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.