I grew up wanting to make movies because I dreamed of creating a world that made sense to me — a world where even the most overwhelming conflict could be resolved, and a lesson could always be learned. So, naturally, when I finally struck out to make my first film, I ended up in the Middle East.
This is not surprising. As an Iranian-American, all my life I’ve been torn between disparate sides. My Iranian mother and father spent the bulk of their 20-year marriage at each other’s throats. Unable to take the chaos, my older sister went back to Iran to get away from them, and I, a bit player in the saga, was powerlessly left to hope that I could bring these warring parents, whom I loved dearly, together.
We moved around a lot: Tehran, Los Angeles, Toronto and Pittsburgh. Every September, I was the new kid with the unpronounceable name and suspect background. In the second grade, during Operation Desert Storm, a schoolmate told everyone I was an Iraqi. Nervous that the mob would turn against me, I hurriedly explained in my broken English the geo-political and cultural differences between Iran and Iraq — that Iran too had been in a war against Saddam and as such my American friends and I were more alike than different. The crowd dissipated that day, but my unease did not.
Lacking a sense of control at home, I dreamed of making films. Films would allow me to reconstruct the world as a utopia, where people weren’t so much overwhelmed by their circumstances but more active participants in their destinies. I would create a world where all conflict and suffering was a down payment towards wisdom. My characters would do as I wrote because I was convinced that people couldn’t be trusted to do the right thing on their own.
After graduation from Berkeley and a stint as an art director at Fox Broadcasting in Los Angeles, I was searching for a path and decided to create a series of short web videos about important issues. They were supposed to be a guide for young people by young people that brought context to things like Darfur, malaria, global warming, etc. On a late-night call with my college friend Todd, the discussion led to Israel and Palestine. I had always avoided this issue as too thorny for a term-paper subject. Now, though, given the growing conflict between Islam and the West post-9/11, I was drawn to it.
While Todd’s an atheist, his mom is Christian, his dad’s Jewish and they are also divorced. That, along with my closeted Muslimness, would add a nice symmetry to the project I was now cooking up. Todd had just finished law school and wanted to take a celebratory trip to Cancun or someplace, and I, to the chagrin of his girlfriend, slowly convinced him to come to the Middle East instead. Undeterred by the recklessness of my scheme, we bought an HD video camera and soon were on a plane to Israel.
I had decided to turn the Middle East conflict into a film, and like any good film hero, I would find a way to resolve the conflict.
Despite being an American, the fact that I was born in Iran didn’t escape the attention of Israeli security at Ben Gurion Airport. I was interrogated for three-and-a-half hours. Later that night, I had a panic attack. I dreamt that Israeli Tom Cruise and the IDF pre-crime unit broke into our hotel room and arrested me. I may have felt a little uneasy about my identity in America, but this was something entirely different — I was not welcome in Israel. Still, since turning back wasn’t an option, we forged ahead.
Without much of an agenda, we walked around Jerusalem and talked to people: students, cab drivers, shopkeepers, tourists and pilgrims. While filming them, we got a sense of their daily lives. We visited the Wailing Wall and the Yad Vashem museum, where Todd looked up his great-grandmother, a Holocaust survivor. We even tried to visit the Al Aqsa mosque, but I wasn’t allowed inside because I didn’t seem Muslim to the burly, prickly man that guarded it. Despite some bumps, in Jerusalem the conflict seemed surmountable. Jews and Arabs for the most part got along or stayed out of each other’s way. While there was tension, society functioned. Peace seemed possible.
Then, a friend of my cousin who was volunteering in Palestine heard about our trip on Facebook and contacted us. 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, with a guide unexpectedly springing up, it seemed as if destiny had other plans. This friend, it turned out, wasn’t volunteering in a tourist spot in Bethlehem or at some Israeli-secured settlement — he was in Nablus, the heart of the resistance movement in occupied Palestine.
The deeper we went into the West Bank, the more unlikely a resolution to the conflict became. Our old views faded into the drone-covered night. What we began to see was a systematic cycle of violence and hopelessness. It started with kids raised in meager refugee camps or wandering through garbage dumps looking for things to sell. It led to bitter, unemployed young people aimlessly trudging the enclosed cities and towns. It finally ended with the hundreds of faces on the martyr posters that blanketed the walls of the camps, the old city and the cemeteries. Never Forgive, the posters read. Never Forget.
This was not a problem on the verge of being fixed. This was an institutionalized dehumanization machine generations in the making. Everyone we met was desperately trying to make some sense of a senseless situation.
We spoke to Mahmoud, a volunteer ambulance driver. During the second intifada he forged into live skirmishes to provide medical aid to bleeding and maimed friends and neighbors, both innocent and gun-wielding. Surely traumatized by his experiences, Mahmoud refused to give up or grab a gun and instead joined Project Hope, an NGO that for a few hours a day provides children in refugee camps with education and a semblance of normal life.
