Houston Palestine Film Festival

Sharing the stories of Palestinians through cinema


Houston Palestine Film Festival
2510 Wichita St.
Houston, Texas 77004

Jews Step Forward” .. Challenging the Zionist’s Perspective on “Social Justice” - Interview with Director Marjorie Wright

In May 2016, HPFF has the chance to speak with co-director Marjorie Wright about her powerful film, Jews Step Forward. The film will be shown on May 27 at 7pm during the 10th annual HPFF festival at Rice University Media Center.  Wright will be attending the screening and participating in a Q&A session to follow.

 

Talking about the historical aspect of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has never been an easy job. For that, you have to go through a lot of research, conflicting materials, different opinions and perspectives, making the task of authentication and verification even more difficult and challenging for the sake of objectivity. But for Marjorie Wright, this task has become an everyday routine of her life. She has worked on a number of documentaries as a producer and a director. She is known for her role as a producer in the film “Voices Across the Divide”, which sheds light on the millions of dollars are spent on campus groups and in the media, aggressively promoting an Israel-right-or-wrong political stand, which is a major threat to the fundamental principles of free speech and tolerance and thus to our basic democratic values. The film follows its director’s personal journey as she begins to understand the Palestinian narrative, while exploring the Palestinian experience of loss, occupation, statelessness, and immigration to the US, exploring voices for a just peace in the region. Recently, Wright has worked on a new film, “Jews Step Forward”, which traces a path grounded in Jewish identity, which ultimately separates personal conscience from a socialized mythology loyal to Israel. The film is directed by Wright and her colleague Elika Rezaee.

Jews Step Forward will be screened at the Houston Palestine Film Festival on Friday, May 27. We talked to to Marjorie Wright about her film, the reasons to make it, the process, and how challenging it is to distribute such films in the US and worldwide.

 

 

  • Tell us more about the main idea of the film, and why did you decide to make it?

     

    In 2009, we showed our previous film, which was based on interviews with Israelis. But then, I realized I really should do one with Jewish activists from the US movement. I see my films as a tool in the movement ]towards freedom[, they’re not for entertainment or sensational purposes. They are rather a way to help advance the movement, to help change people’s minds, and to awaken people so that there is a critical mass particularly inside the Jewish community. In the US, we want to stop what is happening in Palestine, so that was the decision to make this film. I read a book called “Overcoming Zionism” which is cited in the film, and it was such a brilliantly and eloquently written book, and I somehow connected with the author. His name is Joel Kovel.  I wrote him a letter and we connected and spoke. So I told him about the idea of this film and he’s the one who opened the doors to me towards contacting many of these activists in the film. I have spent 10 years in Dubai so I did not know enough people to be able to make those connections, but one thing led to another, and I was lucky that this has happened.

     

  • The film was screened in India, and this week it will screen it in Houston. How do you expect people to react towards it, especially in the Jewish community?

     

    There was one test screening in Palm Springs, California, and it was a very small group. In the Palm Springs festival, half of the audience was Jewish and the other half was a mix of people. I didn’t know if people were going to scream at the screening, or if they’re going to jump and run out. I have had reactions with my earlier film where people were very angry, because it creates a very controversial reaction inside the Jewish community, especially when talking about what’s happening in Palestine. I am sure Houston has a significant Arab population and activist movement. So it would be very interesting to hear people’s take on it.

 

  • How difficult is it to promote and distribute the film, especially with the sensitive issues it discusses?

     

    I think the film fits in a Jewish niche, but of course Jewish festivals often won’t touch it with a 10-foot stick. This film is really not an Arab film, because we’re not interviewing Arabs. I think the best director to do a film interviewing Arabs, is an Arab, someone who is completely inside that community.

     

  • The film keeps on talking about “social justice” as the core of Judaism, but Israel is not associated at all with social justice. So, to what extent do you think Israel is harming Jews worldwide especially with this contradiction in hand?

     

    That is the contradiction and what young Jews are confronting. The social justice movement inside Judaism is something that I do not think was inherited in the religion, but it was very much a product of the 20th century. Young Jewish Americans were the ones who were fighting for unions and for poor people because they came from that community. What Israel has become is a complete contradiction of what Judaism has embraced, which was social justice. There are various people in the film who ask about the definition of Judaism and what does it mean to be a Jew. There are a lot of questions for the next generation in terms of identity, and I think the Jewish community is going through very serious questioning about what does it mean to be Jewish, what does that involve and what parts of their identity has or does not have to bring Zionism. All of them are anti-Zionists and they’re trying to go back to the roots of Judaism which is 1000 of years older than Zionism, which they believe has hijacked their community.

 

  • Tell us more about the research process you had to go through to prepare for the film?

     

    I have been involved with Palestinian human rights since the first Intifada, so from the Palestinian side I have followed this consistently since 1988. Through my research, I formulated questions and posted them to the interviewees, and the film you have is what they tell you. But then came the hard part about looking for Jewish activists, which I knew little about. There are a couple of things that I would want to mention. At Columbia university, there is a superb collection of posters, called the Palestine Poster Project with some 8,000 posters, and Mr. Dan Walsh who just began collecting those informally, had been exposed to my earlier films, and he was very welcoming and inviting me to use the collection. Then of course I worked with someone in Dubai, and we purchased moving footage which most films in the US would not be able to make that connection to get images and footage from the Arab side.

