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How an American Woman Had Tea on the Axis of Evil

New America Media, Q&A, Suzanne Manneh Posted: Oct 29, 2009

Jean Marie Offenbacher knew little about Syria when it was added to the Axis of Evil. But she moved there to meet ordinary people and see what life was like. Her documentary Tea on the Axis of Evil screened recently at the Arab Film Festival. She spoke with NAMs Suzanne Manneh about it.

What made you want to make this film?

One friend of mine told me he had just visited Syria for the first time. He told me that the people there were particularly nice, and I was surprised to hear him describe it the way he did. I thought, What a great, radical idea for a film: documenting normal life in Syria, seeing how nice these people really were. I didnt know anything about it and the information in the media at the time was useless. Also Syria had been added to the Axis of Evil. I moved to Syria and was there for months at a time, traveling between Damascus and New York, to make this film. I wanted to go there to see what was really going on. There are such deeply ingrained stereotypes about the Middle East.

How was your experience while in production?

I went to the U.S. Embassy for help, asking for advice, who to interview to tell this story, but I was told that people would be afraid to talk to me. Obviously, that wasnt the case. Some people didnt take me seriously at first. Then they realized this was for real, but were still comfortable with me and wanted to be interviewed. I also got a lot of hate emails from people who I don't know, no one from Syria or the Arab world, accusing me of being anti-Semitic because I was making this film, but I was just making a happy film about Syria.

Your film being in English shows a very westernized Syria. You interview a painter who grew up on Bob Dylan and we see couples salsa dancing at parties.

Well, first of all, I chose English because I wanted to reach a larger audience. Many people in Syria speak English and are able to express themselves very well. I focused on characters I knew people could identify with. Sarah, the painter, is a young woman anyone can identify with, and when people see she is Syrian, they can think, How bad could the rest of this country be? I mean, she could be from Manhattan. Also, there is tolerance and interaction with groups amongst various socio-economic and religious backgrounds. People are tolerant and respecting of others who are different than they are. Some also listen to Bob Dylan and enjoy dancing salsa. Yet at the same time they are very Arab and proud of their identity.

You focus a lot on women in leadership roles.

There are such stupid ideas (in the U.S.) about Arab women. Both liberals and conservatives like keeping this idea that the Arab woman is oppressed, uneducated, powerless. But in this film, with Syria as the example, thats not the truth and it was important for me to show the truth. Look at Bouthania Shaaban, (Ph.D., a minister, political and media advisor, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee). Shaaban is a very powerful woman, but shes also pretty and feminine, and she hasnt pretended to be anything but an Arab woman to get her power. Also, at one point, when I was filming this, President Bashar Al-Assad visited China for a business trip and took a woman with him, Salwa Al Ansari, to represent Syria.

Yet there are other pressing issues, such as economic disparities, and the political climate, that you dont address.

I was interested in breaking stereotypes. There are several important issues that I believe deserve a lot of attention, but many issues like poverty, politics, terrorism are all that get covered and I wanted to take the mic away from that and show what the media wasnt covering.

How did Syrians respond to being seen as part of the Axis of Evil?

They hated it, but they have a very good sense of humor about it. They made a lot of jokes and were sarcastic, but down deeper, it was obvious that it hurt them. But it never influenced how they treated me. They evaluated me as an individual, not as an American.

Has your film been screened in Syria or anywhere else in the Arab world? If so, how have audiences reacted?

It has not, but I have been invited to the Dubai Film Festival in December. It has been screened throughout the U.S. and Europe and I always get a super positive response from the viewers, Arab and non-Arab. There have been some Arab viewers who were disappointed or upset because the film was in English and that I was making this film as an outsider, but my response is nobody cares what Arabs think of the Arab world -- they wont believe this film if it were made by a Syrian. The fact that some American woman was able to make this film essentially all by herself shows that what we thought we knew about Syria is a lie.

I want to make a shorter version of this same film, an educational version and hopefully have it shown in U.S. schools. I think it would be very useful in further dispelling the media myths.

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