Sheema Golbaba ’14, budding documentary filmmaker and senior in Dunster House, may most often be seen on campus commanding the intramural soccer pitch or socializing with friends. But Sheema’s exploits extend far beyond such local domains: her documentary films have won her widespread national recognition, and she was even a production assistant on Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War.” Producing original work on topics ranging from national identity to race riots, Sheema Golbaba works to portray the stories she sees around her through film.
The Harvard Crimson: Has your upbringing in Tulsa, Okla. influenced your path to filmmaking?
Sheema Golbaba: Oklahoma is a beautiful place. People genuinely want to talk to you, and so you can talk about anything to a stranger, and it won’t be weird…. That sort of hospitable culture juxtaposed with [my family’s] very loving, kissing and hugging, very intimate Iranian culture was very instrumental during my developmental years…. I think being able to connect with people is one of the most important traits someone could have, regardless of where you are. And that’s, I think, the number one thing I took away from Oklahoma.
And now as a budding documentary filmmaker, I’ve realized that the reason I love documentary filmmaking is because I love stories...and making those stories feel relevant. Even if it’s something on the obscure corners of the world, something totally irrelevant to you, I want you to feel passionate about it in some way or another.
THC: How did you develop your interest in film?
SG: When I was 14 I applied to a broadcasting program at my school, and I loved it. I loved going around and talking to people and learning about them, and eventually it turned into this more research-oriented documentary stuff…. I didn’t consider it a serious part of my life and [never thought], “Hey, this could be something you’re actually good at,” until my senior year. I created a film about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921…. I ended up interviewing a survivor of the race riot and that interview was six hours long…. Hearing...this guy who at five years old had his home burnt down [say], “All I had was the clothes on my back”.... That sort of awoke some sense of this [being] important for non-subjective reasons.
THC: Why have you chosen to pursue an education at Harvard, rather than focusing exclusively on film?
SG: I ended up applying to USC Film School, which is like the Harvard of film school, and somehow managed to get in…. I went to visit USC to interview for my scholarship, and I remember I asked one of the professors when I would have time to read books. He sort of chuckled and said I wouldn’t have time for that. And that really bothered me.And then I got into Harvard and realized that...the reason I loved filmmaking is because I love learning about other people’s stories and how to make that relevant to other people—what are the conditions surrounding them, why is it important to them, and why should it be important to us.… Everybody loves stories. That’s why we have books and why we read to each other when we’re little…and that’s why I wanted to come here. I wanted to learn about the fundamentals of the world that surrounded me and everyone else around me, and now I’m a joint concentrator in Sociology and VES.
THC: How do your studies in Visual and Environmental Studies and Sociology complement each other?
SG: Sociology is the study of society. So you’re learning about notions of identity, about immigrants, political movements, social movements, why people make certain decisions based on what they see around them and feel around them. That coupled with a camera is tremendously powerful.
THC: How have you evolved as a filmmaker over the course of your career thus far?
SG: I’m a pretty stubborn person, and luckily I’ve had some great professors here at Harvard who have very intentionally challenged me until I’ve felt like I’m on the verge of losing my mind. So now I’ve learned to go into a project with an idea, but to be okay with changes that naturally occur. Because that’s a story in and of itself. That’s my own story.