While resolving conflict between colliding cultures in the Middle East is unlikely to occur in the very near future, La Cañada couple Patrick and Mouna Stewart believe change is possible, even if it has to happen one mind and one heart at a time.
To that end they have produced the documentary film “It’s Better to Jump,” which tells the story of everyday Palestinians coping with the increasingly difficult reality of living as minorities in their own homeland.
“This stresses the importance of being objective,” says Mouna Stewart, whose own family moved from the Gaza Strip in the ’60s. “The only change that can really happen comes when people can see both sides of the story.”
The film offers commentary from a cross-section of Arabs residing in the Northern Israeli city of Akka, a Mediterranean seaport known for the imposing Ottoman wall that circles its perimeter.
In addition to voicing thoughts on daily political realities, from discrimination and displacement to unemployment and diminished livelihoods, the film’s subjects discuss a rite of passage among Akkwali youth — jumping from the edge of the wall into the sea.
“There is a direct correlation between jumping and life,” says female soccer star Haneen Nasser. “Jumping from the sea wall at the age of 7 gives you a certain level of strength to face your future.”
A Hollywood cinematographer with 30 years of professional experience under his belt, Patrick Stewart yearned to work on his own project, something that would provoke thought and potentially make a difference in the world.
His marriage to Mouna had opened his eyes to the plight of Palestinian citizens, millions of whom have become refugees in the wake of a 1948 order from the United Kingdom that granted their homeland be given over to create the nation of Israel.
The Stewarts began to conceptualize a film that would shed light on the Palestinian experience while touching on the sociopolitical issues that influence and, at times, confine Arabs.
In 2011, when a family vacation took them to Akka, the pair found exactly what they were looking for. They were eating at a waterside restaurant situated by the wall when they saw some children climb out to the edge and fling themselves into the sea below.
“I just took a series of still pictures of these kids,” Patrick Stewart says. “It was just an amazing vacation moment. You see something cool, your kids see something cool — that was it.”
Later, when they saw the photographs, they started thinking there might be more to the story. They discovered, through research and conversations, that jumping from the wall was a time-honored rite of passage unique to this ancient city.
The act of jumping became a stunning and visual metaphor. A long-standing culture, utterly defined by the place it called home, was expressing its right to be free and unbound, Mouna Stewart explains.
“It’s really sheer joy and the thrill. Honestly, it’s as simple as that,” she says. “The sea is open, unrestricted, and it’s something you just do in your life.”
To produce the film, the Stewarts teamed up with friend Gina Angelone, whose 2005 documentary “Rene and I,” which told the story of two Jewish twins terrorized by Nazi doctor Josef Mengela, had won several international film festivals. Angelone traveled with Mouna Stewart to Akka over several visits, where they conducted extensive interviews with residents, amounting to 300 pages of translated transcripts and about 120 hours of film.
“What struck me, first and foremost, was this deep, deep connection to place most Palestinians have, especially in Akka,” says Angelone. “It’s really so embedded in their DNA and so deeply meaningful to them where they’re from. I still get misty-eyed when I watch the jumping montage.”
The trio finished the bulk of the film last January, sending it out for consideration at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. It was sent to several other festivals, throughout the world and locally, and has been reviewed in the L.A. Times and New York Times.
While Patrick Stewart admits some critics fault the film for not offering a countering Israeli viewpoint to balance to the narrative, he maintains that was a deliberate move.
“There is no counterpoint — this is the view of the Palestinians,” he says. “The other side of the story is told every day. Our whole point is to sit down with these people and listen to what they say about their own lives, and you judge for yourself.”
In early December, “It’s Better to Jump” was shown for one week at Pasadena’s Laemmle Theater. Mouna Stewart says she hopes the film will spark conversation among Western viewers on what can be done to advance the cause of peace in the Middle East.
“Being able to inform people and being able to share the story is a very positive and hopeful thing,” she says. “It’s a step in making a change.”
“It’s Better to Jump” will be officially released on DVD and Video on Demand Jan. 28, where it can be viewed through Amazon Instant and Hulu.com. It can also be ordered at that time through the film’s website, ibtj.net.