Kambiz Shabankare – Journalist, Photographer & Documentary Movie Maker

Please introduce yourself.

My documented name is Alireza Shabankareh Bandari, but the name that most people know me by that is Kambiz Shabankare. I was born in Iran/ Tehran 1973. My my mom’s parents were refugees from Russia after Second World War. My grandma has been telling me stories about the difficulties they had faced under communist/Stalinist admiration in Russia, plus not being welcomed in a country, Iran, that they tried to seek safety in there.
I studied Mechanical Engineering (1995) and Theater (2007) in Iran. My career as a journalist began in 1996 in a literary magazine. I switched to social issues and politics in 2000.
I started my work as a photographer in 1987 in a small photo studio and meantime acting in theater. All of these led me to huge change in my life. In 1997 I received my first offer to work in a TV show as casting manager, writer and actor. This became an open door to the film industry. In 2000 I started to switch from a portrait and landscape photographer to photojournalist, which all these changes together, made me papered for my future career as a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer. My first feature film was 2005’s, Tehran 25 O’clock that, because of its sensitive subject, was banned by Iranian national TV and all copies and footage were collected by law enforcement. And this was beginning of future bans on my movies, poems and short stories.
My first arrest happened in 1999 during the student protest in Tehran.

When and why did you move to the USA/left your country?

I left my country in late 2008 after the presidential election in 2009. The pressure on journalists, filmmakers, and activists became intolerable. Especially for those, who like me, had been imprisoned before. I had no safe place to stay. Spending few days in a friend’s house and then in other friend’s house, and finally there was nowhere to hide so I used the opportunity to travel from one city to another, to remain safe and also having the chance to talk to people and make them aware of the country’s situation. Through my words I became a mobile newspaper, and I became the subject of life a documentary without being able to film it.
My family was scared and exhausted by my situation, and I had no chance but going to prison or leaving the country, so my friends and family convinced me to the second one.
I went to Tajikistan, after few months it became dangerous for me, due to the relationship between Iran and Tajikistan, and then I left to Emirates, Jordan, and India. Some human rights and journalist protection organizations like CPJ advised me that Turkey will be a better option because they actually could help me better if I would move there.
I spent less than two years in there, and then UNHCR sent me to the United States in August 2011.

What do you enjoy most about the USA/Austin, now when you have more experience, how’s the quality of life compared to other US cities or Turkey/Iran?

People have different opinions about the cities this doesn’t make any city best or worst; it’s just based on different opinions. Austin is a nice city and not very crowded. But for me is not exactly the city that I can imagine myself in. I am coming from cold and rainy weather, so the hit in Texas makes it hard to adapt myself. Also difficulty of traveling in the United Sates especially, by public bus is another problem I have been dealing with. I love using public transportation for daily purpose, and also taking bus to go from one city to another. I have been doing this most of my life but here, in U.S, everybody has a car, so people fly from one town to another, and people don’t have much time to sit down and talk. These are kind of values that I used to have in my life.
But overall, Austin compares with many southern cities in the United States is much better, for someone like me. It is more liberal and less expensive to live.

Americans are very proud to say they are the most democratic country in the world – you have lived in countries like Iran and Turkey which at this point are probably both (Turkey much less) somewhat scary and mostly very unknown countries to most Americans. Do you feel comfortable telling us what are the best/worst issues as far as democracy and human rights go in all these 3 countries are in your view and from your perspective?

America is not much different than Iran or Turkey or other countries that they use democracy as tool for propaganda. Racism, domestic violence, gender discrimination, and etc. are the facts that exist in this country, plus this country is greatest consumer of child/sex trafficking and organ trafficking.
American government supports terrorism as much as Iran or Russia does. The meaning of freedom in this country has been twisted by government as much as in Iran, Turkey, China, and Russia. If I want to be honest, this country is a dictatorship – not a democratic country, dictatorship of corporations, parties, and in some case white males.
As a non-white person you can see discrimination and racism in some aspect. I have had this experience. Searching my luggage at the gate under the claim of random search while the airplane had 200 passengers and that random search only applied to me, or even couple of times that I tried online dating. When the girls understood I am from Middle East, it was a huge turn off for them. It doesn’t feel good.
I am a journalist, so I pay attention to people’s behavior. If you try to see, you will find many attitudes that can be interpreted as racism or discrimination. But one of the reasona that people ignore it, is because, unfortunately some Americans, have wrong definition about racism. They think calling an Iranian, or Afghan, an Arab has nothing to do with racism or discrimination. They feel telling you that “bring me some Iranian girls” is not offensive, but it is.
I respect my Arab friends but the fact is I am not Arab – just as much as they are not Iranians. We are different nations with some similarities but many differences.

How do feel about ISIS and their success having seen their beheading videos – ultimate social media usage – in TV?

I don’t appreciate any kind of violation of human rights. Any kind of genocide or violence is something that I was fighting against my entire life. I lost my country and my family because of that and nothing stops me from speaking out when it comes to human rights.
But we need to be smart; ISIS, Al-Qaida, or other terrorist groups couldn’t exist without support from world powers. People in the world suffer from lack of humanity in governments like Russia, United States, Iran, China and etc. they play people, they destroy life for mere economic or political benefits.
We need to ask where ISIS got its weapons. The first and greatest financial support for ISIS came from Saudi Arabia, and isn’t Saudi Arabia America’s ally? All, the weapons Saudi Arabia has, are made in USA. So let’s not to blame Iraqis or Muslims for what is happening right now in the Middle East.
People in many countries have been victim of tyranny by other countries like those I mentioned. What is happening in Iraq and Syria is just a conflict between Iran, Russia and USA and none of the try to be there for the benefit of people.

