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After fleeing persecution, ASU student eager to tell stories like hers through film

Outstanding Herberger undergraduate finds editing can give voice to people like her

April 17, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement. 

Maedeh Moayyednia’s journey as a refugee inspired her to become a storyteller through the art of film.

Moayyednia, who will earn a bachelor’s degree in film and media production at Arizona State University this May, discovered that she can best tell a story specifically through the editing process. She also has been named the outstanding undergraduate in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“Editing is the art of filmmaking. It’s where it all comes together,” she said.

“I love to think about, ‘What am I saying and who am I making visible? What are the voices I want to be heard in this story?’”

Moayyednia was born and raised in Iran in the Baha’i faith, a persecuted minority.

“It’s very dangerous and very oppressed for them,” she said. “I studied sociology in an online university, the Baha'i Institute for Higher Education — that’s illegal. People have gone to jail for teaching there.”

In 2014, Moayyednia was approved for religious asylum and came to the United States, settling in Phoenix, not far from Scottsdale Community College.

She struggled with English, but started taking general education and film classes at SCC.

“I loved movies but I never thought I could be a filmmaker, but I realized that for the things I wanted to talk about, film is the best tool I could use,” she said. “I loved my film classes and I found my calling.”

After earning her associate degree, she transferred to ASU, which was overwhelming. She took five production classes her first semester, and worked two part-time jobs — in the videography office of the Herberger Institute and as a film lab technician at SCC.

“But I talked to my professors and went to them for advice and they helped me to get through it,” she said.

“What I learned was to prioritize my tasks. I have work and I have assignments and I learned to make the best of the short amount of time I have.”

In one film class, Moayyednia had an assignment to edit some random bits of film together.

“I made a very dramatic story out of it and the professor asked me to stay after the class and he said, ‘You should consider becoming an editor,’” she said.

“I told him I was just having fun and he told me, ‘You took something that wasn’t good and you told the story you wanted to tell.’”

Moayyednia answered some questions from ASU Now:

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: When I moved to the United States, I faced a lot of prejudice and a lot of inappropriate questions, being a brown Middle Eastern person in Arizona. I faced a lot of people being ignorant, for example, asking me about terrorism. Somebody told me, "I didn’t know you knew how to eat with a fork and knife." Hurtful questions. With a sociology background, I thought "I have to stop being upset and just do something." It came to me, film is the best way I can show my heritage and my culture and the reality of what it is. I feel the way the media portrays people from the Middle East is untrue and not honest. It was a moment I was like, "I have to stop being upset and I need to choose to tell stories in film that are about people like me."

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I realized that I found my people. I found my chosen family at ASU, and I found people who understand and support me. When I started talking to my professors and people in my workplace, I thought, "These are the people I want to surround myself with so I don’t constantly face ignorance and prejudice." It was comforting to have these people around me.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: As a person who’s older, I am so proud of everything that I’ve done. Some of it I’m like, "I wish I hadn’t done that, but I grew from it." I would say try different things and go to different clubs and internships and classes to find what’s for you. Even if you’re not happy, it’s a growth opportunity. I had internships that weren’t for me, but it was like, "Well, at least I know I don’t want to do this."

For film students, I would say, tell a story that matters to you personally because when you do, it will touch the audience’s heart. Also think about the people you’re making visible. If you’re telling a story about immigration, you have to include people from the immigrant community and the story has to be honest.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The videography office that I work in, because we are such a great department. We have memes on the wall and it’s so fun and we all put our best into every project. I’m going to miss it.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My favorite thing is documentaries. I was accepted into some graduate programs, but I want to take a year off and work. I’ll be an assistant editor on a feature documentary about the struggles of transgender people in a professional environment and their personal lives. Then I’ll look at a postproduction internship to build a better portfolio. I am eager for that experience rather than going straight to graduate school.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would make a university for people in my own country who are not privileged to go to other universities. I do feel guilty that I had this amazing opportunity to pursue my dreams and be here but there are people still there who are fighting. I want to make a place for them where they can all come together and study any major they want and they don’t have to pay.

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