Q&A with our Fellow, Maral Shafafy

We spoke to our 2021 Fellow Maral Shafafy about her experience as part of the One World Media Fellowship and the film she produced on the programme. Maral’s film, Vida: Love, Hope and Justice in Exile, will be screened as part of our International Women’s Day Fellowship Showcase. Book your tickets here


Could you tell us what your film was about and how you started working on this project? 

My film follows the story of a woman who’s trying to seek justice for her husband, who was executed in Iran over 30 years ago. Her husband, and many of her loved ones, including her brother, were part of thousands of political dissidents in the country that were killed by the regime in Iran throughout the 80s. I studied law as my undergraduate degree, and I worked with an organisation called Iran Tribunal that was trying to bring to light these events that happened many years ago. When I was studying for a Master’s degree in TV Journalism in 2020, I had to write a pitch for a documentary. At the moment that I was writing a pitch, I received a text message about this court case which was happening. So I decided to follow some people who were taking part in the court case, and through that I met my lead character, which the documentary is about. 


Why were you drawn to this story?

The killing of political prisoners in the late 1980’s touched many people’s lives in Iran, mine included. When I was growing up, I always heard stories of friends or family who were executed. I felt a responsibility to bring to light this dark period in our history and to create a conversation around truth, reconciliation and justice. I was always waiting for the right moment to cover the story and when I met Vida, I knew it was right. There’s a lot of darkness in what happened to her, but a lot of love, hope and humanity too. That combination of light and dark is what made me know it was right. 


Were there any challenges or surprises along the way?

Managing your emotions – because when I filmed the ending of the film, it was the verdict of the court case, and it was a very emotional moment. It was very difficult for me to film that and not feel emotional myself. So that was really, really challenging. I had tears in my eyes, and I was trying to film.


Were there any safety concerns, for yourself and your contributors, that you had to think through? How do you feel about it now?

Safety is always a concern for any Iranian making a film that is critical of the regime. But I see myself as privileged in comparison to what filmmakers living in Iran have to go through. I always kept them and the risks they face in mind.


Could you tell us about your experience of being a part of the One World Media Fellowship?

The fellowship came at a really great time for me: I was just finishing university, and I wanted to pursue a career in documentary filmmaking. The fellowship gave me the confidence and the ability to make a film for the first time and have that kind of support network there, and I think that’s been so invaluable to me. Not just in terms of having my Exec Producer there to help me through the process, but also having the network of other filmmakers to ask questions. I think I wouldn’t have been able to make this film without the fellowship. I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it, and I wouldn’t have obviously had the budget to do it. I wouldn’t have felt like I had that ability. It just gave me that push. 


It’s been such a learning experience, not just in terms of the production of the film – it’s been a whole journey of learning production, post production, commissioning. I really feel like I can now take that and apply it to future projects.


What made you think this would be a good fit for the One World Media programme?

When I wrote a pitch for this film, One World Media was the instinctive place to go for me to have this film made because I already knew that they told stories from places which were not really covered in mainstream media. They tell stories that maybe other places don’t want to tell. The story that I’m telling is a difficult one to hear, because it’s so geopolitically contentious. It points the finger directly at the Iranian government, it says “You’ve committed human rights abuses,” and not everyone is willing to say that. Not everyone is willing to put a voice out there that is speaking out about this issue. To have that support to tell that story with as little experience as I did, it’s just been totally invaluable. It’s also been great to see people in the network, our immediate surroundings of other fellows telling similar stories.


How do you think your film is relevant today? 

The film was made and released before the death of Mahsa Amini and the women’s uprising in Iran. Unfortunately many people are being tortured and executed in prisons in the country as we speak. Everyday there are more families, wives, sisters, brothers, daughters, whose lives are changed forever, just like Vida, by the regime and their human rights violations. Through Vida’s story we get to understand the impact of this and also, have a conversation about how we as a community will overcome this trauma that now spans across generations.