Saeed Shafa has never been one to follow the crowd. In 1972, he was just one of a few journalism students at SF State when suddenly the political floodgates burst wide open with the Watergate scandal.
As a result, President Nixon resigned and overnight journalism departments nationwide were flooded with applicants, hoping to be the next Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. SF State was no exception.
A dismayed Shafa noticed the trend, decided to shift gears and pursue a degree in film instead; a not-so secret passion of his as evidenced by the movie reviews he used to write for his high school paper in Iran.
This sense of individuality has since served him well as the founder and director of the Tiburon International Film Festival, a showcase for the latest in world cinema running from April 11-19.
“I felt a little awkward,” Shafa said of the unexpected influx of students enrolling as journalism majors in the wake of Watergate. “There weren’t many journalism students at that time. Journalism wasn’t hip. I didn’t think any of those wannabe journalists were serious enough and I didn’t want to be part of it.”
However, even before Watergate, it was clear to Shafa that he wanted to be part of the film community. Growing up as a kid in Iran, he would watch classic Westerns and idolize the leading man, John Wayne.
Westerns remain Shafa’s favorite genre and he remembers at times thinking that John Wayne must be fluent in Farsi because the dubbing was so precise.
From there he started to develop his tastes and became interested in films from the French New Wave, Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles, who directed his favorite film “Citizen Kane.”
Growing up the son of a doctor, Shafa was always exposed to art from the Western culture. It was only natural that he would follow in the footsteps of his two older brothers and make the move from Iran to San Francisco.
“It was a smooth transition as I didn’t experience any culture shock,” he said.
He eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in film post-Watergate, but once again found himself at a crossroads where he would have to decide whether to follow the crowd or go his own way.
Shafa has attended many film festivals throughout his career and he became disillusioned when he noticed that, what was once a platform for emerging filmmakers hoping to get distribution, had turned into a financial enterprise for big studios.
“This in a way was good, and still is, for many festivals to earn revenue. But (it’s) not good for the young, talented and aspiring filmmakers and so I decided to do the opposite and give the opportunity back to those who deserve it,” Shafa said.
In 2001, Shafa launched TIFF and it has become a prominent destination for local and international filmmakers wanting to share their work, including that of SF State faculty members and alumnus like Warren Haack, whose documentary “Santiago is Santiago” will have its world premiere at this year’s festival.
“It celebrates humanity,” Haack said of the festival.
His film explores Cuba’s thriving music scene in the 50 years since its revolution.
“It’s surprising how much love and life there is and I just want to make a document of the music so people in the United States can experience what goes on,” Haack said.
Haack describes his film and TIFF as representive of the diversity at SF State.
“It’s a celebration of international culture and I think that’s something very important to the Bay Area. It really provides a rich cultural texture,” he said.
Daniel Bernardi, chair of the cinema department, believes that Shafa’s efforts with TIFF reinforce the sense of obligation that SF State hopes to enstill in its graduates.
“We uphold the values of our university: equity and social justice. This is at the heart of everything we do and teach in cinema at (SF) State,” Bernardi said.
Bernardi and Shafa both agree that students should never lose sight of their individuality and the unique perspective that will set their work apart. Film festivals and distribution should come second to producing meaningful work.
“Learn from the masters but be yourself,” Shafa said. “We don’t need another Spielberg, Tarantino, or Lucas. We need a new breath and a new talent who will bring a new idea and vision to our screen.”