Spotlight on MPI Filmmaker Elizabeth Mirzaei

May 13, 2020

MPI filmmaker Elizabeth Mirzaei recently completed the prestigious 2020 Film Independent Doc Lab with her MPI-supported film How to Escape from Prison. The documentary follows a Dominican nun working with California prisoners serving life sentences as they fight to get parole in a broken system. 

Elizabeth first worked on the film in MPI’s Documentary Storytelling Screenwriting Workshop. Subsequently, she participated in MPI’s 2019 Directing and Cinematography Workshops and recently completed the script for a new short film in our 2020 Dramatic Shorts Screenwriting Workshop.  

MPI recently caught up with Elizabeth to discuss her background as a documentary filmmaker and how her involvement with MPI has impacted her career:

Q: How did you get your start as a documentarian?

When I was in college, my mom got sick with cancer. I got a small VHS camcorder to record moments of her life with. Growing up, my family didn’t own a video camera and this was the first time I had even held let alone used one and it sparked my interest in film. After my mom died, I moved to Afghanistan and eventually became a video journalist for AFP, covering breaking news and feature stories. I found a mentor in a documentary director, who taught me so much about filmmaking and storytelling. My husband, Gulistan, and I began to make films together for Al Jazeera and later went on to make our first feature documentary, Laila at the Bridge

Q: Tell us more about your current project How to Escape from Prison?

Every year, thousands of California prisoners serving life sentences strive to get parole. One grassroots organization has made it their mission to help them succeed through a training course of mock hearings and self-critique. Through four interwoven stories, the film amplifies the often-unheard voices in the conversation on recidivism, restorative justice, and prison reform.

Q: What originally drew you to tell this story?

After one of my close friends was murdered in Afghanistan, I began to think more deeply about justice and mercy in a way I had never really been forced to consider before. When I moved back to the United States, I read about a grassroots program in California prisons and the story evolved from there.

Q: How has MPI helped shape your work as a filmmaker?

MPI has been wonderfully supportive and I feel like I’ve been welcomed into a family. I’ve participated in several MPI programs, including the Directing and Cinematography Workshops, as well as the Documentary Workshop. As I branch out into narrative film, MPI’s Screenwriting Workshop has provided me with tremendous insight. It’s been an invaluable system of support and education for me.

Q: What advice would you give to filmmakers considering applying to MPI’s talent programs?

Apply. If you’re fortunate to be accepted into an MPI program, you will find your talents nurtured and supported, and emerge that much stronger in your field. 

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