Samuel-Ali Mirpoorian says the skills of a mental health therapist can be helpful when making documentary films.
“It’s all about relationships,” said Mirpoorian, an Indianapolis native who graduated from Lawrence Central High School and IUPUI’s Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering. “It’s all about how you communicate and understand people. When you build and establish this vulnerability and this intimacy with these characters and with these people, you have to take what they’re going to give. But they’re going to give so much more if you give.”
Two Mirpoorian films that showcase his mastery of societal themes are raising the 30-year-old’s professional profile.
“Greener Pastures,” the first feature-length documentary of Mirpoorian’s career, captures day-to-day life at four Midwest family farms across four years of filming. “Independent Lens,” the award-winning PBS series that debuted in 1999, will air “Greener Pastures” on March 25.
Meanwhile, one of Mirpoorian’s short films became eligible to be nominated for a 2025 Academy Award after taking top honors at last month’s Austin Film Festival in Texas. “Safe Place” focuses on Harrison County resident Jerod Draper, who died in 2018 while in police custody.
“I’m spilling my heart, telling [documentary subjects] my deepest, darkest fears and anxieties,” Mirpoorian said of his work on “Greener Pastures.” “That’s how we really establish a bond and a relationship and trust. That’s how you get to really intense, interesting dark moments on camera.”
On the topic of therapy, Mirpoorian said he’s become a patient in recent months—something he says he could have used when working on “Safe Place.”
“You get wrapped up in things and you take on what they’re going through,” he said. “You have to edit and you have to watch. For ‘Safe Place,’ I’m hearing Jared being tased in a jail over and over again.”
Mirpoorian credits a 2021 Indianapolis Star investigative series on deaths inside Indiana jails as the basis for “Safe Place,” a 20-minute film that was purchased by The New York Times for the newspaper’s “Opinion” video series.
“The access was incredible,” Mirpoorian said of source material related to Draper’s ordeal. “We had depositions, we had dashcam footage, we had the corrections footage from the isolation cell. Not a single moment is missed.”
Beginning a decade ago, Mirpoorian made music videos for Indianapolis hip-hop artists such as Sirius Blvck and Oreo Jones. Mirpoorian’s 2015 clip to accompany the song “Tribe Quest,” a Blvck tune featuring Jones and David “Moose” Adamson (now three band mates in the group 81355), stands as an early-career highlight.
“For me, that was the quickest bit of exposure and best way to learn filmmaking,” he said.
“Greener Pastures” and its “Independent Lens” acquisition represent an exercise in patience.
“It’s a punctuation on a five-going-on-six-year journey,” Mirpoorian said. “It was a very affirming and validating moment as an independent filmmaker.”
Returning to a theme of mental health, Mirpoorian said he wanted to direct “Greener Pastures” after learning about high suicide rates among farmers.
”I had to find farmers who have some kind of correlation to suicide, whether they have a suicide attempt, suicide ideation or a family relative or person in their life who died by suicide,” he said. “That’s the case for all the characters and it affects every single one of them.”
Looking ahead to the 2024 film festival circuit, Mirpoorian said one film he’s sending out is a short doc based on an autistic man in a Chicago suburb who dresses like a superhero and is embraced by his community. Adam Oppenheim and Mirpoorian are co-directors of “Saving Superman.”
Mirpoorian, the son of an Iranian father who moved to the United States in the 1970s, said he finds plenty of stories to tell in the Midwest.
“People say, ‘Why don’t you go to a coast?’ But the Midwest is so interesting,” Mirpoorian said. “Some of the most interesting people are here.”