Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Surprising Truths of Syria: A Filmmakers Perspective

“We are terrorists; we kill visitors with caffeine” – so joke Syrians in the new film “Tea on the Axis of Evil.” The American-born and -bred director and producer of the film, Jean Marie Offenbacher, screened her documentary in its San Francisco premiere to a packed house at The Commonwealth Club July 13.

Following the film, she shared her insider’s look into the life of this complex, post-modern culture, addressing many of the deep-seated myths and stereotypes so many Westerners hold about Syria. In her film, citizens from a wide range of social and religious backgrounds discuss family values, education, politics, and religion. “Syria should be the model for change in the Middle East, but it becomes progressively less progressive as it is left in a diplomatic vacuum. The moderate voices are far more numerous and speak to the great possibility of peace in the region starting with Syria,” observes Offenbacher. “My film provides an intimate passage through Syria that gives voice to moderates as it seeks to build a bridge to greater understanding between our worlds.”

In comments following the screening, she observed, “There is a great deal of religious harmony in Syria. They are a people with strong family values who are very proud of their history. They have a real desire to hold on to their Arabness and their exoticism, which is a true part of their identity.” She said that surprisingly, not only is it extremely safe there, even in the big cities, but strangers are in fact hospitable and helpful, going out of their way to assist a lost or misguided visitor to the area. She also observed that Syrians themselves – even the conservatives – are terrified of Islamic extremists. Despite the vast economic disparities between the very wealthy and the very poor, they are a well-educated people, who export great numbers of doctors and engineers globally.

Offenbacher remarked that Syrians are angry about the stereotypes so many Westerners harbor of them hating Israel blindly. “What they do hate are certain policies of the Israeli government,” she added. When asked about their feelings toward Israel and America, Offenbacher said they responded, “We love America. We are much closer to the Jewish culture than most people.”
When Syria was admitted to President George W. Bush’s expanded “Axis of Evil,” Offenbacher moved there alone, to make her documentary to stimulate curiosity and counter the negative images that dominated the media. “Noting the high level of intolerance post 9/11, I began reflecting on the need for gentle, non-political exchange with members of communities in marginalized zones, to promote recognition of common grounds and understanding of cultural differences,” she said. “I chose Syria, since it was possibly the next target for a U.S.-led invasion.” Over the three years of filming, the government became more repressive and the fear of radical Islam grew.

Offenbacher is currently shooting a documentary in Algeria that explores the relationship between imposed identity and violence. Her other documentary work includes post-production on Ken Burns; “Thomas Hart Benton.” She also worked on several feature films including “Reversal of Fortune” starring Glenn Close, “American Heart” with Jeff Bridges and “The Rapture” featuring David Duchovny. Political artwork she created for WAC toured museums throughout Germany. She has also coordinated production in New York for BBC and Prisma Films. Offenbacher graduated from NYU with honors in Philosophy and Film.

More information is available at

(For an official view of Syria’s politics and place in the world, watch video of Syrian ambassador to the United States Imad Moustapha, who spoke to The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on November 7, 2007.)

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department


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