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Tiburon resident Saeed Shafa founded annual film festival to share passion for cinema

Saeed Shafa, a longtime resident who founded the Tiburon International Film Festival in 2001 and for more than two decades brought a diverse selection of movies, documentaries and shorts from around the world to local audiences, died May 22. He was 73.

Mr. Shafa, a lifelong cinephile, built the festival from the ground up with his son, Siamak, and it became an annual signature event downtown, with screenings at the Tiburon Playhouse and, early on, the Corinthian Yacht Club, and festival-related events at restaurants including Sam’s Anchor Cafe and The Lodge at Tiburon. Throughout the years, the festival attracted the likes of George Lucas and “The Incredibles” director Brad Bird while maintaining its focus as a spotlight for independent filmmakers.

The festival pivoted online amid the pandemic and the subsequent closure of the Playhouse, which has since been replaced with a new theater, Cinelounge. Last year’s festival, held virtually over a week in November, featured 49 films from 22 countries.

Siamak Shafa said the festival was his father’s passion and was a manifestation of his love of film and of the Tiburon community.

“It just became more and more of his identity,” Siamak said. “It became who he was, it was one and the same and there was no separating the two. He is the Tiburon International Film Festival.”

Mr. Shafa was born Aug. 21, 1949, in Iran to Abbas Shafa and Fatima Roohani. He was captivated by the silver screen at a young age, Siamak said, watching John Wayne star in American westerns.

“The film screen was more of a window into other times and topographies,” Siamak said. “I think that’s what drew him to film.”

His father’s favorite movie was “Citizen Kane,” Siamak said, and the pair also bonded over James Bond movies with Roger Moore and Sean Connery in the lead role.

Growing up, Siamak said, “I used to throw the baseball with my mom, and I used to go to the movie house with my dad.”

At age 18, Mr. Shafa moved to the U.S. to attend school at San Francisco State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in journalism and also met his future wife, Tina, and then went on to earn a master’s in film studies from the San Francisco Art Institute. He planned to return to Iran and become a professor of film, but the Iranian Revolution was taking place in the late ’70s and he ended up staying in America.

He and Tina married in 1978 and had Siamak the following year. The family moved to Tiburon soon after.

Mr. Shafa began writing about Iranian cinema at age 16, and his work over the years was featured in various domestic Iran­ian publications.

“When it came to Iranian cinema, he was the guy,” Siamak said, calling his father “an almanac of film.”

He recalled accompanying his father to radio and TV stations where he was interviewed about film, an experience he called “surreal.”

The idea for the Tiburon festival grew out of Mr. Shafa’s desire to support independent filmmakers as other film festivals had started to sway more commercial.

“I always thought that film festivals should be an opportunity for independent films to be shown,” Mr. Shafa said in a 2004 interview in the San Francisco Chronicle. “But the last 10 to 15 years, it’s not like that. They’ve become a showcase for distribution companies and publicists. Some of the films they show you can see a couple of weeks later at a local theater. I want to give it back to the independent filmmakers.”

Siamak and his father were having lunch at the Town Center in Corte Madera in June of 2000 when Mr. Shafa brought up the idea of creating a film festival in Tiburon.

“He said, ‘I want to do this thing, do you want to do it with me?’” Siamak recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely.’” Siamak, who was 20 at the time, took a year off from school to help his father launch the festival and then helped produce it annually for the next decade.

The initial effort to get the festival up and running was not without its challenges. Siamak noted the pair received pushback from people who questioned why another local film festival was needed when the San Francisco and Mill Valley film festivals already existed.

“For the first few months, I only had one film,” Mr. Shafa said in the Chronicle story. “I was getting nervous — a film festival with only one film.”

However, eventually the entries began flowing in, and the inaugural festival in 2001 screened 84 films from 20 countries, according to the Chronicle.

The festival “took off with a bang,” said Tiburon resident Michael Moradzadeh, who during the early years of the festival was the rear commodore of the Corinthian Yacht Club and partnered with Mr. Shafa to hold some screenings in the club’s ballroom.

Moradzadeh noted Mr. Shafa’s enthusiasm was “infectious” and called him an “organized visionary.”

The festival was exciting, he added, because it came “before we were complete couch potatoes and just sort of scrolled through Netflix.”

“It put things in front of us that we might not otherwise see,” Moradzadeh said.

His wife, Noelle Leca, said the festival succeeded on “the force of (Shafa’s) personality,” noting he was “incredibly generous and charming.”

“We will miss him terribly, and the community will miss him,” she said.

Brian Wilson formerly owned Sam’s Anchor Cafe, which hosted several festival-related events over the years. He said working with Mr. Shafa and his family was a “highlight” of his time at the restaurant.

“He had an unselfish vision of changing the world through film,” Wilson said.

Longtime Bay Area film critic Jan Wahl noted Mr. Shafa loved and had great respect for all films, from the classics to those more current. She frequently attended the festival over the years and recalled one year interviewing renowned American cinematographer Haskell Wexler and another interviewing the granddaughter of one of the Warner brothers who had written a book about the history of the studio.

Wahl said Mr. Shafa built something special with the festival.

“He really just knew so much and had such great passion for movies,” she said. “It was an honor to know him and work with him.”

As the festival evolved over the years, so did Mr. Shafa’s selections, Siamak said. He never shied away from focusing on relevant political or cultural themes, such as screening films that highlighted the #MeToo movement, and he was always focused on expanding the audience’s horizons.

“We feature films from nearby and far away, but our focus is always on broadening cultural awareness, tolerance and understanding of the world,” Mr. Shafa said in a 2016 Ark article.

Siamak said his father viewed some 5,000 films per year from all over the world and stayed on the cutting edge of what was happening in the industry, which meant the selections for the Tiburon festival were often fairly innovative. The common thread in his selections, however, was compelling stories and a desire to give a platform to the storytellers.

“It was always about the filmmaker,” Siamak said. “It wasn’t about the studio, it wasn’t about any kind of popularity. It was always about the filmmaker and about the art.”

While Mr. Shafa preferred to keep the focus off himself and on the festival, Siamak said his father was “the most sensitive, sweet, soft-spoken, caring person you could ever meet.”

“There’s not a person he ever met that didn’t just fall in love with him,” Siamak said.

He noted he’s open to the idea of continuing the festival in his dad’s honor. He said he also hopes to start a foundation in his father’s name to support up-and-coming filmmakers.

Siamak said he’s proud of the legacy his father created with the film festival and in the part he played in helping turn his father’s dream into a reality.

“It’s kind of a big deal to have a film festival in your backyard, and I hope that’s something the community is proud of,” he said.

In addition to his wife and Siamak, Mr. Shafa is survived by his brother, Koorosh Shafa, daughter-in-law Shannon Shafa and two grandchildren, Ramsey Shafa and Syrus Shafa. The family plans to hold a local memorial in mid-June.

Siamak encouraged the community to honor his father in the way that would have made him happiest.

“Go visit your local movie house and enjoy a film and reflect on the film,” he said.

Reach Assistant Editor Emily Lavin, The Ark’s education and youth reporter, at 415-944-3841.



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