Gita Saedi Kiely’s got an easy smile, quick sense of humor and a casual way about her. In fact, if you ran into her in the grocery store she’d probably ask you how you were, tell you a story about her life that makes her achingly accessible. And standing there in the produce aisle, you might never guess that she’s an award winning documentary filmmaker.
She probably wouldn’t tell you that she has a film in this weekend’s Lunafest film festival, or that she made the film in five days with Doug Hawes-Davis and Ken Furrow, two other top Missoula filmmakers. She probably wouldn’t tell you that the film, Star Spangled Blues, is personal.
As an Iranian-American, Saedi Kiely realized at a young age that the people she saw on television while she was growing up in Chicago didn’t look like her.
“I really started to notice in high school the different stories and people that I was being fed through the media. I guess that was the beginning of my coming of age,” she says. “It was either Bill Cosby or Farrah Fawcett with nothing in between. I became acutely aware of that. I wanted to be a part of changing the media so that all of the different American voices and stories were represented.”
So Saedi Kiely began telling those stories by combining a love of filmmaking with an itch to travel. Her work has taken her to Ireland, Turkey, West Africa and all over the United States.
“Being a filmmaker gives you an excuse to be curious in a foreign land. It allows you to ask questions and get into the lives of people in these other places,” she says. “It is an open door to the outside world.”
After years of working in documentary film in New York and Chicago on projects with topics as varied as children and violence, JFK and Celtic heritage, Saedi Kiely met Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams. The two began work on “The New Americans,” a PBS series that chronicles the motivations and challenges of five new immigrants to the United States. This work was her primary professional focus for years. The stories of people living their lives on the margins of society became a labor of love, she says.
“Some of the best documentaries are about the margins in some form or another,” Saedi Kiely says. “I think that most of us have experiences in life that allow us to be the other. I don’t think you have to be a darker shade to feel like the other at some point in your life.”
She worked on “The New Americans” for seven years and was still in the middle of the project when she moved to Missoula in 2002 with her husband Jason. Saedi Kiely says she married into Montana. She and her husband moved here because his family was here, but they’ve stayed because of the Missoula community.
“Living in this community has challenged me to stretch my talents. I’ve had this amazing growth that I never expected,” she says. “Moving here was definitely not a career move but it really ended up making me a more creative producer and filmmaker than living in the big city ever did. It has forced me to be a little more multi-faced in film work. I’ve been able to do things here that I may never have done.”
By the time “The New Americans” began winning awards, Saedi Kiely was pregnant with her first child. After the birth of her second, she decided to take a little break from full-time film work when she found herself inadvertently reformatting her computer’s hard drive while editing a film.
“Every film is like a child, metaphorically. You gestate it, you birth it, you care for it. It takes such similar energies as raising children and it’s hard to do in tandem,” she says. “It’s been really good to take this mid-career creative break. I’ve been working out what to do when I have a little more head space.”
But Saedi Kiely’s break looks a little different from most people’s idea of time off. After all, while not working full-time in film, Saedi Kiely has helped program the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, taught documentary film at the University of Montana, finished work on the DVD series Montana Mosaic: 20th Century People and Events and the film Jailed for Their Words. She also just began work on the film March Against Meth.
Saedi Kiely says she feels very much in the middle of her career even though her next big film project—a Montana story—is still a few years down the road.
“I’ve done some things,” she says, “But I’ve got a lot more to do.”
Gita Saedi Kiely’s short film Star Spangled Blues screens during the YWCA’s Lunafest at the UC Theatre Wednesday, March 18, at 7 PM. $8.