Journalist Arman Kazemi | From Paris to Rio

Posted by Chloë Lai & filed under People to Watch.

Arman Kazemi outside a cafe in Gastown (Photo Credit: Chloë Lai)
Arman Kazemi outside a cafe in Gastown (Photo Credit: Chloë Lai)

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In the last three years, British-born Iranian-Canadian journalist Arman Kazemi has covered everything from the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro to the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo staffers and the Bataclan in Paris. His work has been published by the CBC and the Globe and Mail, among others. He speaks English, Persian, French and Portuguese, and is currently working on a project that will take him back to Rio in August to cover the Olympic Games. It’s an impressive resumé, especially for a member of the oft-maligned Millennial generation.

Still, his family wonders when he’ll buckle down and get a ‘real’ job.

Arman comes from a long line of medical professionals. His father is a doctor, his mother a physiotherapist. His aunt is a doctor. So is his uncle. His cousins are either in med school or medical residencies. Having said that, Arman doesn’t necessarily have to become a doctor. He’s also welcome to be a lawyer or engineer.

“My parents are super open. They’re by no means cultural relics,” Arman said. “But in Persian culture, there’s this sense that what the child does is a reflection of the parents.” At Persian gatherings, called mehmooni, the discussion invariably turns to the younger generation’s achievements in a subtle game of parental one-upmanship. By refusing to embrace the “Big Three” of accomplishment in his culture, Arman has made it impossible for his parents to get the same kind of validation that others receive. “I love my parents and I don’t blame them for wanting to engage, to play the game…I just want to be as honest to myself, my own ambitions and my own talents, as I can.”

Arman Kazemi with his mother in Shetland, circa 1990 (Photo courtesy of Arman Kazemi)

Arman Kazemi with his mother in Shetland, circa 1990 (Photo courtesy of Arman Kazemi)

Realizing that writing was one of his primary talents, Arman applied to UBC’s School of Journalism to complete his master’s degree. After graduation, he moved to Paris for work. Three months later, the French were hurled into one of their most tumultuous years in recent history. Arman was awed by the strength and defiance that emerged as a result.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan concert-goers that bookended 2015, millions of French citizens rallied in the streets, refusing to be cowed into silence.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French citizens gathered at Place de la République to remind terrorists that they are "not afraid" (Photo Credit: Arman Kazemi)

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, French citizens gathered at Place de la République to remind terrorists that they are “not afraid” (Photo Credit: Arman Kazemi)

When the Charlie Hebdo shootings occurred, Arman was working at a high school in Chelles, a suburb outside Paris. He overheard chatter in the teachers’ lounge and realized that the events were unfolding at that very moment.

“Instinct kicked in,” he said. He left the school grounds and headed to the site of the attacks, stopping off at home just long enough to pick up his camera. The Charlie Hebdo offices were a mess of reporters and police. Then Arman overheard someone saying that people were gathering at the Place de la République. Instinct prevailed once more, and he was soon threading his way through a crowd of 35,000 people in a “fraternal, jubilant, and defiant” atmosphere. Pencils were held high as chants like “Charlie, Charlie, Char-liberté” and “It should be ink that flows, not blood!” filled the air. A few days later, an estimated 3.7 million people participated in marches across the country in a display of solidarity; 1.6 million of those were in Paris alone.

Locals pay their respects at a Bataclan memorial site, the "Je Suis Charlie" tags from months before still visible on the curb. (Photo Credit: Arman Kazemi)

Locals pay their respects at a Bataclan memorial site, the “Je Suis Charlie” tags from months before still visible on the curb. (Photo Credit: Arman Kazemi)

As 2015 dragged on, the outrage over the terrorist attacks was joined by concerns about refugees, climate change and labour laws, as well as the historic flood that engulfed Paris earlier this month. Watching an entire nation engage in self-examination during this string of devastating events gave Arman a deep sense of solidarity with, and better understanding of, his host country.

“It gives you a sense of what makes a country like France, in a way that I don’t think any other events could. If I’d spent ten years in France in any other time period, it wouldn’t have dawned on me with the same force.”

It’s precisely this kind of intercultural insight that he hopes to facilitate through his next project, Real Rio.

Spearheaded by fellow UBC School of Journalism graduate Jordan Wade, Real Rio is a grassroots citizen journalism project. Using social media to broadcast live interviews and updates, the team will explore the impact that the Olympic Games have on the most vulnerable population involved: the locals.

“No one can speak better about a community than the people of that community. We want to provide a medium to allow Brazilians to speak in their own voice to an international audience.”

Iranian fans at the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro (Photo Credit: Arman Kazemi)

Iranian fans at the 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro (Photo Credit: Arman Kazemi)

It’s an effort to fill a gap created by traditional methods of Olympic Games reporting, where the focus is on the sports, athletes and economics of the event. The Real Rio team is on a mission to introduce their viewers to the people who live through the consequences of the Olympics. Consequences like forced evictions to make way for an Olympic village, or the killing of an endangered mascot. Arman notes that there are many additional factors in play, including the Zika virus, a state-wide financial crisis and heavily polluted water.

“It’s like France, in that all of these external circumstances are converging to create this boiling point that will bring out the true Brazilian character,” Arman said. “There are so many misconceptions about Brazilian culture, stereotypes that we want to think through and deconstruct.”

To find out more about Real Rio, and watch their launch video, click here.

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