Tell Your Truth and Don’t Be Afraid – A Conversation with Rolla Selbak, Palestinian-American filmmaker

Tom Sykes: You’re releasing a new web series called Girl’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 Palestinian 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.

Rolla Selbak 01

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 and 5 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.

Originally published at:

Mat Sellahs With Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

Mat Sallehs with Cameras: Malaysia Portrayed in Western Films

Francois Truffaut said ‘every film should say something about life and something about film.’ Since the 1930s and the golden age of B.S. Rajhans, Malaysian films have had much to say about Malaysian life. But what happens when Westerners get behind the camera? Have their portrayals of the country been positive, negative, fair-minded, inaccurate? How have such movies changed over the years?

One of the earliest offerings was Four Frightened People (1934) directed by Cecil B DeMille, Hollywood autocrat and master of the biblical epic. Four Americans wash up in the jungles of Borneo, having left their collective sense of shame on the boat. Cue plenty of close-up kisses and half-naked frolicking in waterfalls – about as racy as the movies could get back then. Four Frightened People taps into a long-held Western delusion that the East is just one big steamy, licentious free-for-all. As we’ll see later, this delusion persists today. Despite being set in Malaysia, Four Frightened People was in fact filmed in Hawaii and the native characters played by Japanese…

Film noir is a genre one usually associates with American cities, not rubber plantations in Southeast Asia. However, The Letter (1940) stars femme fatale Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie, the homicidal wife of a colonial administrator (Herbert Marshall) in Singapore. The opening montage – beautifully shot on location – is all cockatoos, coolies and rubber trickling from branches. Based on the play by W Somerset Maugham, The Letter climaxes with Marshall announcing his plan to buy a property in Sumatra. The problem is his wife has paid all their money to a blackmailer in possession of a letter that incriminates her…

In the 1950s and ‘60s, World War II became a favourite subject. Filmed in both Malaysia and Australia, A Town Like Alice (1956) was based on the bestselling Nevil Shute novel and starred Virginia McKenna and future Academy Award winner Peter Finch. Jean Paget (McKenna) is living and working in Kuala Lumpur when the Japanese invade. She survives the rest of the war thanks to her fluency in the Malay language and desire to engage with local ways. After the war is over, her ‘Malayophilia’ prompts her to return to the country to build a well for the orang asli.

The Camp on Blood Island (1958), made by British B-movie studio Hammer, has the politically incorrect strapline: ‘Jap War Crimes Exposed!’ That sort of sums it up really: allied POWs endure torture and humiliation in a prison camp in occupied British Malaya – not the greatest advertisement for the country! Although not a classic, The Camp on Blood Island’s graphic realism was very much ahead of its time.

Jumping ahead in time, the thriller Turtle Beach (1992) remains the most controversial Western flick to have engaged with local politics. Greta Scacchi plays a journalist investigating the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Pulau Bidong. Both the Malaysian government and elements of the Australian media lambasted the scene in which refugees are murdered by Malaysian policemen. While noting the talents of the lead actresses – Australian Greta Scacchi and Chinese-American Joan Chen – the critical reception was generally poor.

Entrapment (1999) is an altogether more light-hearted – and superficial – affair. A confused mixture of romantic comedy, Bond rip-off (apt then that Sean Connery stars) and crime caper, there is at least a gripping heist beneath the Petronas Towers and some stunning shots of attractions like KLCC, Bukit Jalil Station and the Malacca River. One wonders if Entrapment works better as a tourist information film.

Return to Paradise (1998) plays on the greatest fear of the hedonistic Western backpacker: getting busted for drugs. A suspenseful set-up is marred by poor research – the loose local women, gang violence and drinking culture make you wonder if writer Bruce Robinson has confused Malaysia with, well, somewhere else entirely. Robinson may well have brought his own interests into this script – he was, after all, responsible for the the cult British comedy Withnail & I (1986) which follows the (mis)fortunes of two alcoholic actors. Like other Western movies before it, Return to Paradise exoticises Malaysia as a sensuous land of easy thrills, yet when the protagonist (Joaquin Phoneix) falls foul of the law, we are presented with an authoritarian hell. Anyone who’s spent half an hour in Malaysia knows both conceptions are bunk!

Jungles of carnal abandon, mysterious plantations, brutal prison camps, island paradises – Western films have imagined Malaysia in many different ways over the last eighty years. But whereas Malaysian-made films have tended to say something about Malaysia, Western films about Malaysia have tended to say more about Western preoccupations.

First published in The Expat, October 2011