Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Jed Rothstein--'Killing in the Name'
Editor’s Note: Killing in the Name will be screening Saturday, February 26, at 11:40 a.m. as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and Sunday, February 27, at 12:05 p.m. at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Jed Rothstein, director/producer of Killing in the Name.
Synopsis: Ashraf Al-Khaled was celebrating the happiest day of his life when an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber walked into his wedding and killed his father and 26 other family members in front of his eyes. Now, he's rising from that horrific tragedy to break the silence in the Muslim community on this taboo subject by speaking out against terrorism. Killing in the Name follows Ashraf's quest to speak with victims and perpetrators and expose the true cost of terrorism, taking us on a journey around the world to see if one man can speak truth to terror and begin to turn the tide.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Jed Rothstein: I came to documentaries through anthropology, which I studied as an undergrad. I loved the adventure and discovery involved in doing anthropology, but I wasn't drawn to the academic world. Then I had the chance to take an ethnographic film course, where some friends and I made a short documentary about the women of the Bay Area punk scene, and I was hooked. I went on to study and work in fiction film for a while before deciding that documentaries were for me.
IDA: What inspired you to make Killing in the Name?
JR: I remember getting up nearly every morning during the height of the Iraq War and hearing about horrific bombings in market squares and busy streets, and always asking, Why? Aside from the nightmare of the rest of the war, what was the point of this violence so clearly directed at civilians? When I met Carie Lemack, executive producer of Killing in the Name and a founder of Global Survivors Network, she asked me to find a way to tell the story of terrorism from the perspective of the victim. I immediately thought of those many mornings, listening to the sad news...So I set out to find someone who had experienced this type of trauma firsthand, and who was trying to answer the same basic questions that interested me. That's what ultimately let me to Ashraf.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
JR: The biggest challenge I foresaw after I began the process of making this film was finding a way to move beyond the basic tragedy of victims' stories. Most people (myself included) have enough on their hands just managing their own affairs. So I assumed that many survivors of terrorist attacks would want to simply go on with their lives and be left alone. Certainly, they wouldn't want to share their stories in a documentary film. Surprisingly, many survivors have made efforts to speak out, and some were willing to share their experiences with me. Though many of their stories are very moving, they lacked the singular, proactive through-line that I felt would allow me to bring their narratives to the screen.
Then I met Ashraf Al Khaled. Ashraf has passed through the gates of hell, losing so many of those closest to him at a moment that should have been one of the happiest in his life. Yet rather than dwell on his loss, he's focused on the future, hoping to build a world where his little girl won't have to fear the same terrorists who killed her grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins before she ever got to meet them. Ashraf was--is--on a quest, a mission, and thus his journey became our journey, and the central narrative backbone of the film.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
JR: Going into production, I wanted to follow Ashraf's quest, but I wasn't sure how much of a narrative I could hang on his shoulders alone. After our first trip to Jordan, it was clear that his story would carry us through. By the end of our first shoot, I knew that he was fearless, and he would go wherever he had to for his work, so I began to think more broadly about they types of scenes we could actually witness.
During the editing process, it became clear that the most powerful scenes were the vérité confrontations between Ashraf and the various people he meets. So we ended up cutting the film down to these essential elements.
IDA: As you've screened Killing in the Name--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
JR: We're having our world premiere later this month, so I hope people like what they see!
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
JR: Jean Rouch, the great French vérité filmmaker behind Chronicle of a Summer and Les maîtres fous, was an early inspiration. I also love some of the classics of the New York vérité school, from the work of Al and David Maysles to DA Pennebaker. More recently, I loved The Staircase, a series by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and Darwin's Nightmare, by Hubert Sauper.
Killing in the Name will be screening July 30 through August 5, as part of the DocuWeeks Shorts Program, at the IFC Center in New York City.
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Killing in the Name, click here.