by Len Lear
Sara (Zia Ebrahimi) Hughes, 36, who lives in Wyndmoor with her husband, Gralin Hughes (www.gralinhughes.com), a video artist and freelance photographer (they previously lived in East Mt. Airy for seven years), is as busy as a hive full of bees. She is an independent filmmaker, teacher of media studies and production, communications and marketing expert primarily for arts and cultural organizations and social media specialist for the American Friends Service Committee.
Sara, who recently won a $2,500 grant from the Leeway Foundation to further her film work, was born in Iran, but her family brought her here on vacation in 1979 when she was just a toddler. The final stages of the Islamic revolution took place when Sara’s family was still vacationing. Then in their mid-20s, her parents chose to leave behind their house, all their belongings and their family in Iran, stay here in the U.S. and start over again from scratch. Sara, who did her undergraduate and graduate studies at Temple University in Film and Media Arts, agreed to answer the following questions from the Local:
Local: How did you wind up in the Philadelphia area?
Sara: I visited Philadelphia in the mid-‘90s for the first time. At the time there wasn’t much economic development happening in Center City, and it was a very affordable city for artists. I was amazed and inspired by the artists I met who lived in huge spaces and were doing really interesting projects. I also loved all the pockets of immigrant communities in parts of the city and the delicious and affordable international selection of foods in small local spots. I decided to move here to be a part of that vibe, and eventually went to college, bought a house and never left!
Local: How did you get interested in filmmaking?
Sara: I have always been interested in storytelling. As a kid I would document everything with an audio recorder I had. I also loved creative writing and wrote fantastical stories about my pets’ magic adventures. I became very interested in media representations as I got older and noticed the lack of reflection of me and many of my friends in the mass media. As digital technology evolved and became more accessible in the late 1990s, I wanted to learn how to tell stories in this medium and widen the spectrum of stories being told. After working on some projects with friends, I decided to formally study film theory and production in an academic setting. Since then I’ve become very active in Philadelphia’s indie film community as a curator and collaborator.
Local: Tell us a little about films that you have made.
Sara: I’ve written and directed several short personal essay films which have received funding and been screened at festivals internationally. I’ve also been a producer on several narrative, documentary and experimental films.
Local: How do you feel about the fact that the independent films you have been championing have such a hard time reaching a large audience while the “Thors” and “Hunger Games” and other computer-generated mega-films of this world reach countless millions all over the world? Is it frustrating for filmmakers who have few material resources but are pouring their hearts and souls into these small, meaningful storytelling films?
Sara: I, like most other people, enjoy a good blockbuster film for entertainment. But I do cringe a little every time I see a very formulaic and predictable film preview and think what creative and original storytelling filmmakers I know could have done with even one day’s worth of that film’s budget. It can absolutely be frustrating. On the other hand, there are so many tools these days that make it easier than before for filmmakers to reach new audiences. I find inspiration in stories of filmmakers like Ave Duvernay. Years ago, she used social media to build a grassroots national campaign of people to promote the release of her first feature film. Now, a few years later she’s on the board of directors of Sundance and just directed the most recent episode of “Scandal,” one of the most popular shows on television.
Local: What is your ultimate goal as a supporter of independent films and writer/director?
Sara: My primary interest is in widening the spectrum of representation for people who have been traditionally marginalized from mainstream media. White people in America are afforded a wide spectrum of representation. All of us, no matter what race we belong to, are trained by the media to believe that white people can be nerds, artists, engineers, rich, poor, shy, outgoing, etc. You get the idea. But the rest of us as marginalized groups are not given that range, and our representations are narrow and as a result, often very stereotyped. The reality is that every racial group has the counter-culturists, the conservatives and the various subctultures; there’s no one way to be “Latino” or “Iranian,” even though the media try to convince us otherwise, and many of us buy into that and recreate that in our communities. The more stories we tell that offer different perspectives, the more we open everyone’s minds and allow moments for peoples’ humanity to shine through.
Local: What would you say are the most significant misunderstandings most Americans have about the nation and people of Iran?
Sara: One of the most common misunderstandings I see is that people in the U.S. imagine Iranian people as monolithic. Americans understand that “Christian,” for example, can mean a variety of things. Americans would intuitively know that a Black Baptist preacher in Mississippi is different than a Protestant in Connecticut or a Catholic in Philadelphia who goes to mass only on Easter. There’s a wide range there, and it’s informed by other factors like race, gender, region and positions of power in the institution. But I consistently see people in the U.S. refer to the “Iranian people” like everyone there is the same, like region, ethnicity and positions of power don’t play a part. Everything in Iran is looked at by the U.S. through the lens of religion, a leftover orientalist notion of the exoticism of the East.
Local: Do you still have any relatives living in Iran? Have you been back to visit since 1979?
Sara: I still have relatives in Iran. I keep in touch with the younger generations via social media and email. I went back three times to visit between 2000-2007 but have not been back since. I feel it’s important to distinguish in this article that I am Iranian-American, though, not Iranian, so I feel just as out of place there as I did growing up here. It’s the reality for all of us with hyphenated identities.