- Published on Sunday, 30 September 2012 03:38
- Category: Culture
“There we were, climbing on top of this 30 foot concrete wall: right leg facing Israel, left leg dangling over Palestine–security cameras whirring away.” How did a couple of American kids end up on the fault line of the Middle-East’s defining conflict? “Just one of those ‘one-thing-led to-another’ sort of deals,” says Sohrab Pirayesh, 30, with a smirk and a few scars on his face.
Five years ago, like many young people stuck behind a desk in a tall glass building, Sohrab was growing restless. As a result of his parents’ tumultuous relationship, Sohrab, born in Iran but raised in America, had always been the new kid in school dreaming of making movies. Smart, and a bit cocky, he studied film at the University of California, Berkeley, before making his way to Los Angeles to pursue his dream. That’s when he got stuck behind that desk in the marketing department of Fox Broadcasting.
“I’ve always had this restlessness. I never knew where it came from, just that I needed to push forward.” At Fox, young and brimming with energy he felt alienated in the insular old media word. And so one morning, on a scheme cooked up with a colleague during their lunch hour, he fired off a manifesto to Rupert Murdoch, Peter Chernin and a host of other bigwigs at News Corp accusing them of missing a huge opportunity with the web. He then quit and started a new company focused on producing original web content.
The first project would be a series of short web videos about global issues. It was supposed to be a guide for young people by young people, bringing context to things like Darfur, malaria, global warming etc. On a late night call with his college friend Todd, the discussion led to Israel and Palestine. After some impassioned but clichéd arguments it became obvious that neither of knew much about what was going, thus making it perfect as the subject for the pilot episode, tentatively titled WTF: Jerusalem.
“Todd had just finished law school and wanted to take this celebratory trip to like Cancun or someplace, and I, to the chagrin of his girlfriend, slowly convinced him to come to the Middle East instead,” he laughs. Though Sohrab says Todd is an atheist, Todd’s mom (Christian) and dad (Jewish) were also divorced. That along with what Sohrab calls his own “closeted Muslimness,” added a nice symmetry to the film. And so, on a seeming dare, they bought an HD video camera, and soon found themselves on a plane to Israel.
“Though I’m an American citizen, I was born in Iran,” Sohrab says, a fact that didn’t escape the attention of Israeli security when he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. He was interrogated for three and a half hours. “I had a panic attack that night. I dreamt that soldiers broke into the hotel room and arrested me. What the f--- had I got myself into?” Soon though, things settled down. They walked around Jerusalem, talked to people–students, cab drivers, shopkeepers, tourists, and pilgrims. They got a sense of daily life. They visited the Wailing Wall, and the Yad Vashem holocaust museum where Todd looked up his great grandmother, a holocaust survivor. They even tried to visit the Al Aqsa mosque, though Sohrab wasn’t allowed inside because he says, “I apparently didn’t looked Muslim enough.”
Then, a friend of his cousin, who was volunteering in Palestine, heard about their trip on Facebook and contacted them. “After the interrogation, we were hesitant to go into the West Bank or Gaza. We figured we’d stay in Jerusalem, get enough footage for our little web video and leave.” But now that they had a guide, they seemed to peer pressure each other into pushing further. As it turned out, this friend wasn’t volunteering in a tourist spot in Bethlehem, or some Israeli secured settlement, he was in Nablus, the heart of the resistant movement in Occupied Palestine; a place that Israel was blanketing with drones and regularly infiltrating with military incursions in the search of security threats.
“It’s hard talking about it now. We went in sort of naïve. There was a part of me that really thought I could figure it out and fix it, which is so ridiculous, ‘cause who the f--- am I? It’s this American idealism to rid the world of conflict, mixed with this unresolved shame from being a child of divorce. You add that to the fact that I’m an Iranian Muslim with a very liberal western mindset living in post-9/11 America, and you get a sense of how attractive and terrifying the whole situation felt.” It didn’t help that they were so clueless going in. “We get a very surface view of that conflict here in America. Being there really opens your eyes to how ignorant and naive we really can be,” he says.
After they got out of the West Bank, they shipped their footage home to avoid any additional scrutiny at the airport. Soon Todd started his new job as an attorney, and Sohrab went back to work in advertising. “We were pretty shell-shocked. All I’d work at some ad agency then at night I’d just hack away at the mountain of footage I had shot. Mostly I went in circles. I just wasn’t grown up enough to tell the story I needed to. Also I was depressed. The restlessness was still there, but now I had this feeling of helplessness too.”
It took five years for Sohrab to finish editing what became a feature-length film (an inevitability he jokes given that he was always more interested in Terrence Malick movies than viral videos). Most of that time, he says, was spent finding himself and sorting through his issues.
The editing complete, Sohrab and Todd have just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise finishing funds for The Jerusalem Syndrome. "The film’s essentially done," he explains, "We just need to compose a score, mix the audio, then prep for festivals, screenings, and online distribution.”
As for the title, it's a medically recognized ailment, Sohrab explains, where people visiting Jerusalem, walk in the footsteps of prophets and soon come to believe they actually are prophets. “They think God’s talking to them, and He’s sent them to fix the world. This happens to hundreds of people every year.”
While he never thought God was talking to him, when he started this process Sohrab really did want to do something big. The words “change the world” even showed up a few times in that manifesto he once fired off to Rupert Murdoch. “I thought if I did something big, I could quiet this restlessness inside.” But after growing up a little, he’s learned the world doesn’t need him to change it. “It just needs me to grow up. To take responsibility for myself and to tell my story the best I can.” While The Jerusalem Syndrome won’t change the world, it’s an honest, engaging and occasionally funny portrait of what it’s like to be young, restless and in search of your identity - even if your identity straddles the concrete wall that separates East from West.
Sohrab Pirayesh is a screenwriter and filmmaker who focuses on themes relating to identity, faith, technology and the synthesis of eastern and western values and culture.