You have suffered for being outspoken, been imprisoned for your opinions? I think for most people you meet in Austin cannot imagine being unable to disagree with someone without endangering yourself. Why did you do it and how did you get the courage to do that? I always feel ridiculous when people say well I would never have obeyed Hitler. Very easy to say but maybe not as easy to do when you know the result may be death, torture or prison. I rather would say I hope I’d find a way to resist and survive in one piece – mentally and physically?

I can tell you in one word – responsibility. I believe, we as humans are responsible for each other and for the society. I believe a human being never can be in peace while another human being is suffering. If my neighbor suffers, I am responsible. Remaining silent doesn’t make me better that someone who makes others suffer. And taking this responsibility has consequences that we pay to have better society.
You won’t believe if I say I didn’t feel pain when they were torturing me in prison, because I had the picture of a child who lives in a great society in my mind.
I remember when I was a kid, my oldest aunt (my mom’s sister) once told me “Gandhi was not special, neither was Malcolm X- anybody can be Gandhi or Malcolm X, he just needs to love people and value the comfort of the entire world over your temporary personal desire.”
My aunt was imprisoned and tortured several times during the Shah’s administration in Iran. I understood what she said, I believed it, I lived it and I try to teach it to others.

What do you think the most American Muslims feel about the current situation in the Middle East? (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Africa)

As you know I am not Muslim. However, I have many Muslim friends and colleagues who don’t appreciate fundamentalism, as much as they don’t appreciate the American or Iranian Diplomacy toward the region as well. USA accuses Muslims, all Muslims of being terrorists. Just watch all the movies that have been made especially in recent years, and Iran is using the religion as a tool for its own purpose which has nothing to do with peace in the region. Muslim people are peaceful as much as people in other religions, the problem is not people. Problem is government and their propaganda and the media in many countries.

Do you feel Austin is a good place for you as a creative freelancer right now? Are there any areas expats like you might like in the USA in your opinion better than Austin (entrepreneurs/startups)? WHY?

Austin is a nice city; I have met some great people here, but it is not an ideal place for someone like me. Austin wants someone who can shut up and live his/her life. I can’t do that. There are two aspects that make it impossible for me to be a part of this city or any cities in the United States: capitalism and individualism. I can’t imagine myself feeling comfortable while the personal desire goes above the value of a society. We live together, humans built the societies together and I am responsible for other human being.

How would you rate the public transport? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?

I can say it’s really bad. It’s totally unreliable and so expensive. Anybody who has lived in other countries, especially Europe, can see the difference. I heard that the condition of public transportation is bad, because they try to make the giant car companies happy. I don’t know it is true or not, although makes total sense, but if it is true, it’s a shame.
For three years, I tried to not to have a car but it was impossible to do my job, so I have finally surrendered and bought one. It’s like the society forces you to do that.

Do you go out a lot – hobbies? Or is everything about work right now?

No, unfortunately I don’t go out much, first because I don’t have much time, and second, I didn’t have much good experience with people in this town. Some attitudes made me uncomfortable and I decided to not to experience those attitudes any more.

What’s the cost of living compared to other cities you are familiar with? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

Austin compared to many cities in the United States is much cheaper but still cost of living compare to some other countries , especially Europe, is high.

What are the locals like; do you feel you mix mainly with other expats?

I tried but some expats I met have been Americanized. Some deny the quality of life in their country. Call me oldfashioned, but I believe in roots. I am a proud of my Iranian background, and I have Russian “roots” as well.I believe those made me who I am. I cannot say that every single person is like that, there some people that still believe in the value of the countries that they are coming from, despite all the difficulties in those countries, so I was able to make some friends.

Did you think it is easy meeting people/other startups and making friends in Austin?

Yes it is easy and this is one of the great things about Austin.

What’s the economic climate like in Austin, how would you compare it to the other cities you know of? Why? How does the work culture/life style differ from other countries you have lived in?

As I said earlier, compared to some other cities in the United States, Austin is much better. However, your success is still measured by the money you make. I believe that’s nonsense. This is a capitalistic culture. According to this measure, Van Gogh was not successful at all.

Did you have any misconceptions about the USA or Texas that have turned out to be super wrong….or vice versa, you thought something will be great and it is exactly the other way around?

Before coming to USA I had a good knowledge of the country – I was almost right on target.

Do you think your career (business) would be the same in Iran/Turkey – or does this work better for you? Either way, please explain more.

I could be more successful in almost any country, than I am trying to be in US. The problem is here the culture doesn’t appreciate the experience you have in the past. It means you have to start from where you have started years ago, which is frustrating. The hiring system also is wrong. Getting hired most of the time has nothing to do with your expertise. It’s important how you can “sell” yourself through the interview process. In some cases, a liar who speaks better, has a greater chance than someone who actually knows how to do the job.Perception mean more than reality!

What are your favorite restaurants/bars in Austin – why ? If you know of any great Turkish/Iranian restaurant we would love to know as I love Turkish food.

There are some places that I love. The first is The Russian House. I like its design, it’s almost look like the house I grew up in (furniture, Russian Dolls, Samovar and etc.). I have to mention their food that tastes like my mom’s. Being there is like being at home.
Then Is Intercontinental Stephen F. bar and restaurant, which is a place to have a great time – food and environment and design is wonderful. I love Mozart Café, Café Medici, and Aviary Décor. All of them are great places to have a coffee as well good for a conversation or reading a book.

Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals or contemplating a move to Austin – especially for a startup/entrepreneurs/freelancers??

Not really, just keep up a great job, never give up and value honesty, and yourself as a human being, share love and try to not to judge anybody.

Is there anyone/group that you would like to connect within the European community – who would they/it be?

I love art, classical music, literature, philosophy and serious conversation over politics so any groups that provide these opportunities are my deep interests.

Connect with Kambiz:

Kambiz at Facebook
Kambiz at LinkedIn