Why A Jewish Film­maker De­cided To Tell A Mus­lim Amer­i­can Story

Forward Magazine - - Food - By David L. Ulin

‘I try to stay away from the idea that the film is go­ing to do some­thing.’

At the very end of “Dalya’s Other Coun­try,” a young woman named Dalya — the doc­u­men­tary’s name­sake — at­tends the Jan­uary protests at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port against the pres­i­dent’s first travel ban. Ac­com­pa­nied by her two broth­ers and wear­ing a hi­jab, she car­ries a piece of poster board on which she has writ­ten in bold let­ters, “Syr­ian and Mus­lim AF.” The im­age is ar­rest­ing, not only for what it says about the world in which we find our­selves, but also for how it traces the arc of Dalya’s de­vel­op­ment.

“Dalya turned 18 the day be­fore the elec­tion,” said the film’s di­rec­tor, Ju­lia Meltzer, “and I filmed her fam­ily on Elec­tion Day. It was the most dev­as­tat­ing shoot­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of my life.” That’s say­ing some­thing; Meltzer’s most re­cent film, “The Light in Her Eyes,” por­trayed a re­li­gious school for girls in Damascus in the pe­riod just prior to the Arab Spring.

What “The Light in Her Eyes” and “Dalya’s Other Coun­try” have in com­mon is a de­sire to up­end our pre­con­cep­tions, be­gin­ning with the per­spec­tive of the film­maker her­self. “Ul­ti­mately,” Meltzer ac­knowl­edged, “be­ing in Syria as a Jewish per­son, walk­ing into a mosque, I had to con­front a ques­tion: Why should I make that film? First of all, I had to lie about who I was, be­cause if I ever told any­one I was Jewish, they would as­sume they knew where I was com­ing from. I am one small per­son in this much larger sit­u­a­tion, and I can­not change it. But I can change peo­ple’s think­ing, maybe, even for a tiny mo­ment, if I can tell a story that is open, that lets peo­ple see this world and be in it, without judg­ment” — hence the de­ci­sion in “Dalya’s Other Coun­try” to avoid the footage of Elec­tion Day in fa­vor of a more proac­tive de­noue­ment. “I was so angry,” Meltzer said, re­fer­ring to the pres­i­dent, “that my film was be­ing taken over, so I de­cided I wasn’t go­ing to end with him. Then the Mus­lim ban was an­nounced, and Dalya went to her first protest. And I thought, this is where it has to end.”

The scene of the protest is in keep­ing with the in­ten­tions of the doc­u­men­tary, which is to por­tray “the per­spec­tive of a young Mus­lim woman right now.” Dalya is a vivid sub­ject, not least be­cause she doesn’t fit any stereo­type. She is an im­mi­grant, not a refugee, a mid­dle-class Syr­ian who left Aleppo with her mother, Ru­dayna, after the civil war took root there in 2012. Ar­riv­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia at 14, she was sent to a Catholic girl’s school, where she be­gan the ar­du­ous process of learn­ing how to nav­i­gate two cul­tures: the de­vout Is­lam of her fam­ily, and the more sec­u­lar so­ci­ety to which she had come. “She came of age,” Meltzer said, “in the fully im­mi­grant so­ci­ety of Los An­ge­les.” As an ex­am­ple, she cites Dalya’s ninth-grade best friend, a Korean-Pales­tinian girl

who in­tro­duced her to Korean soap op­eras and, in one of the film’s early scenes, helped her find a veg­e­tar­ian op­tion at a Korean fast­food place. It’s an­other af­fect­ing mo­ment, re­veal­ing Dalya and her friend for what they are: two high school stu­dents test­ing the bounds of their in­de­pen­dence, spend­ing a day at the mall.

Such a sense of daily life may seem un­ex­cep­tional at first glance, but for Meltzer that’s the co­nun­drum. “For me,” she in­sisted, “I try to stay away from the idea that the film is go­ing to do some­thing. What it’s do­ing is shar­ing a story that’s not be­ing told.” When we think of Syria, we think of con­flict, what Meltzer calls “men fight­ing.” But where are the women’s nar­ra­tives? “Women are clean­ing up, tak­ing care of the chil­dren,” she said, “but these sto­ries aren’t told.” Meltzer was re­fer­ring not only to Dalya or her mother when she said that, but also, in some es­sen­tial way, to her­self. Part of the im­pulse to make “Dalya’s Other Coun­try” was the birth of the di­rec­tor’s daugh­ter, which lim­ited her abil­ity to travel or to be away from home. “My time was lim­ited,” she said, “for some of the same rea­sons that Dalya and her mother had been lim­ited, which drew me closer in.” “Dalya’s Other Coun­try,” then, of­fers at its heart a do­mes­tic drama, in which the themes — iden­tity, as­sim­i­la­tion, education, ad­vance­ment — are rec­og­niz­able not be­cause they are Syr­ian or Amer­i­can, but rather be­cause they rep­re­sent human as­pi­ra­tion in the broad­est sense.

