Dir. Offenbacher's "TEA" Demystifies Syria, Unveils Its Beauty and Diversity, and Wins AFF's Noor Award for Best Documentary

13th Annual Arab Film Festival ("AFF") Held in California from October 15 to October 25
Dir. Offenbacher's "TEA" Demystifies Syria, Unveils Its Beauty and Diversity, and Wins AFF's Noor Award for Best Documentary

In California, October was a special month for Arab Americans. San Francisco's Mayor Gavin Newsom declared October "Arab Heritage month." Events celebrating this designation were held during the month. Another event, no less important, is the Arab Film Festival (AFF). From October 15 to October 25. Arab films from around the world were screened in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Los Angeles. In all forty- one Arab films were screened from throughout the world.

The opening night film was a Palestinian film, Pomegranates and Myrrh by Najwa Najjar. "A powerful story of love and freedom under repression and control, as described by AFF's program director, Daniella Jubran. Michele Shehadeh AFF's Executive Director Arab wrote in the event booklet "We are proud to present many great features, documentaries, and shorts highlighting this year's theme, "bridging cultures."… Two of our recently screened films, captain Abu Raed and Amreeka, were picked up for national distribution." When asked by the writer of this column if there is a need to hold a similar event, a Muslim Film Festival, to fight the backlash against Muslims, Mr. Shehadeh correctly noted that the discrimination "we face as people of color, as Arab, is not based on religion, it is based on skin tone and the fact that we are not white. When we are seen by non- Arabs they focus on our looks and act accordingly. "

The writer of this review attended a number of the screened films and enjoyed the most the film Tea on the Axis of Evil, affectionately called "TEA" by its director Jean Marie-Offenbacher's ("Jean"). The film takes the viewers throughout Syria from the Bedouins in the desert to the city dwellers with their Westernized lifestyle. Throughout the film, Jean manages to present lovely scenes from throughout Syria while having Syrians from different backgrounds speak for themselves about among other things marriage, love, religion and politics. The Forum and Link met with Jean asking her about her experience making the film:

Forum: When and how did you conceive of this project?
Jean: After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, the media and representatives of the Bush regime began to describe Syria and Iran in the same terms that they had used to justify that invasion. I was afraid that destabilization or invasion of Syria and Iran could proceed with no opposition from U.S. or European citizens because they were so saturated with fear and loathing of "Muslim hordes." Images of both countries provided by our media were illogical, but Syria was particularly a black hole. Iran exports its film and art, while an opaque veil hides Syria's beauty from the West. References to Syria as a "Muslim" country seemed to intentionally deny the fact that it has a secular government and is a home of Christianity. In the spring of 2004 I decided it would be a good idea to move there and experience what was real and what was propaganda.
Forum: What were the obstacles to this project?
Jean: I did not know anyone in Syria. I asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone in Syria, so by the time I arrived I had a lovely greeting party at the airport and people to help me find an apartment and settle in to Damascus and show me how to get buses, planes and trains to travel.
I did not speak Arabic. Many people in Syria speak English and French and I am a good communicator.
I had not worked in film for 7 years and the last projects I had edited were on 35mm film, so I had to learn to shoot and edit in digital media. Digital media is much easier to learn than traditional so I was way ahead of the curve on camera and in the edit.
Forum: . How long did it take you to finish it?
Jean: I was glacial at completion, because I only had a few donations, so I could not hire a great staff to edit and post production supervise and produce and direct and cast and raise more money…too many hats on my head and some of them were covering my eyes. I shot from September of 2004 until July of 2006, but never edited at all until early in 2006. To make matters worse, my Macintosh computer kept destroying my work until Apple finally admitted that it was a lemon about a year and a half into the edit.
Forum: Where was the first screening? What are the plans for future screenings? Did TEA win any awards?
Jean: The first screening was in Northern Ireland at the Foyle Festival when it was still a work in progress. It was the only film at the festival that was sold out – the other screenings were attended by only a handful of people…that was when I was started to feel confident that ordinary citizens were thirsting for information about Syria – at least in N. Ireland. TEA’s first real screening as a completed film was at Sonoma International Film Festival in April 2009. The screening was so overcrowded that about 50 people were standing throughout and many had to be turned away. Californians were curious about Syria!

The Dubai Int Film Fest requested a screener, but I have not heard if it is accepted. The UNA and Harvard Kennedy School women alumni are creating an event for TEA in Boston in March for International Women’s Day. An exciting upcoming event in April is the Southern Circuit Tour, in which I am paid to travel to small towns in the south to present the film to rural audiences.
The first award was a Special Mention for being poetic at Salento International Film Festival in Italy. The first real award was in the Arab Film Festival in California, where it won the Noor Award for Best Documentary. It was thrilling to be recognized at this event by this community – the other films there were great, better all around than any festival I have ever attended so I was amazed that I won.
Forum: Is TEA available for purchase? Where and for how much?
Jean: As the film is new I am not settled on distribution in North America. For international distribution, Long Tale represents TEA. Anyone interested in purchasing "Tea" should contact me through my website.

Forum: Any thoughts/memories from the making of TEA you would like to share?
Jean: I have so many. The fondest memory, so many...but there are few moments on earth that compare to nights under the darpotabani in the desert...One weekend I took two friends of mine with me to Palmyra. Though they had grown up in Damascus, they had never been to the desert. My Bedouin friends met us there and put us up in a hotel that they had built. It was a beautiful, fantasy hotel that a few months later was mysteriously destroyed. On the second day, two of my Bedouin friends and I rode 40 kilometers - me on horseback, them on motorcycle - to desert hotsprings. One of the heads of a nomadic Bedouin family heard that I rode very fast and challenged me to a stakes race set for the following spring. My friends from Damascus arrived and the springs were opened for us. When we returned to the fantasy hotel, a sheep had been freshly prepared into a delicious mensaf in our honor. Every moment of this weekend was pure magic.
A one-word favorite memory would be food and it is probably misspelled: "macduce"; I ate it for the first time on the morning of day 1 of Ramadan with the Jasm family in Deir Ez Zur. I could probably tell you 1001 tales from the experience of making TEA in Syria.
Note: Dir. Jean Marie Offenbacher contact information is: Re Orient Films jmpo@reorintfilms.org, www.reorientfilms.org. More information about the Arab Film Festival can be found at www.AFF.org

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