GELAREH KIAZAND is a filmmaker. She worked in Iran for several years as a photographer and cinematographer. Kiazand has exhibited at Iran’s Museum of Modern Arts and nominated three times for best film photographer. She has also worked as reporter in Afghanistan covering women’s issues and health and as a broadcast correspondent for Vice News.
After been raised in Toronto, London, Dubai and Abu-Dhabi what was it like going back to the place your were born, Iran, in 2003?
It definitely was an exciting time to move to Tehran in 2003, which was towards the end of [President] Khatami’s era. As I had lived in Iran till I was 5 years old and visited the country within every summer holiday, luckily I never felt a disconnect with the place. I had always promised myself to move back after college as to better understand the country I represent therefore I was very thirsty to absorb all what the country had to offer.
I enjoyed the 6 years I lived and worked in Iran, and believe by being raised in such various cultures it provided me with a flexibility to adapt and an open minded approach. It’s easy to jump to negative conclusions and make biased observations in such a country as much is hidden in its layers of society. I was just generally really excited about everything.
Image Gelareh Kiazand
Iran is a place which such rich, cultural heritage but do you think it is misrepresented by a lot of Western media coverage?
Its hard to say if its “misrepresented”, because I do not know how the person reporting initially gained its perspective and at what angle they are tackling the events of Iran. What I can say is that I see more fixation on censorship than any other matter. The same type story has been told over again just by different mindsets. There can be too much of an over sensationalisation of the contradictions that naturally are created within such a society.
There is more to Iran or any country than its initial appearance and the excitement that it conjures. I personally would like to see more stories beyond this. When one travels just from the south of Iran to the North you will encounter people speaking Arabic to people speaking Turkish, transcending across 6 religions, 9 main ethnic groups and every type of landscape/ climate which one can encounter. This in itself can present much complexity to the evolvement of a country with quite a turbulent history.
Image Gelareh Kiazand
Did you have to have any special security training before going to places like Afghanistan?
It depends on the stories you wish to cover. If you wish to just visit and travel the country then no security training is required, but naturally a good understanding of its provinces, culture, and danger zones one should have. For every project that I had worked on in Afghanistan, there was much discussion on our communication and movements so that we are attracting the least amount of attention, i.e. from the car we rode in to what we wore to who would speak in crowded situations.
I had a great talented small team, all Afghan, with a trusted bodyguard who we had travelled to about 8 provinces together. Risk assessment is very crucial to do on assignments (and in general) as you want to make sure you have some form of contact with the district police, someone always knows your whereabouts and to have identified all routes to an emergency centre. One needs to make sure his/her decisions/actions are not endangering others, that’s always the biggest risk!
Image Gelareh Kiazand
Is it true that you were one of very few women working as a photographer when you were Iran, and what was that like?
I was not one of the few women working as a photographer but I was one of the only women working as a shooter/ DoP (Director of Photography) for fiction films and non during my six years in Iran (at least from what I was told). The experience was naturally full of obstacles but there were many directors who stood by me helping me to better my skills within the film industry.
I was given room to be creative and never felt constrained in experimenting with my median. Everyone was always looking for a fresh idea. I had a lot of support working in Iran which is a critical factor. I don’t think I could have persevered without this, on all fronts.
What is it like working for Vice?
It was a very new experience for me working as a host/correspondent, which bears much responsibility so I have to say it was quite nerve racking! I have a lot of respect for all the correspondents out there, it’s definitely one of the toughest jobs I have encountered! Vice can provide you with a platform to tell your story, and asks that you speak openly and freely on what is happening right there and then from your own perspective. There is a story we did in India on the Gulabi Gang which follows Sampat Pal the leader of that vigilante group. We were able to get quite close with her as she let us in to the details of her day to day life. These details consisted of hearing the daily rape and killing cases of the various girls in her district, visiting police stations where she demanded for these cases to not be ignored and most importantly seeing the families of the deceased girls. It was very valuable, at that time, to have the editorial freedom we had for that specific story.
You were in Kandahar earlier this year with the army there what was your take on the situation?
I was embedded with the Afghan army on two occasions, for about 5 days each time in April and in June in 2013. I got to visit two districts and travelled to its borders with the commanders, all within the short amount of time, so what i encountered was merely a glimpse of the situation with the Afghan Army. Considering the army was only put into practice in 2002 and then began its major training by about 2007, with soldiers who are being taught the basics of reading and writing, I have to say they have come a long way and we need to recognise this. The US army/ NATO brought in machinery that requires much logistical attention and began fighting this war with the Afghans with artillery, air support, HMMWVs (an armoured Humvee) and MRAPs (a form of an armoured vehicle that protect you against IEDs or mines).
Now due to the lack of finalising protocols within the Afghan Army’s logistic programs the US are pulling back their support which includes the initial machineries that they began the war with. This leaves the Afghans with much broken artillery, minimal ground support and a lack of air support. They have an extremely slow turnaround time for mending their equipments and upgrading their facilities. We witnessed this while filming the Kandahar piece, as the windshields of their Humvees were still broken after 5 months. How can one expect the young Afghan Army to then pursue forward with the same mindset and tactics?
One can point many fingers to the Afghans for their short comings, which I saw, but one cannot ignore the fact that the army is going through the toughest transitions with very limited resources. But what struck me the most was the lack of attention to the civilians. It seemed once the smoke cleared after a particular battle, no one went to go see whose shop was destroyed, which schools needed renovation, what more roads required to be built and how are the people gaining the resources they need to just live the day to day life.
There is no doubt regarding how far Afghanistan has come since the Taliban times, especially with the number of women who are constantly pushing the boundaries with regards to education, security and their rights. I just hope the government begins paying more attention to their remote villages. I believe the mudslide in Badakhshan was an unfortunate example of how much more work still needs to be done.
Do you have any other features in the pipeline you can tell us about?
I am currently working with someone on a potential feature documentary. We are still in its shooting phase and raising funds, so cannot disclose the subject matter at this moment. Other than that, developing a few short documentaries and short films.
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