This Iranian-Texan Filmmaker’s Story Is One You Should Know

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Meet Bita Ghassemi, a do-it-all creative and award-winning director based in Austin, Texas. As an Iranian-American, Bita beautifully blends her heritage into every project while telling visually-compelling stories that transcend cultural boundaries.

In addition to her creative work, Bita is also a champion for marginalized artists. She co-founded PILLARBOXED, a video production company led by women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community that provides a welcoming and inclusive environment for all artists. Bita also serves on the Board of Directors at Big Medium, a nonprofit organization that supports and promotes contemporary art and artists in Texas.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Bita at a crowded outdoor patio bar through our mutual friend and colleague, Alec. To no surprise, she was just as radiant as I had imagined her to be. As a fellow only child and lover of German underdog indie films like "Run Lola Run," Bita's fierce personality matches her passion for filmmaking. It was an honor to sit with her and discuss her art, the projects that helped shape her identity as an artist and director, and what we can expect from her in the future.

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Bita! Give us 3 fun facts about yourself.

Hey! Ok! So...

1. I’m a polyglot, which means I speak multiple languages. I’m fluent in English, Farsi, and German, and I could find my way back home if I were lost with my basic Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. So that’s five!

2. My favorite movie is Run Lola Run, it’s a pretty unique German thriller movie from the 90s, and I just love it! I used to live in Berlin and it brings back memories from that vibrant time in my life.

3. I’m obsessed with the restaurant Chili’s. It’s pure nostalgia for me!

When did the love affair with photos and video first begin?

I was an only child, so I entertained myself a lot by watching movies. One day, when I was around 10, my mom saw on our local news that extras were needed for the movies Idiocracy and How To Eat Fried Worms. I auditioned and got to be in the background of both! When I went on set, I saw all the ins and outs of what it took to make a movie; I had no idea so much went into it! To keep me entertained in the summers, my mom would get me a $10 unlimited pass to Hollywood Video, and I could check out 3 movies at a time.

That sparked my interest in filmmaking, and I feel like photos came shortly after that once I got my first little digital point-and-shoot.

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How would you describe your directorial and artistic style? Does it vary per project, or are there forms of cohesiveness you like to reiterate?

It definitely varies by project. I identify as an Iranian-Texan, so I have this dual existence that really comes through in my work. Sometimes I make a goofy music video with a Texas indie band, and other times I make a serious Persian short film that aims to send a meaningful social message. I think there’s a throughline in my work, though. I’m really inspired by authentic storytelling and real, universal stories that people from any background can resonate with.

My ultimate goal is to bring Iranians and Middle Eastern stories into mainstream American media. We have been villainized and stereotyped for far too long, and I want to be a part of the shift towards more inclusive and fair depictions of my people on screen.

I recently was the semi-finalist to direct a short film for Disney+ with an Iranian story.

It’s an initiative called Disney Launchpad where 6 underrepresented filmmakers get the opportunity to direct a short film through their cultural and diverse lens for Disney+. I didn’t end up getting chosen, but the fact that I made it that far in the competition was really encouraging. It also gave me hope that bigger studios are prioritizing diversity in the content they are choosing to produce.

Your 10-minute short film Maryam Joon is a captivating extension from your portfolio and has received critical acclaim. Mind telling us more about the film, its context, and why you chose to keep it private for over 5 years?

Maryam Joon is the story of a young girl named Maryam who accidentally discovers a provocative VHS tape that belongs to her father. As she watches the tape, she is exposed to things she’s never seen before and becomes conflicted about what to do with it.

The film explores the complex social and cultural forces that shape the individual lives of girls in post-1979 Iran, touching on themes of generational conflict, gender roles, censorship, and the tensions between tradition and modernity.

The film screened at festivals in-person worldwide, but I kept the internet link to the film private for 5 years for fear of the Iranian regime questioning me upon returning to Iran. Around the time of making the film, I would go back to visit every couple of years.

I publicly released the film in the Fall of 2022 when the Woman, Life, Freedom movement began. Since releasing the film, I have not traveled back to Iran, nor do I have plans to.

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What deeper, more interpersonal connections influenced your decision to publicize Maryam Joon?

My decision to release the short was prompted by the killing of Mahsa Amini in the fall of last year, a young Kurdish Iranian girl killed by the “morality police” for wearing her mandatory hijab “improperly.” This sparked the Woman, Life, Freedom movement within Iran and worldwide, the largest women-led movement in recent history. I felt compelled to do my part by using my voice to push for change. So I released Maryam Joon publicly and got incredible feedback from my network and beyond!

I think it’s really important for us Iranian-Americans in the US who have been afforded Freedom of Speech to use it to uplift the voices of Iranian women. That’s also why I started making TikToks to amplify the movement further.

Has this project shaped how you present yourself as an artist or filmmaker in this industry?

I definitely feel more confident calling myself a filmmaker now. Feeling like I couldn’t create fully because I feared what the Iranian regime could do to me when I traveled back hindered my creativity and growth potential.

Unfortunately, because I’ve released it publicly, it would be too dangerous to travel back now. But I see change happening in Iran shortly.

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Can you speak more about what your life currently looks like in the film industry?

I just recently took the leap into full-time freelance directing, which has definitely been a challenge finding the right balance of passion projects vs. paid work to make a living, but I’m confident it’ll get easier with time.

I want to continue my own personal narrative work that focuses around Iranian-American stories. Something a lot of people in the industry don’t talk about is how many rejections you receive as a filmmaker. Rejections from grants, film festivals, bidding for commercial work - it’s the reality of this industry but after 50 no’s that one yes makes it all worth it.

I love what you do with PILLARBOXED. Tell us more! Where can we find you?

We have an Instagram! It’s @pillarboxed - It’s basically the name we stamped on our passion projects, and by “we,” I mean my film school friends. We all have this passion for creating impactful art and emphasizing culture. It was born from a desire to have more women and POC on set. Diversity is still severely lacking in the Austin film industry and, generally, the film industry at large! I’m glad I can be a small part of that change.

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'I’m really inspired by authentic storytelling and real, universal stories that people from any background can resonate with".
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You’ve always got fun shoots and are constantly on the move. What are your top 3-5 camera gear you can’t live without while traveling?

Traveling and shooting street photos on film is one of my favorite things to do!! Recently, for a super quick snap, I’ve been carrying around the Kodak Half Frame Camera; it’s perfect for just whipping out to capture a fleeting moment. It shoots on “half” of the frame, so you’re getting 72 shots out of a 36-roll film, which is great! My go-to film is Portra 400 when I can get my hands on it!

Another thing I’ve loved doing recently is building a little Instax mini wall of visitors! Anyone who comes by my studio gets their photos snapped, and the great thing about the Instax Mini is it instantly prints the photo. I love how my wall has turned out so far!

Any upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?

I definitely want to make another short, but I’m also in the early stages of developing a feature! That’s the ultimate goal.

Check me out at @coolstorybitaonInstagram, Tiktok, Twitter, and!

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