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The Jerusalem Syndrome: How One Aspiring Filmmaker Brought the Personal to the Professional, If Not Peace to the Middle East

By Sohrab Pirayesh | Indiewire October 16, 2012 at 11:30AM

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.
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"The Jerusalem Syndrome" still

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.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit, The Jerusalem Syndrome, Kickstarter , Filmmaker Toolkit: Crowdfunding, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries