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Julie Gray

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Leaving Hollywood for The Middle East to Empower Women

Posted: 02/24/2012 9:03 am

It's a crazy idea. For many, it is an unthinkable one, this moving from Hollywood to the Middle East. I'm going in the opposite direction, people say.

My friends and acquaintances are alternately excited and terrified for me. Mostly, people scratch their heads -- how does this make sense? You live in the best country in the world, you have everything. Why would you go to what is inarguably the world's most contentious place? It is crazy. I know that. And dangerous. I know that too.

It started a few years ago, when an idea began to form in my mind.

I was in Egypt, standing in the Sahara desert while an intelligent, trilingual Egyptologist told me that she'd undergone female circumcision. She was also in an arranged marriage. With several children. When I urged her to blog about her experiences in Egypt, she told me in her soft but firm voice that nobody would care about her story. Besides, she went on, while she could speak English well, she couldn't write it. How could she do this?

Somebody needs to simply give Aza the tools to write and be heard, I remember thinking. She needed a computer, she needed to be able to upload media and navigate the internet, she needed to organize passwords and have the time to blog. But Aza did not have access to any of these things. She lacked an outlet and the guidance to get started. So she had resigned herself to the idea that her words didn't matter. That she didn't matter.

I still think of Aza from time to time. I wonder if she's okay now that there's been a revolution. I wonder if she decided to have her daughter circumsized or whether she'd perhaps reconsidered. I wonder if Aza knew what she inspired in me. I wonder if she wonders about our conversation -- that nobody cared about her life, her perspective or her opinions.

Nine years ago, freshly divorced, I arrived in Los Angles to become a screenwriter. I quickly found it wasn't nearly as easy as that, even though I had already been a published essayist and short story writer. No, this screenwriting business was much harder than I'd imagined. My newly divorced status meant I had to find a job and I did -- reading scripts at film production companies. At the same time, I attended a privately taught, two year screenwriting program. My writing skills were beginning to improve significantly and I reveled in being a script reader. Fast forward a few years, and I ran a script coverage business, employing an assistant and nine readers. Time went by, relationships came and went, and then an event occurred that changed the direction of my life forever: My brother Peter killed himself. He was 48 years old.

My world spun into chaos as I tried to cope with the wounds that suicide leaves. And I became a cliche. Suddenly what had been fulfilling felt empty. Life seemed more precious. I was given to fits of crying. I felt I had to change my life. I felt I had to be a part of life.

Here I was, in Hollywood, working with writers on spec scripts in the hopes that someday, maybe, the film would get made. I loved encouraging writers to follow their dreams, and I loved (and continue to love) finding new talent and encouraging the art and craft of self-reflection through storytelling. But somehow, after my brother's death, it wasn't enough.

As I mused about life, death and life again, I thought of Aza, standing in the desert in her hajib, convinced that the world had no use for her perspective.

Aza is one of millions of women around the world who are effectively silenced because they do not have the opportunity to express and be heard. At best, women are underrepresented in politics and in virtually every industry, and at worst, women are stoned to death, forbidden to show their hair, speak to a man without permission or experience sexual pleasure. In this, the 21st century.

My idea began to take a shape. Maybe there was a way I could combine my love for all of this Hollywood stuff with helping the helpless become empowered. What if story could be used for healing not necessarily monetary gain? What if we could not only entertain, but preserve a heritage and restore a sense of self to people like Aza?

Then my idea coalesced and came to me in the shape of a question: What if I started a non-profit filmmaking center in the Middle East? One where women could be encouraged to create narratives on film, with the aim of collaboration, dialogue and healing? With the aim of giving voice to the mute? What if I could use all of my combined experience and relationships to really make something happen? What if I changed the mind of even one young woman? Or three? What if those young women went back home and taught their daughters that there are possibilities untold in their own expression? What if a new generation of young women were mentored and encouraged to see themselves as valuable parts of the whole instead of helpless handmaidens in a sea of men?

E.E. cummings once said: "I imagine that yes is the only living thing." So I'm saying yes to this adventure and yes to this crazy idea. What is the worst thing that will happen? That I will hear "no" a lot? That I will be in danger? That I will make a difference? I have to find out. For Aza, for Peter, for the untold millions of women and men who for whatever reason, are not able to follow their dreams and become part of something larger than themselves.

For every head scratch, I get many more wide grins. This idea inspires people, I see it every day. So many have offered to help me. So many tell me they are inspired to look at their lives in this global economic shift, and find a way to live more simply and meaningfully. That I surely will be doing, no doubt about that.

I am moving to Tel Aviv in the beginning of March, to get Stories Without Borders on its humble path. I do not have a place to stay yet. That will come. I have no idea how to get this program off the ground. That will come, too. I have no idea what this experience will be like, but I am certain it will not be boring.

Am I having a middle-aged crisis? I'm too old for that. Been there, done it. No, I just see an opportunity to take everything I have learned about life, movies and Hollywood so far and take it to a place where film is less a commodity than a means of expression. My brother's death, his opting out of life in a violent way gave me an abiding passion for life. Death does that. It sharpens your senses and makes you aware of that which you cannot control. It also whets your appetite to be here, with both feet on the ground and make the most out of this ride while you can. My ride is only just beginning -- again.

I know it won't be easy, I know the outcome might look very different from my vision. I know I will not always be welcomed as an influence. I am already used to being told that I am foolish. But what is life for if it isn't for taking chances?

I don't know about you but I believe in life. I believe in the power of story to heal and I know the language of film is universal.

 
 
 

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