“Love, Theft and Other Entanglements” ... A Political Film that Talks No Politics

You could sit and talk to Muayad and Rami Alayan about their new film, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements, forever. The passion these two young brothers have for filmmaking is palpable. They describe as the “only motivation left for them to produce films in Palestine.” Their latest film screens at the Houston Palestine Film Festival (HPFF) this year, and tells the story of Moussa, a young Palestinian man who steals cars. His bad luck leads him to stealing a car that has a kidnapped soldier in the trunk. We sat with the Alayan brothers to talk about Moussa, the film, the production and the reviews they received worldwide.

HPFF: When did you start writing the idea and what inspired you to write it?

Muayad: The idea was to write a story about a young man who always runs away from his personal problems. Throughout his life, and while trying to resolve all these problems, he faces other sort of problems from the community around him. So the main idea was to focus on a regular person; someone who is not a hero and happens to have a lot of stressful issues in his life. At that time, when we were writing the script, the case of the kidnapped soldier was the biggest crisis that hit Palestinians. So, we thought, why not use that as the storyline? And that is what happened. Our protagonist is a young man who steals cars, and the last car he steals happens to have a kidnapped soldier in it, so he falls into the biggest problem of his life.

HPFF: How were you able to produce such a high quality film with such humble resources?

Rami: I think it was not only about humble resources in terms of production, but also when we were developing the script. So the main challenge was to write a film that we could produce ourselves. We were studying the whole script, scene by scene, to make sure that with the current circumstances and resources, we were able to produce it ourselves. One of the first decisions we were able to take was that we were going to be the producers of this film, because historically, Palestinian feature films were co-produced by European production partners, and even that was rare. The other decision we had to make was to choose the right people from around us to help finish this film. If you look at the film credits, you will notice many people taking more than one role; for example, I co-wrote the script and produced it, in addition to designing the set. I also played the role of the falafel vendor in the film, and the guy who delivered the blackmailing envelope.

Muayad: The whole crew is made of friends, relatives, and even some of my students in Bethlehem. Their main objective behind working on such a film is for such a model of production to work out, because we have all reached a point where we are fed up with the whole deteriorating film production scene in Palestine.

Rami: Let me give you a quick example. The editor who worked on our film is a very talented man and has worked on a number of short videos for NGOs, as well as on some documentaries. The European model of production is designed in a way that forces the filmmaker to spend half the budget in France. That’s why most productions use French editors to comply with these requirements. For our friend, it’s hard to work on any big production, and that’s why it’s important for him that such a production model succeeds.

HPFF: In the film, Moussa says: “We are not all heroes and we are not all fighters… I am a human being and I just want to live.” To what extent was the portrayal of a Palestinian man in your film different than many films that show him as the hero and the fighter --in other words, the perfect figure?

Muayad: For me, the idea of just being able to live in Palestine amid all difficulties and challenges is a big achievement. It was important for Rami and myself not to create another film with another stereotypical character from Palestine. We neither wanted to portray him as a fighter nor as a victim. The problem is that the audience already has certain expectations of any Palestinian film. For most of the people watching our film, Moussa probably is not a popular character; he is a thief, doing wrong things. However, deep inside, Moussa is a good person, but certain events in his life led him to do these bad things. Such contradicting issues in a human being are important in our lives and they make the character more realistic. In reality, no one can be oppressed throughout his life and no one can be an oppressor till the last day of his life.

HPFF: Why did you decide to shoot the film in black and white? And how did you come up with this creative title?

Rami: We decided to have the film in black and white before we even started writing. We wanted the film to belong to the fantasy world and to look like it’s part of a fairytale. In this film, we also wanted to distance ourselves from the usual productions we see coming from Palestine, which are either co-productions with Europe, or in a documentary style. It also works with the theme of having minimal production, given that we have minimum amount of resources. As for the title, I kind of liked it without knowing the reason for that, until our publicist in Berlin put it in a way that actually convinced me: the title of the film sums up Moussa’s life; love, theft and the other problems he falls in. So the title tried to summarize Moussa’s life without stating it in a direct way.

Muayad: Color tends to add a factor of realism to the picture. This is not what we wanted. It is true that the story and the characters are real, but at the same time, what occurs to them is magical and could be at one point unrealistic. It also helped in developing a sense of dark comedy in the film.

HPFF: You screened the film in Palestine and also in other parts of the world. How was the response different between the two audiences?

Muayad: Good question. I can tell you that the common thing is that people everywhere laughed. People in Ramallah and Bethlehem were so happy watching this film, because I believe they lost interest in seeing the image of Palestinians portrayed in a clichéd way. In our film, it was important to show how real Palestinian people are; they could make mistakes, they are not perfect, and they could fall in sins very easily. Outside Palestine, everyone was happily surprised at the story, saying they would have never expected something like this to come from Palestine.

Rami: One of the most interesting things I have heard about the film is that “this film is very political without touching on politics.”

Houston Palestine Film Festival 2016