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Dear Mr President: Israelis and Palestinians Take a Road Trip

Debra Sugarman's documentary, Dear Mr. President, is about an arts camp she founded in New Mexico designed to bring Israeli and Palestinian youth together.  I met Debra on the set of a documentary called The Voices Project; she was the production designer and I was the costume designer, and she helped me build new garment racks, alter dresses, and preserve my sanity.  Afterwards, I asked her some questions about Dear Mr. President and the arts camp that she had founded. You started an arts camp for Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, and Israeli Jews. Why did you do this and what has that process been like? My family all gave time and money to improving Jewish life or to Israel. So I learned from that role model: we should give back to the community. I started doing it when I was very young, as a teenager. I worked specifically with mentally and emotionally disturbed kids. I quit doing it because it was really wiping me out and started doing what I am good at, which is art. Then, I began thinking about what I wanted to do to give back, and I really wanted to connect with something that I knew, which was Israel. My family is from Israel, my grandfather was one of the first settlers of Israel, and he worked for the Haganah. So, since I don’t identify as being a Jew religiously at all, but I relate to it as being my ethnicity, I decided that the best use of my time would be to find a way to connect the youth of Israel and Palestine. I think that teenagers are tomorrow’s leaders— I know they are in fact. So the decision became, how do I work with boys and girls that are teenagers without them being attracted to each other, when they should be breaking down barriers between their enemy cultures, not thinking “oh they’re hot.” So that’s how the camp became all girls, and I also think that both cultures under-serve women, though that’s changing a lot. Then the idea of using art and dialogue at a camp came from my life experience being an artist, and having art ameliorate healing in my life as a child. What was the inspiration for the film Dear Mr. President? The girls and I watched a film that a guy that was volunteering at the camp had produced. It was about a guy on a road trip across the US looking for this doctor, who later told him that he wouldn’t live long. So we watched Daniel’s film and afterwards, we talked about going in an RV next summer and calling the film some funny, superfluous title like “Looking for Daddy” or something. That’s how the seed was planted. From there I just thought that we should create a mini version of the camp, and used the RV as a stage. Then my friend Devon came up with the idea that we should deliver a message to the president, and that’s how we came up with the title Dear Mr.President. So the goal became to go from one side of the US to the other with these girls, and to meet up with the president. On the trip, one of the girls, an Israeli Jew, asks another, a Palestinian, “Why would I trade places with you? Why would I choose to suffer?” Do you think this mentality is at the core of the conflict?
First, I want to say that Amit (Israeli and Jewish), who said that, to Hameen(who lives in the West Bank), didn’t mean it the way that it sounded. As you saw, she made amends with Hameen and let her know that. But Amit was a very brilliant girl, all of those girls were very bright, and her point is well-taken, so in answer to your question I think it’s a kernal, it’s not the core issue. But yes, who wants a perceived enemy to be stronger than they? In your trip across the country with the five girls, you visited many historical sites, including Wounded Knee. What were your reasons for this, and how were the girls affected by these landmarks? I knew that I was going to have to stop in South Dakota for a million reasons, not the least of which is the history of native culture. Stopping at Wounded Knee, I felt like we had the potential to discover something about a culture that had been obliterated, but that still exists. When Amit read what was on the plaque at Wounded Knee, it really resonated with the Palestinian girls. That feeling of entrapment and of capture. It was what they feared most: that their land, their lives, and their families’ lives could be gone completely. You have said that young women will make very good leaders. How do you think the women in your film can change politics in the Middle East, and why do you think that they would make good leaders? One thing that happened with the camp, and consequently happened with the girls, was that they learned what it takes to build a new paradigm. When I picked the girls in the film, I got very lucky because all of the girls, were incredibly, uniquely intelligent. I think that when given the opportunity, young women, and the female gender in general, become multi-taskers. If we go the route of say, my mother, she was finishing up school, answering the phone, making meals, putting the baby to bed, being a good wife— I mean we are just genetically pre-disposed to multi-tasking really well. We haven’t been given the largest leadership roles, say, in the United States, or in our generation, but it’s really changing. It’s also changing over in Israel. I think that things take time. We’re talking about huge cultural shifts. How do you get a male-dominated society to get in touch with their feminine energy enough so that a woman runs their country or their world? How does that happen?

More on Debra Sugarman

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