Tell Your Truth and Don’t Be Afraid – A Conversation with Palestinian-American Filmmaker Rolla Selbak
Tom Sykes: You’re releasing a new web series called Grrl’s Guide To Filmmaking in which you interview a number of women involved in the film industry. What insights did you get from these interviews?
Rolla Selbak: The interviews are candid, intimate and fun. We visited writers like Jill Soloway, who’s behind the Amazon show Transparent, Cathy DeBuono (Star Trek and Chicago Hope actress) in her backyard and Guinevere Turner (American Psycho screenwriter) at her home. The idea was to interview these women in their creative spaces. To give our audience an idea of what it’s like on a film set, I went undercover as an extra on a movie being co-directed by two women. I also share my vlog before and after the interview. I usually explain how I met the subject or how they inspired me. I think this gives the show a personal feel.
TS: You released the series through Tello, the internet TV site. What are the advantages of working with them?
RS: Tello are a subscription-based site and for a small monthly payment you get access to tonnes of beautifully created, high quality content that is LGBT-centric. Their profit-sharing model is generous to filmmakers and the more views per month you get the higher percentage you receive. I get better compensation than if I was working with YouTube or an ad revenue site. Tello’s system is based on unique views, meaning people can’t rig it by putting your stuff on replay and make it seem more popular than it actually is.
In this industry it’s hard to find straight-up, honest people who don’t want to screw you over, and the guys at Tello are nothing like that: their support of independent female filmmakers has been phenomenal so I’m really happy to be working with them. Not only do they distribute, they also produce. They’re open to hearing new ideas and pitches. If they go with a project they’ll offer the filmmaker up-front finishing funds in return for a smaller share of the revenue once the movie is released.
TS: Does Tello have exclusive rights over your work?
RS: Correct. For a few months at least it will only be available on Tello and then we’ll put it on YouTube.
TS: Is there anything to stop people pirating it and putting it on YouTube during that first few months?
RS: No, nothing’s stopping them. Then again, folks who use Tello respect the content and the filmmakers and I haven’t had any of my previous work pirated. But you know, this is always a risk an artist faces. I’m just happy to have an audience.
TS: You’ve been described as a ‘triple-minority in the filmmaking world: queer, Arab-American and a woman’. How does that identity affect your art, your approach to filmmaking?
RS: It’s true that I’m all those things, I can’t deny it! If you’re a woman you are definitely held to different standards because the industry is male-dominated, first and foremost. Some would argue that if M Night Shyamalan (Indian-American director of The Sixth Sense) was a woman he wouldn’t still be working because every other movie he makes loses a tremendous amount of money. But he keeps getting projects. If a woman made five flops she would be seen as a pariah! That’s just my belief.
As for my other minority backgrounds, I write a lot about my own experiences, the communities I know and the characters I come across. I’m always thinking about how to represent myself and people like me in everything I do. It’s important to have that balance between mainstream and minority characters.
TS: You’re of Palestiniain origin…
RS: Very proudly so.
TS: And you’re from a Muslim background. Since going into the film industry have you suffered any Islamophobia, either directly or indirectly?
RS: Yes. I wrote a Huffington Post article called ‘Brown Girl Passing for a White Guy’ about how, in the industry, I will often be treated as ‘just one of the guys’ because I don’t look queer and I don’t really look like an Arab. Because I’m kind of ‘undercover’, I’m privy to so many unconscious and unthinking racist comments. The perpetrators never guess that I belong to one of the minorities they are disrespecting. It’s a little sad, but it does at least give me an insight into what people feel. Whereas if I wore a hijab or had darker skin, nobody would want to make those comments to my face.
TS: Do you think you would hear this sort of prejudice if you were from a different ethnic background?
RS: A lot of people who identify as Westerners think that they have the right to put down Muslims or Arabs due to this blanket idea of “good versus evil”, in which the evil in that equation is Muslims because, you know, ‘they tried to kill us on 9/11’. That word “they” is used to lump together billions of people – most of them peaceful and respectful – into one extremist faction. In Gaza right now the Israelis are saying, ‘They want to kill us, what are we supposed to do but fight back?’ But the question is, who wants to kill you? In fact, it’s a tiny group of extremists who live in the same region, which you cannot lump together with thousands of civilians who just want to live in peace.
TS: I guess it suits certain political agendas to make out that every Palestinian is an extremist when in fact most Palestinians and most rational people around the world just want there to be a free Palestinian state that exists next to a free Israeli state. Is there anything that you and other artists and filmmakers can do to make any kind of difference to a terrible situation like Gaza?
RS: Recently there have been such powerful and beautiful artistic voices coming out of the region: films like Paradise Now, Omar 5 and Broken Cameras, which was nominated for an Oscar. Even though they’re not directly addressing the politics of the conflict, these movies show what it’s like to live under the Occupation. There’s a brilliant new documentary coming out soon called Speed Sisters, directed by Amber Ferris. It’s about the first female Arab racing driving crew, and they happen to be Palestinian. You get to view the Occupation through the eyes of these women who are, at the same time, just trying to be who they are and do what they want to do with their lives.
I hope these artists make a difference; this is all we have. It’s better than not doing anything at all, and at least people are trying to express their own truth. It’s difficult when you’re up against so much power and money and such a strong lobby. It’s hard to say how much effect these documentaries have but I’m grateful for them because they keep me in touch with my homeland, given that I now live in the US.
TS: When did you move to the US?
I was 13 when I moved here from the United Arab Emirates. I never actually lived in Palestine. Before I was born, my mum’s family left Palestine for Lebanon then moved to Kuwait then Saudi Arabia. My dad grew up mostly in Lebanon where his family were all refugees.
TS: Would you like to make a film that focuses specifically on the Palestine question?
RS: Absolutely. The problem is, going back there would just be too painful for me at the moment. I need to be in a better state of mind so that I can observe, connect with people and come back with true stories that I can hopefully turn into stories or films. It’s such a deep, personal issue for me, in terms of how my friends and family have been affected by it, that it’s all too raw and emotional just now.
TS: You also made a film, Three Veils, about the difficulties facing women within Muslim-American communities. What can women in those situations do to improve their lot?
RS: Just standing up for yourself of for friends, voicing your opinion and letting others know they are not alone in feeling this way – all that is extremely important. Be vocal even when it’s dangerous. For instance, when Three Veils came out I got death threats. I was so worried, not about myself but about my family, because if these extremists had my name they could have found my family. I considered changing my name for that reason.
TS: And these extremists are operating inside the US?
RS: It’s hard to know where they come from because it all happens on the Internet. I think the Internet makes people feel bolder; they believe they can throw abuse around and nobody will come after them. I was left hanging, thinking is someone going to come to my house and hurt me? In the US there are definitely extremists who may not be violent, but they do things like try and boycott my fundraisers.
I decided to deal with this stuff head-on and keep my name on the film. If you’re telling your truth then there’s nothing to be afraid of. The time to be afraid is when you’re hiding or lying. I figured that, if something happened to me then at least I would have told my truth; at least others would see the film and be empowered by it and then make their own films about their own experiences.