“There we were, climbing on top of this 30 foot concrete wall: right leg facing Israel, left leg dangling over Palestine–security cameras whirring away.” How did these two American kids barely out of college end up on the fault line of the Middle East’s defining conflict?
Five years ago, like many young people stuck behind a desk in a tall glass building, Sohrab was restless. As a result of his parents’ tumultuous relationship, Sohrab, born in Iran but raised in America, had always been the new kid in school dreaming of making movies. Smart, and a bit cocky, he studied film at the University of California, Berkeley, before making his way to Los Angeles to pursue his dream. That’s when he got stuck behind that desk in the marketing department of Fox Broadcasting.
“I always had this restlessness. I didn’t know where it came from just that I needed to push forward or it would overwhelm me,” Sohrab explains. At Fox, young and brimming with energy he felt alienated in the insular old media word. One morning, on a scheme cooked up with a colleague during their lunch hour, he fired off a manifesto to Rupert Murdoch, Peter Chernin and a host of other bigwigs at News Corp accusing them of missing a huge opportunity with the web. He then quit and started a new company focused on producing original web content.
The first project would be a series of short web videos about global issues. It was supposed to be a guide for young people by young people, bringing context to things like Darfur, malaria, global warming etc. On a late night call with his college friend Todd, the discussion led to Israel and Palestine. After some impassioned but clichéd arguments it became obvious that neither of them really knew much about the situation. Sensing an opportunity, he decided to make it the subject for the pilot episode tentatively titled WTF: Jerusalem.
“Todd had just finished law school and wanted to take this celebratory trip to like Cancun or someplace, and I, to the chagrin of his girlfriend, slowly convinced him to come to the Middle East instead,” he laughs. Though Sohrab says Todd is an atheist, Todd’s mom (Christian) and dad (Jewish) were also divorced. That along with what Sohrab calls his own “closeted Muslimness,”
“Though I’m an American citizen, I was born in Iran,” Sohrab says, a fact that didn’t escape the attention of Israeli security when he arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. He was interrogated for three and a half hours. “I had a panic attack that night. What had I got myself into?” Soon though, things settled down. They walked around Jerusalem, talked to people: students, cab drivers, shopkeepers, tourists, and pilgrims. They got a sense of daily life. They visited the Wailing Wall, and the Yad Vashem museum where Todd looked up his great grandmother, a holocaust survivor. They even tried to visit the Al Aqsa mosque, though Sohrab wasn’t allowed inside because he says, “I apparently didn’t look Muslim enough.”
Then, a friend of his cousin, who was volunteering in Palestine, heard about their trip on Facebook and contacted them. “After the interrogation, we were hesitant to go into the West Bank or Gaza. We figured we’d stay in Jerusalem, get enough footage for our little web video and leave.” But now that they had a guide he felt they needed to push further. As it turned out, this friend wasn’t volunteering in a tourist spot in Bethlehem, or some Israeli secured settlement, he was in Nablus, the heart of the resistant movement in Occupied Palestine.
“It’s hard talking about it now. We went in sort of naïve. There was a part of me that really thought I could figure it out and really make a difference. It’s this American idealism to rid the world of conflict, mixed with the unresolved issues from being a child of divorce. You add that to the fact that I’m an Iranian Muslim with a very liberal western mindset living in post-9/11 America, and you get a sense of how attractive and terrifying the whole situation felt.”
After they got out of the West Bank, they shipped their footage home to avoid any additional scrutiny at the airport. Soon Todd started his new job as an attorney, and Sohrab went back to work in advertising. “We were pretty shell-shocked. I’d work 10 hours at an agency, then at night I’d force myself to hack away at the mountain of footage I had shot. Mostly I went in circles. I just wasn’t grown up enough to tell the story I needed to. The restlessness was still there, but now I had this feeling of helplessness too.”
It took five years for Sohrab to finish editing what became a feature-length film (an inevitability he jokes given that he was always more interested in Terrence Malick movies than viral videos). Most of that time, he says, was spent finding himself and sorting through his issues.
The editing complete, Sohrab and Todd have just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise finishing funds for The Jerusalem Syndrome–a nerve racking process because if they don’t reach their goal of $12, 450 they get nothing. "The film’s essentially done," he explains, "we just need to compose a score, mix the audio, then prep for festivals, screenings, and online distribution. That's why we're asking anyone interested in the subject to throw in a few bucks.”
While he never thought God was talking to him, when he started this process Sohrab really did want to do something important. The words “change the world” even showed up a few times in that manifesto he once fired off to Rupert Murdoch. “I thought if I did something big, I could quiet my restlessness.”
About Sohrab Pirayesh:
Sohrab Pirayesh is a screenwriter and filmmaker who focuses on themes relating to identity, faith, technology and the synthesis of eastern and western values and culture.
You can find out more about The Jerusalem Syndrome documentary at: