MFA candidate wins Princess Grace Award to assist with Durham documentary project

Second year MFA candidate Sarah Riazati won the Princess Grace award, a scholarship aimed to assist in theater, dance and film projects.
Second year MFA candidate Sarah Riazati won the Princess Grace award, a scholarship aimed to assist in theater, dance and film projects.

As a second year MF A candidate in Duke’s experimental and documentary arts program, Sarah Riazati wears many hats. Not only is she a creator, a teacher and a student, she is also an up-and-coming talent in the digital storytelling arena. 

Riazati won the prestigious Princess Grace Award: a scholarship which aims to "identify and assist emerging talent" in theater, dance and film. 

While her humility and approachable demeanor may not suggest it, Riazati possesses a visionary perspective and an artistic intuition that she has acquired through years of schooling, online tutorials and “lots of practice”. She has had the opportunity to work in New York and Italy, collaborating with other artists and evolving her style along the way.  The funds the Princess Grace award supplies will assist Riazati in what she calls, “The biggest project I have ever done.” 

“My thesis will be a feature length documentary film that is a layered retelling of the history of Durham, asking questions about race relations and gentrification with Durham as a case study, Riazati said. "It kind of all stemmed from my own personal reactions to the events of last August with the Confederate monuments in Virginia and Chapel Hill.”

She uses archival material to tell a story of events from a hundred years ago.

"I'm trying to make something that is a fluid and messy and complicated version of a history that we think we understand," Riazati said. "We think we have a fixed idea about what it was like back then but it was actually just as complicated and messy and human as it is today.”

As she excavates decades of time-worn newspapers, pictures and manuscripts to supplement this undertaking, Riazati posts her archeological finds on the instagram page @durham_detritus. She believes that delving into Durham’s past will reveal unforseen aspects of the historical tensions that emerge to this day. In Riazati's eyes, completing her feature film project will serve to convey the “antithesis of a static stone monument to history”, allowing our community to collectively investigate the complexity of race and class relations through a new lens. 

Aside from tackling the enigmas of troubled histories, Riazati also expresses her creativity across a wide array of short films. Her works encompass everything from interviews with musicians Matt and Kim, bizarre animated shorts like “Peeing Cloud” and even trippy lyric videos with kaleidoscopic visuals. In other words, rather than devoting herself entirely to a specific genre of filmmaking, Riazati finds artistic richness in exploring and testing herself in various settings. 

“As soon as there is one path, I’m like ‘I reject this path' because you told me I can only have one," she said. "I would like many."

Riazati said her undergraduate program was segregated.

"You’re a photo person, you’re a video person, you’re in design," she said. "I struggled to find my place and I felt like that jack-of-all-trades and master of none…It was hard for me to communicate to people that I was interested and capable of doing video storytelling and also making a website.”

As a result of her curiosity and willingness to integrate new techniques into her work, Riazati has found success early on in her career. 

“I do like to learn new things and put pieces together and just play with many different kinds of creative outlets," she said. "That’s been part of what value I bring to employers. I think it took me a while to realize that was a strength and not a confusing weakness.”

Presently, Riazati enjoys the learning environment Duke’s MFA program provides her – both exposing her to knowledgeable faculty and also affording her the liberty to expand her skill set without the anxieties of a strict artistic dogma. For students who may be interested in improving their craft, in documentary arts or otherwise, Riazati recommends taking a piece-by-piece approach.  

“Students can be really hard on themselves for not getting something perfect at first," she said.  

To build confidence when confronting an ambitious project, like a novel or short film, Riazati suggests breaking down the task into multiple digestible components. She explained that watching and practicing online tutorials on specific skills helps her improve her video editing. 

“I learned techniques but I also have an understanding of rhythm and an understanding of pacing," she said. "I’ve practiced a lot.”

Riazati has already come far in her career as a digital storyteller, but she has no plans of slowing down now – especially with her first feature film in the works. She still humbly remembers the commitment and determination it took her to get to this point.
“It took me some time to look at the things I had made and enjoy them in the way that other people had," she said. "It took me a long time to see what you’re calling ‘talent’”

For Riazati there really is no end goal in improving her art – rather it is a perpetual process from which there is always something to learn.  


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