We spoke to Israeli soldiers, many boys and girls younger than us. Some complained about how the army had taken their lives, while others held on to a sense of purpose: if they weren’t in the West Bank, they reasoned, the Israeli settlers and the Palestinians would tear each other apart.
We spoke to a recently discharged soldier who was unable to stay silent about what he was asked to do in his country’s name. He and some comrades put on a photo exhibition showing the moral price he felt all Israelis were paying in order to maintain the occupation.
By the end of it, I felt just as lost as them. I had gone to Israel and Palestine looking for peace. I had hoped that if I could tease out a hint of a solution to this world-defining conflict I could unify the disparate elements of my identity: my American idealism, my Iranian pride, my Israeli drive to forge ahead and my Palestinian resolve in difficult times. Instead, I realized I was fractured to my core. No trip, no film, no grand achievement could heal me with so much anger, fear, hurt and trauma covered up by ego, strength and ambition. I was broke under a mountain of footage and had no idea how to climb out.
The five-year road from there to here has not been easy.
The reason people write films, even most documentaries, before shooting them became apparent as I logged the 40+ hours of footage. All of the work I had skipped by rushing into production — namely, working out a narrative — had now fallen on my shoulders with amplified impact. My first true edit was strictly chronological. Seven hours of this happened, then that. After three years of editing at nights while working at an ad agency during the day, I slowly whittled it down, first to three hours, then to a tight 90 minutes.
I thought I was finished. I posted as such on Facebook. But after showing it to a few people, it became clear that while the subjects in my film struggled with the conflict, I was hiding behind the objectivity of my camera. The film had no resolution. We left the conflict as we had found it. No progress was made. More troubling was the film’s point of view. I had walked the fine line of not offending anyone, but, despite the work’s many merits, I had made an impersonal, uninteresting film.
In my non-film life, I started seeing a similar pattern. I was in a relationship with an amazing woman, yet I struggled to commit because I was afraid I’d only end up hurting her. I started a small design agency, yet I hid behind a single difficult client, afraid that if I sacrificed the account I wouldn’t recover. My relationships with my parents and my sister were also deteriorating — I maintained no boundaries and harbored years of unexpressed anger.
In my life and in my film, I was trying to be everything to everyone. As I had traveled through Israel, I came to admire the ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ drive and ingenuity of a people that had built a thriving country in 60 years. But traveling through Palestine, I had also seen the generosity and resiliency of a people living through an extremely difficult situation. I was American, but also Iranian. I was my mother’s son, but also my father’s. A slew of seemingly mutually exclusive identities and emotions lived in me concomitantly, and with that complicated jumble came mountains of assumed expectations impossible to live up to.
Being yourself — wholly, genuinely — is a sacrifice. You must sacrifice all the things you are not to be the thing that you are. Having dumped all my money into a film I was not proud of, and living a life I was not enjoying, I decided to begin the difficult work of dealing with my issues and letting go of all the things I was not. I started working with a counselor, writing and attending group meetings. In that process, I slowly began to grieve and work through the unprocessed traumas and resentments I had built up throughout my life, the incorrect assumptions I had made about myself and about the world as a hurt child.
An unexpected, and very useful, thing happened. I began to see the connections between my own life story and the evolving narrative of the film. I started to see the people in the film not as representatives of their nationality but as individuals dealing with the same struggles of identity, helplessness and anger that I was, albeit in a much more intense scenario. It became clear that the only honest thing I could do was to acknowledge this connection by inserting myself into the narrative — an admittedly risky gambit that could, in fact, finally give it a relatable meaning for anyone watching it.
This breathed new life into the film, transforming scenes that once seemed like detached news segments into emotionally charged interactions that worked on multiple levels. And a subtext emerged. My time in Jerusalem became a look at how I used my old hurts to drive forward, without ever quite being able to outrun the past. My journey into the West Bank became a trip into my subconscious — a hurt, angry, traumatized child dealing with a conflict too grand for him to resolve. Exploring Tel Aviv, with its beaches and raves, became an attempt to forget and deny the difficult realities of what I had witnessed. The fractured land became a metaphor for my identity.
While in its first incarnation the film could only end, like the conflict, unresolved, with each character a mere victim of circumstance, by reframing the film I was free to end it in a way that pointed to progress in my own journey if not progress on a geopolitical scale. By finally taking personal responsibility instead of foolishly trying to solve the outside world’s problems — just as many of the people we had met had done — I was able to find a sense of peace, and purpose, as a human being, and as a filmmaker.
With the new edit complete, I’ve been rejuvenated. Unchained from my lonesome editing station, I’ve now re-entered the world. Recently, Todd and I launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the final post-production costs of composing a score, grading the color and mixing the audio. While we’re not yet at our goal, the warmth and support we’ve received has been more than I could have imagined over these past five years. Finally, I’ve created a hopeful film, not by reconstructing the world as a childish utopia but by accepting it on its own terms.
Sohrab Pirayesh is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and filmmaker who focuses on themes relating to identity, faith, technology and the synthesis of Eastern and Western values and culture. “The Jerusalem Syndrome” is his first feature-length film.