The no­tion of look­ing be­neath what may ap­pear, on the sur­face, like dif­fer­ences to un­cover com­mon­al­i­ties has long driven Meltzer’s work. Raised in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia — in 1930, her great­grand­fa­ther, a clock sales­man turned de­part­ment store owner, built the East­ern Columbia Build­ing, down­town Los An­ge­les’s blue terra-cotta-tiled master­piece — she spent time in New York in the 1990s work­ing with a group called Cre­ative Time. The group staged in­stal­la­tions in un­likely cor­ners of the city as a way of push­ing au­di­ences beyond their com­fort zones. When she re­turned to Cal­i­for­nia she be­gan to use bill­boards to present po­lit­i­cal text or images, in­clud­ing one by her part­ner, David Thorne, that read, “I will be happy when the end­less war is o….” The idea was to seize, or rein­vent, a ter­ri­tory for the pub­lic ex­pres­sion of sen­ti­ments that, in main­stream cul­ture, any­way, were easy to dis­re­gard. “All the projects res­onated with want­ing to speak and not be­ing able to,” Meltzer re­called, “or not hav­ing peo­ple hear, and there was some­thing about these mes­sages on a bill­board. In Los An­ge­les, our pub­lic spa­ces are our large boule­vards.” A sim­i­lar in­ten­tion mo­ti­vates not only her film work, but also the projects she de­vel­ops for Clock­shop (the name is an homage to her great-grandfather), the artist-run not-for-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion she founded in 2004.

Re­cently, Clock­shop pro­duced “Ra­dio Imagination,” a year­long cel­e­bra­tion of the pi­o­neer­ing science fic­tion writer Oc­tavia But­ler, a Pasadena na­tive whose pa­pers are held at the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary there. “I read,” Meltzer said, “that the Hunt­ing­ton had her ar­chive. And im­me­di­ately I thought: ‘Who’s go­ing to get to see that ar­chive? It’s the hard­est ar­chive to get into in the coun­try.’ So I thought, ‘Okay, how do we open up that space?” The project in­volved com­mis­sion­ing work from South­ern Cal­i­for­nia writ­ers and artists, in­clud­ing po­ets Fred­er­ick Moten and Robin Coste Lewis. The lat­ter’s de­but col­lec­tion, “The Voy­age of the Sable Venus,” won a 2015 Na­tional Book Award. Pro­grams in­cluded in­stal­la­tions, con­ver­sa­tions and ex­hibits, all of them in­tended to show­case But­ler’s in­flu­ence, not only in terms of genre but also in re­gard to place — look­ing be­neath the sur­face again, steer­ing us away from pre­con­cep­tions.

For Meltzer, it all comes back to the un­ex­pected — or, per­haps more ac­cu­rately, to com­plex­ity. Ev­ery­thing is more than we imag­ine, and ev­ery land­scape ripe to be ex­plored. This is the def­i­ni­tion of en­gage­ment, whether we’re watch­ing a film or at­tend­ing a moon­light read­ing in a field in the mid­dle of a city, the sort of en­vi­ron­ment we might not no­tice oth­er­wise. In that sense, Dalya rep­re­sents a vivid case in point. “We al­ways teach them the right way and let them choose,” her mother says part­way through the film, de­scrib­ing her chil­drea­r­ing strat­egy. The doc­u­men­tary bears this out, as we watch Dalya go from be­ing a shy and in­se­cure ado­les­cent, new to the United States, to a con­fi­dent young woman com­fort­able as both a Mus­lim and an Amer­i­can. Syr­ian and Mus­lim AF, in­deed. This is a com­ing-ofage story, but even more, it is an ex­pres­sion of hu­man­ity. “The life, the drama, just un­folded,” Meltzer said, “and I was al­lowed in.”

David L. Ulin is a 2015 Guggen­heim Fel­low and the au­thor, most re­cently, of “Side­walk­ing: Com­ing to Terms With Los An­ge­les” (Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2015).


HER STORY: Ju­lia Meltzer’s film ‘Dalya’s Other Coun­try’ tells of a Syr­ian teenager mak­ing her way in Amer­ica.


PAY­ING TRIBUTE: Meltzer’s Clock­shop or­ga­ni­za­tion hon­ors her grandfather.

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