bethlehem to brooklyn: breaking the surface

Official Selection - Hoboken International Film Festival 2010 Official Selection - Hoboken International Film Festival 2010 Screened - Second Hand Film Festival 2011

Have you ever shivered when a Black teenage man slipped into the Subway seat next to you and scrambled to change seats? Have you ever watched CNN footage of a Muslim teenage man angrily jabbing the air and shouting for jihad and wondered when he’ll slip on a suicide jacket?

bethlehem to brooklyn: breaking the surface uncovers the world as it is for these teenagers, passionately conveying the resilience of both Black and Hispanic American and Palestinian teenagers struggling with the adverse circumstances in their daily lives. Through their writing, it becomes clear these teenagers share a fear of failure, peer pressure, and an uncertain future, overwhelmed by the call to revolutionize the environments in which they live. Through performing their writing, these teenagers demonstrate that they and their peers are not victims or predators but an integral, vulnerable part of the solution, dispelling misunderstandings and rectifying misconceptions.

Fran Tarr is a novelist, screenwriter, documentary film maker and Education Coordinator for the prestigious Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, which focuses on introducing NYC students to the Practical Aesthetic Acting Technique and extraordinary theater. She was also the Education Director for the Women’s Project’s Ten Centuries of Women Playwrights program, which teaches playwrighting in the NYC public schools, for the past 14 years. With Ten Centuries Fran has been working with Jackie Leopold, a determined and dedicated English teacher at Independence High School, an alternative high school for students 17-21 years of age. What can she say? Working with Jackie’s attitude-laden, street savvy kids to reach into the recesses of those places they carefully protect to write original plays of phenomenal honesty and dignity has been a mind-altering experience. More

It is this experience and a recent, life-changing adventure that has inspired Fran’s documentary film—a story of two teens from divergent parts of the world, yet joined through the challenges they each face to survive the brutalities of those worlds. Here is Fran’s story:

On a sunny Monday Fran stood for the first time on a dusty, bullet-riddled Aida Camp road in the Palestinian Territories, the Wall of Separation at her back; yet, when she entered the crumbling Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center, fifteen eager teenage faces smiled up at her, and thus began their creative journey. Their first discussion was humorous, thoughtful, provocative, and inspirational. It began a particular kind of collaboration in which these teens chose to share their resilience with Fran. Husam, his baseball cap on backwards, the scabs from rubber bullets showing on his neck, worked so diligently, so enthusiastically on his monologue that she couldn’t help but wish to clone him, scatter him across the world. His monologue was about 65 year-old Hammad, a man convincing a casting director that though Hammad may have spent his life as a poor laborer, he’s the perfect choice for a romantic comedy actor. Husam’s monologue poignantly and cleverly intertwined fate and destiny, and mesmerized his audience. Fran congratulated him, “Today Aida, tomorrow Egyptian TV!” He shyly said, “I always felt like a failure at writing, my teachers told me I’m a failure. Then you (Fran) arrived and I learned I can write and feel proud.” The other teenagers nodded in silent agreement. She felt so humble. Invited back by Al-Rowwad Founder and Director, Dr. Abdel-Fattah Abu-Srour that summer of 2006, a second group of teens created a full-length play, Freedom, Peace, Justice, Good Life, to the thunderous applause and awe of their audience. One parent told Fran, “People believe these are ordinary children, capable of accomplishing nothing . . . but look!

Cut to the United States. The students sitting in Jackie’s fifth floor classroom grappling with circumstances like pregnancy, problems with the law, failure, abuse, disease and lack of family support accompanying them. Last semester, Michelle, who was called a slut and known as the school “ho”, wrote and performed a monologue about the rape she had endured. It took time and patience and trust to bring Michelle to the place where she could write about her experience. Michelle’s payoff? Her peers in the audience listened rapturously, awed by her honesty and courage, murmuring, “Don’t worry, I got your back.” They then leapt to their feet to give her a standing ovation. It may sound like Husam and Michelle are worlds apart; yet, through their writing it’s clear these kids share a fear of failure, peer pressure, confusion about the future while wondering if they can change the environments they live in.

With a media deaf to the inner voices, tears and fears of so many issues and individuals, bethlehem to brooklyn: breaking the surface is even more relevant. These teenagers demonstrate that they and their peers are not victims or predators but an integral, vulnerable part of the solution to dispel misunderstandings and rectify misconceptions.

As Fran develops this project, it is her goal that this gritty documentary will shake up the stereotypes of Palestinian jihadis and American gangstas. The film will focus on teenagers from New York City and Bethlehem. The audience will get to know these teens intimately as they see the shocking circumstances from which each comes and returns to on a daily basis. The audience will watch them as they navigate a threatening world, share their very human and universal dreams, fears and hopes, and balance the push-and-pull of their peers as they become transformed through the process of writing and performing their original work. The film can’t help but encourage the audience to wonder and marvel about how it is that some human beings find the resiliency to channel their dark side into a mechanism to move forward.

aidaAl-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center

Al-Rowwad Cultural and Theater Training Center is an independent Palestinian center for artistic, cultural, and theater training for children in Aida Camp. The Center’s mission is to provide a safe and healthy environment to help children creatively discharge the stress of the war conditions they are forced to live in. This creative approach is, “a beautiful resistance,” according to Dr. AbdelFattah Abu-Srour, Al-Rowwad’s founder and director. Dr. Abu-Srour is an internationally acclaimed playwright and director.

independenceIndependence High School

Independence High School Tenth Avenue Campus is an alternative New York City Public High School serving the needs of young adults who have not met with success in their previous high schools. Independence High School is comprised of 340 students, 17-21 years of age, from poor socioeconomic communities in New York City. Its mission is to help the students develop self-esteem and achieve academic excellence as they earn their high school diplomas.