June 16, 2020

U Department of Film & Media Arts Producer-In-Residence, Emelie Mahdavian wins prestigious Peabody Award

Out of nearly 1,300 entries, only 60 nominees are selected for the annual Peabody Awards — one of the most prestigious honors in digital media, storytelling, and broadcasting. 

Of those 60, only 30 are named as winners. We are delighted to announce that amongst those honored is Emelie Mahdavian, Producer-In-Residence in the University of Utah Department of Film & Media Arts, for her film Midnight Traveler.

In their announcement of the award, Peabody wrote: “Midnight Traveler begins with director Hassan Fazili and his wife Nargis deciding they must leave their home of Afghanistan, accompanied by their two small children. Fleeing a bounty on the father’s head, the Fazili family set out for Europe, and the film offers a first-person account of a yearlong journey to safety. Shot solely on mobile phones, Midnight Traveler powerfully captures the volatility and chaos of the family’s trip, at one moment pausing on a playful debate between the parents, or on a tender moment of parenting and laughter, only to cut to the temporary loss of a daughter or to the imminent threat of anti-migrant protesters trying to force their way into a refugee camp.”

“Throughout, the film stands as an arresting and deeply moving testament to the power of parenting through trauma,” they continued. “It offers a remarkably rare, and remarkably valuable, humanizing picture of the everyday life of a refugee family, while also stopping at points to consider the ethics of filming such a journey. For a major work of documentary filmmaking that is terrifying and uplifting, difficult and easy to watch, beautiful and important, we commend Fazili and Midnight Traveler with a Peabody.” 

At public screenings and Q&A’s, including one on the University of Utah campus, Mahdavian has been able to experience firsthand how the film has affected audiences. “I think we hoped that by telling a personal story and not backing up and giving a lot of outside information, we could express something that was socially relevant,” she explained. “I think the public response indicated that that part was resonating. And, the Peabody Award validates that too, because they aren’t only interested in the artistry but also in how the film is tackling a broader social topic.” 

This recognition is further fuel for Mahdavian’s fire. “I think there’s an assumption that when you win an award like the Peabody, you’re really excited because you have been externally validated. But I think the reality for a working artist is that by the time an award like this comes in, that external validation is primarily useful to you in building energy around your new projects,” she said. “You’re not doing the work for the awards or you’d never get there. You’re doing it because you love the work and believe in the stories you are telling.”

Proving this remarkable stamina, she is hard at work on post-production of her next film, Bitterbrush. And, even in the face of the global pandemic, she is also strategizing the next after that, a portrait of her favorite choreographer. Although she is persevering in the circumstances, she is not without concerns for how the coronavirus will affect the film industry going forward. 

“The community is trying really hard to support people. The tough thing is most of us are freelancers or independent contractors. For me, working at the University provides a level of stability many of my colleagues don’t have. This situation put so much uncertainty out there,” she said. “We are all wondering when in-person festivals will return, but digital film festivals could also pose a massive problem. As a filmmaker normally I go to festivals, then if I’m lucky I go to theatres, then to broadcast, then to streaming. That is a very careful process and timeframe. So, if my film goes to an online festival, according to traditional rules, I may have blown my ability to go to theatres and to broadcast. Filmmakers are hesitant, but trying to think through how it could work...We just have to keep pushing forward.” 

We anxiously await the next release. In the meantime, our community celebrates Midnight Traveler’s incredible success.