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Envisioning a Better World – HFPA Interviews FilmAid Director Gita Saedi Kiely

FilmAid’s Director Gita Saedi Kiely embodies the organization’s mission to give a public voice to vulnerable communities around the world through the power of film, and to “democratize who gets to tell their story”. She grew up in Chicago in a small Persian-American community with parents from Teheran who met in the USA as university students in the 1960s.

Her family’s immigrant experience was nowhere represented, nowhere acknowledged. At pre-college age, she could not understand why she felt she didn’t belong. “I felt like fish out of water from the get-go,” she revealed in a recent Zoom interview with HFPA. “Every day of my childhood, somebody asked me where I was from … When you get that kind of reinforcement, (as if) you are not from the place that you are actually from, it puts something inside of you that needs to burst out through work, through story, through activism”.

Kiely grew up in the 1970s, the time of The Brady Bunch, when there was no internet and no representation on any television station of the Middle-Eastern, the Jewish or the Asian-American experience. “Once I learned a little bit about modes of representation, it became very clear to me that if we tap untapped voices, it could actually change people’s attitudes and understanding of what it means to be an immigrant in the US.”

“I was really taken by documentary film,” she went on. “I was taken by real stories of real people.” She began her career at Kartemquin Films, a Chicago-based film collaborative, producing the multi-part PBS series The New Americans (1998-2004) which followed families and individuals from all over the world as they decided to emigrate, left their home countries and settled in USA, “trying to see America through their eyes”.

“After this experience I realized that I am in this business because there are untold stories that must be told.” Her whole work, either as a producer, festival programmer or, since 2021, as FilmAid’s Director “have the same core of supporting marginalized voices through film”. She smiled and added thoughtfully: “I feel that there has absolutely been a thread through my work.”

“When you hear somebody’s story, they’re no longer a stranger,” she continued. “And that’s the beauty of storytelling! Offering that beauty to communities that haven’t been offered the opportunity in the past… it’s a real privilege and really amazing work.”

Her work is indeed amazing. FilmAid, a nonprofit organization and a longtime HFPA grantee, was established in 1999 by film producer and philanthropist Caroline Baron with the mission to bring relief to refugees in Kosovo camps by screening films. But within the first few years the program changed from offering entertainment to hearing community stories and building filmmaking workshops.

FilmAid action spread to more refugee camps, in Tanzania, Kenya and other countries, where it held year-long film workshops. And when the organization joined Internews three years ago – a journalistic nonprofit that supports independent media in more than 100 countries – “FilmAid pivoted to supporting local, independent filmmaking in marginalized and underrepresented communities across the globe.” Through the organization, aspiring filmmakers get grants as well as mentorship, training and opportunities for global screenings.

Kiely just got back from Liberia, where she trained 20 radio journalists on visual storytelling skills within the context of an Internews five-year media-activity program whose goal is to battle misinformation and support independent reporting. Kiely’s two week-workshop touched upon character development, interviewing tactics, modes or representation, observational documentary filmmaking. As a result, three documentaries are going to be produced and shown across Liberia, which will offer independently sourced information in connection to a national election to take place in the fall of 2023.

As admirable and noble as Internews-FilmAid’s work is, the need for right representation on a global scale cannot be but daunting. Can individuals and nonprofit organizations alone truly affect change within such a large scale?

“If I’m being honest with myself, (this) is the question I ask myself every day I wake up,” Kiely answered. “These are fraught times for all of us. Especially for those participating and embracing the values of democracy. I think it’s one day at a time, one project at a time … Every little bit that we do does makes a small difference to a handful of people in a community who will continue to tell stories for that community. It is all about planting the seed of change.”

“I found myself deeply hopeful in Monrovia training these 20 radio journalists,” she added; “for the work that they’ve done, for the impact that they’ve had already and for what can happen tomorrow. If we didn’t have that hope, it would be hard to keep doing our work. But… if we didn’t keep doing our work, then what else would we be doing?” she chuckled.

“I hold literacy and information high up there,” she said when asked to name the basic element of her vision of a “global, civil and collaborative democracy”.

But the heralds of true information must be ready to face great difficulties: “Our work tries to empower historically persecuted voices. There is a danger in your voice being heard. I’m working with very brave people, and that only influences my own bravery. For as long as media has existed, people have taken huge chances in telling their stories (in order) to make the world a better place tomorrow.”

“Misinformation is a real problem that we need to continue to battle,” she stressed. “In my short life, I have been moved by storytelling, I have been changed by information. And I really do believe that the work of filmmaking, the work of journalism and of sharing stories is incredibly important for the human experience. I’ve seen its impact countless times, and I love just being a small part of an organization that is trying to find these voices which have great impact not only in their communities but across the globe.”

Take the women in Iran protesting violence, for instance: “Can you think of anything more full of hope and bravery than that? It has blown me away, it has blown the (Persian) Diaspora away, and I think what we can do now is to keep the story alive at the front of minds … Change is not imminent but change is possible. 

Gita Saedi Kiely’s face lit up: “I am hopeful… I really am!”. She paused, sealing her words with unwavering and contagious encouragement.