Director, producer and filmmaker Sophia Kiapos’s evolutionary career path is marked in particular by her advocacy for the presence of women and minorities in the industry. The respect she has earned from her viewers grows from the authenticity of her films, where she displays her courage to dig deep in order to expose the vulnerable truths of the human experience. Kiapos’s foundation began in theatre, where she studied classical acting at Stella Adler Studio in New York and later at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. But it wasn’t until she moved back to Los Angeles that she found her inspiration for telling stories behind the camera.
“In 2012, I had an eye-opening awakening about how people who look like me were being depicted in film and television,” Kiapos says. “Something had to change. Something had to be done.” The founder of Female Filmmakers, which supports over 6,000 women globally in different facets of filmmaking, Kiapos is also hard at work on her upcoming film AREZOU, a tale set in post-revolution Tehran about a 12-year-old girl who discovers the secret world of an illegal, underground ballet group and rewrites her destiny. Kiapos’s storytelling highlights essential human truths, raw emotion and the complex histories behind many people’s realities. Cultured catches up with the filmmaker for a glimpse of what’s to come.
Your foundation began in the theatre, studying classical acting in both New York City and London. What inspired you to start working in film?
I am truly grateful for the training I received while studying at Stella Adler in New York and later at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. It’s really important, I think, as a creative in “the industry” to understand the foundations of your artistry. This training has informed my work tenfold as a director. After graduating from LAMDA, I moved back to Los Angeles in 2012 and had an eye-opening awakening about how people who look like me were being depicted in film and television. For everything I had been casted in, I was predominantly covered, wearing a hijab or burqa, speaking only Farsi or Arabic. Something had to change. Something had to be done. This realization was the genesis that further inspired me to tell stories from behind the camera, as a filmmaker, and to give women and men of Middle Eastern origin opportunities to play something different from the stereotypes that we’ve been labeled as. When pondering the possibility of transitioning into filmmaking, I began to study the dialogue and movement of the crewmembers on each production I had been cast in. I studied their language and the way they operated their equipment. Soon after, I made sure that I had experienced almost every job on set—production assistant, boom operator, AC, AD, script supervisor, even cinematography—so that I could understand the world of filmmaking and further inform this path I had chosen. I bought my first camera, and continuously built it and broke it down over and over again until it became something I could do in my sleep. I was tired of the excuses I created for not yet being the filmmaker that I aspired to one day become. You create your destiny and you are the captain of every choice you make in life. I chose to be a filmmaker.
Your films are notorious for their focus on advocacy and representation. How will your newest project, AREZOU touch on these issues? How are these issues significant in your personal life?
In 2016, I founded my own collective called Female Filmmakers. It started out with a few friends who I had met on set and, every day since, the collective has expanded. Today, we are more than 6,000 women representing 40 countries across the globe. Each week, we highlight women who are working in various fields within the film industry. I am committed to making sure that these women have access to crews, collaborators, equipment and a safe space to voice their journey and experiences as creatives. In the past we have collaborated with Canon, Sigma and RED and we are expanding our network with further partnerships and sponsorships in the near future.
AREZOU was founded around the same time I created Female Filmmakers. Now that we are getting ready to actually make this film, I am so proud to share that over 50% of my fellow collaborators and crewmembers on AREZOU are women I met through my collective. Three years ago, a tragedy struck my family and we lost two of the people I loved the most—my beautiful grandparents. I grew up on a ranch in Burbank, California, a sacred space that’s been in my family for over 60 years. A fire started on the ranch, and my grandparents, who were asleep in their home, passed away that night. This forever transformed the trajectory of my life. After their passing, my family and I spent the following six months going through the debris and cleaning up their home. It was during that time that I came across my grandmother’s journal, tucked away in an old cupboard. Reading her words, I was moved and inspired to create impact, just as she had done in my life. Shortly after their passing, I had learned that Iran had a National Ballet Company, which had survived for twenty-one years before the Iranian Revolution. I studied more and learned that today, in Iran, there is an underground ballet movement, as women are still not allowed to dance. I was committed to shedding light on this new awakening. I grew up as a ballet dancer and spent fifteen years of my life dedicated to my love for dance. So many of my fondest memories with my family and grandparents were centered around dance. Being half Iranian, I wanted to be a voice for the people of my mother’s country—a vessel for hope, transformation and freedom of expression.
What makes your films so personal? Who is imagined target audience and what messages are you sending them?
My films are personal because I’m not afraid to go deep. I’m not afraid of posing questions and revealing the vulnerable truth of the human experience. I’ve learned over the past few years that we are not alone in our grief. I have experienced great pain and witnessed things that cannot go on unseen. All of this has informed my filmmaking in ways that I could never possibly have imagined, and I am grateful! Filmmaking is a gift because we’re able to showcase different perspectives of the human experience and that’s why it’s so vitally important for even more women and minorities to tell stories from an authentic and truthful perspective, because we need more of these types of narratives. I hope that with AREZOU, we can begin a dialogue and create further opportunities for stories such as this to be told to the masses.
What is your favorite part of filmmaking?
My favorite part of filmmaking is the collaborative process, from generating an idea to seeing a concept to its completion. I so love and admire artists. I love people who are dedicated to their craft and want to create an impact with their work and in their life. This inspires me deeply. I feel very fortunate to have met a group of collaborators who are dedicated to making films that transcend “the now” and who leave egos at the door and work with an openness to try, fail and try again until our work brings us a shared feeling of inner-success.
What emotions and feelings do you feel are expressed in your films? What experiences in your own life have led you to this kind of storytelling?
I think everyone has their own, unique emotional experience. Some will feel hopeful, some sad, perhaps some even angry, or happy. It really depends on how the film sits with an individual. I can’t control how someone is going to experience the film. All I can really do is make sure that I put it all out there and remain truthful to who I am and what I believe is important. After finding my grandmother’s journal, I discovered that her challenges in life were so very similar to the challenges that we, as women, as minorities and as people face today. It’s incredible that nearly 75 years later, her life experiences still resonate with me, today, in 2019. I am reminded through her to remain true to my voice—my voice which is so heavily inspired by my family and my experiences—and to continue discovering who I am as an independent woman and human being. I’m going to go for it. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If something fails, there’s a lesson to be learned in that. I’m just going to keep going and continue creating and hope that there is someone out there in the world who will receive a sense of positivity and hope through my films.
What is next for you and your career. What do you hope to accomplish?
We are going into production with AREZOU in March of 2020, so my focus and commitment is with this film, my team and making sure that AREZOU is ready for audiences to receive in the very near future. I also hope to further expand Female Filmmakers and to be in a place to support even more women and minorities in independent filmmaking. I know that this is just the beginning and my personal responsibility is to show up and do the work.