Empathy Is Key to Knowing How to Portray Middle East

Documentary filmmaker offers insights into the region

DOCUMENTARY filmmaker Jo Franklin recently donated 120 hours of footage of the Middle East to the Archives for Historical Documentation in Brighton, Mass. The collection is estimated to be worth $2.2 million.

Ms. Franklin is perhaps best known for her controversial 1989 documentary ''Days of Rage: the Young Palestinians,'' which critics in the United States charged with taking the Palestinian point of view in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A former producer for the ''MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour,'' a Middle East expert, and special consultant to the Special Operations Forces during Operation Desert Storm, Franklin spoke with the Monitor about what she sees as the future for the Middle East following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as well as her portrayals of the region through film and her new book, ''The Wing of the Falcon.''

What was your reaction to Rabin's assassination?

My first reaction to it was shock, obviously. My second reaction was, this is a man who went from being a warrior to a peacemaker in his life, and you have to hope that his life becomes emblematic of what will happen now in the Middle East.

We often hear more about Palestinian extremists than Israeli extremists. Do Americans have a better understanding of the Middle East than they did at the time of the controversy over your film ''Days of Rage''?

We have made a sea change from where we were at the time that I tried to put that film on. Still, there's a distance to go.

One of the reasons I feel so strongly about the book and the donation to the archives is that old stereotypes and caricatures are very hard to relinquish. People fall back on them without realizing that they're doing it. I think extremists on all sides come to look an awful lot alike. Violence is violence. Murder is murder.

How do you view the peace process after Rabin's death?

The peace process has to go forward.... The old situation was no longer in anybody's interest.... I think the movement will now be very dramatic because old roadblocks are gone. As tragic as this was, I do not think it will derail the peace process. If anything, it may strengthen it.

Your film projects include ''Saudi Arabia,'' ''The Oil Kingdoms,'' ''Days of Rage: the Young Palestinians.'' What was behind your decision to donate footage?

When we were in Saudi Arabia, we realized that this had been a totally closed country to cameras. [The Saudis] seemed sufficiently nervous while we were filming, so we weren't altogether sure they would [allow] it again.... The film crew and I just looked at one another and said, ''Let's just capture it all, even the material that we know actually won't fit in the exact format of this film series.'' We were allowed to film from the top of the country down to the bottom, to interview everybody from the king to the street sweepers ... to travel with Bedouins in the desert. I had some background on the Middle East certainly, but a lot of people on the film crew did not.... Their perception of this part of the world was irrevocably changed.

Your book ''The Wing of the Falcon,'' is based on your experience in the Persian Gulf. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf has endorsed it. Why a fact-based novel?

In many ways, it was far easier to tell the truth using fiction - the reality and the fabric of their lives. These people are based on real people for the most part, and they're people whom I have known for years.

One day I realized [that] if you understood these people and you understood the reality of what they're wrest- ling with ... you would understand the characters that are about to make up the ''new'' Middle East.

What will happen now?

Those of us who've been journalists in the area were always struck by the tremendous similarity in the personalities of the Palestinians and Israelis. Now that's not so surprising - they are both people of the Levant, which opened onto the rest of the world; they're sophisticated traders, cosmopolitan people, educated, comfortable citizens of the world.

When you move over to the Persian Gulf side, they're coming from a different history. They were almost totally isolated from the rest of the world. Certainly Saudi Arabia [in the 1930s] was listed as one of the poorest countries in the world. The geographic isolation combined with what then was a lack of resources produced that level of poverty. [Then they found] they had huge financial resources and huge sociological [growing pains].

History is a great educator. In Europe at the time of World War I, you had an old order that had existed for a long time now disappearing. I think the Middle East is at a similar point. The encouraging part is looking back at that history. The idea that the incredible hatred between France and Germany would ever just disappear, become meaningless, that they would be unified under the European economic community, was unimaginable.

We have to take that same vision and apply it to the Middle East. What seems like endless animosity between the Palestinians and the Israelis can also be bridged.

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