian, and Indian/Pakistani most noticeably. Other ethnicities less obvious.

The series (3-part, 7 hour) follows the journeys of 5 families in their quest to emigrate to America. An Ogoni refugee family from Nigeria resettles in Chicago, Dominicans Ricardo and JosČ professional baseball prospects vie for a place in the Los Angeles Dodgers training camp, Naima is a young Palestinian woman who falls in love with and marries Hatem, a first-generation Palestinian-American from Chicago, Pedro Flores is a Mexican immigrant who works as a meatpacker in rural Kansas in order to support his wife and six children back in Guanajuato, Mexico, and the all too familiar story to many of us who live here, and Anjan is a computer programmer from Bangalore (the Silicon Valley of India) who marries Harshini and migrates to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue an Internet fortune.

Hooked yet? You will be once you see the first episode. The peek into the private lives of these people who struggle with the same issues that many of us faced when we decided to leave Iran and make the US our home, is at once both reassuring and intriguing. Why intriguing? Because many of us have asked ourselves many times, "Did we do the right thing?"

The series was made by the same Steve James team that made the successful documentary "Hoop Dreams" about young basketball players hoping for a career in the super competitive sport.

GITA SAEDI is an award-winning independent documentary Producer/Director/Editor who has been working in film for over 13 years. She is the Series Producer for THE NEW AMERICANS and also produced and edited the Nigerian segment of the series. Prior to THE NEW AMERICANS, she worked on producing teams for CBS and PBS in the U.S., Channel 4 in the UK, and RTE in Ireland. These projects included 24 short films for the JFK Museum in Boston; NO TIME TO BE A CHILD, a three-part PBS series on children and violence; THE TOURIST TRAP, a 4-part documentary on cultural differences shot in Turkey; and a multi-part series on Celtic Heritage produced in Ireland. Her other documentary credits include coordinator for the film JACK, a CBS Emmy-award winning feature-length documentary on John F. Kennedy; prime-time holiday specials for CBS Entertainment; and field production for the film JOURNEY TOWARDS PEACE, a PBS documentary chronicling a peace mission in Senegal headed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and John Hope Franklin. She also produces and edits non-broadcast videos for various organizations including labor unions and universities. Gita has won numerous awards and notice in film festivals for her independent short EVERYBODY NOSE and an Emmy for directing short vignettes for the regional series ARTBEAT. Gita lives in Montana with her husband Jason.

I was able to speak with Gita Saedi.

Q: Where are you from and when did you emigrate to the US?

GS: I was born in Chicago and although both of my parents grew up in Tehran, they've lived in the Chicago area since the early 60s.

Q: What made you choose a film career, and I guess my question is how did you get here careerwise?

GS: Honestly, it was because I perceived an overall lack of "people like me" on television and in film when I was a teenager. I remember watching the Cosby Show and thinking of my own Iranian-American sitcom in my head. I decided during my sophomore year of college (I started college like most Iranian-Americans, in pre-med!) to switch to communications and cinema studies, and that here I actually could, but mostly that I really wanted to work in film and TV.

After college I moved to Ireland and worked on Documentaries there for a little over a year, then I moved to NYC and worked with some documentary filmmakers there (Peter Davis, who did the academy-award winning "Heart and Mines', Ken Burn's "The West" project and various other projects for CBS). I had written a fairly pedestrian proposal for an immigrant series, and it was years later in Chicago that a friend from CBS who knew of my interest hooked me up with Steve James and Peter Gilbert of Kartemquin Films, who were developing this film series at the time. I have been working on the project since it's very early development, and because the directors were extremely busy with other projects, my part in the production evolved into what eventually became me taking on the role of series producer.

Q: What do you like about documentaries? Why did you choose that path instead of feature films?
GS: Documentaries are such a continual education for me as a filmmaker, I chose to do this work rather than fiction for a few reasons. The production teams are much smaller and you really participate in every aspect of filmmaking - for example, on the New Americans as Series producer I oversaw the activity and production of the series, but I also did tons of research finding the stories, finding the directors, I organized all the shooting across the globe, I produced the Nigerian story and so traveled to Africa on several of occasions to film, I fundraised for the project, I recorded sound for much of the Nigerian story and edited the first pass, dealt with all the licensing and finishing responsibilities, etc., etc. I just see documentary filmmaking as an art not just for entertainment, but a true education for the maker and a collaborative, comprehensive experience. It's really satisfying work....when you get the funding (which is the big difficulty and a main conversation for all documentarians throughout production).

Q: Tell me about the genesis of the idea for this project?

GS: It was Steve's idea, when he finished "Hoop Dreams" he was traveling a lot and meeting a lot of taxi drivers from all over the world. It got him thinking, 'what if I did a film as epic as Hoop Dreams, but with immigrants?'

Q: Why do you feel this is an important topic to explore?

GS: Because not only this country, but this globalized world is changing ever so quickly and xenophobia and jingoism are on the rise! The US, built on immigrants, is completely conflicted about how it feels about the contemporary trends in immigration. We live in a globalized world, immigrants will continue to come, we need to see them as human beings first, and then work to better life here for everyone.

Q: How long have you been working on it?

GS: Since early 1997.

Q: How did you make the film? Funding, technical crew, and so forth.

GS: We shot it on many formats of video (not film) and we had 5 directing teams, each team had crews of 2-4 people, I managed about a hundred interns and translators over the last 7 years. We researched for about 8 months before we started shooting in 1998, and then continued to shoot for the next 4 years. Once we were at a point in 2001 with shooting and funding, we began to edit the series - first each director/producer edited a rough cut of their story and then three series editors took that rough cut and molded it into the final film. The editing process took over two years. When you put all the steps together, the project is overwhelmingly daunting, but I suppose because we were immersed in each stage, it was helpful to look at the project on a task by task level rather than "We need to shoot over 1,000 hours of tape in 8 countries in the next four years and edit it into a seven-hour series" - because if we thought about the grand scale of what we had to execute everyday, it might have been too much. Our big funders were segments of PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Annie E. casey Foundation.

Q: What are you planning on working on next?

GS: I am creating a DVD for Montana Public Schools on 20th Century Montana History, which I'm excited about b/c i'm new here and really want to get to know the various communities and history of this state. I am also developing other independent projects, I'd like to go to Iran in the next year for a documentary project.

Q: What do think of Shohreh Aghdashloo's recent Oscar nomination for best supporting actress?

GS: I think it's great. and it wouldn't have happened when I was a child so I consider that some progress. I also think now we can rest assured that the entire country will be pronouncing Shohreh incorrectly.

Q: How about Iranian actors in general? As you know Omid Djalili was an actor on NBC's cancelled "Whoopi", we also have other Iranian actors on JAG and so forth, what do you think about this?

GS: Iranian-Americans are becoming a bigger part of the fabric of this country and I think it's essential for us if we're going to have a voice and a face in the US. Growing up, Iran was very 'foreign' to my peers, this is changing and I think all we'll see from this is deeper understanding by a larger audience. That said, it's frustrating to see middle easterners always pegged as the terrorist in fiction, but i am seeing that this trend is shifting, ever so slowly, and the fictional Iranian is becoming more diverse and in keeping with our population.

Q: Why Missoula?

GS: I married into Montana. I am married to a lovely American guy, Jason Kiely. I always thought I'd end up with an Iranian-American or at least a child of an immigrant but hey, you can't dispute love.

Q: Favorite Iranian food? Where do get it?

GS: Ghormeh Sabzi and good Persian tea. Where do I get it? Not in Montana that's for sure. The only ghormeh sabzi I get here is my own, which pales in comparison but hopefully will get better.

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