David & Layla : When Love Transcends Religious Prejudice

Layla and Majnun aka David & Layla

KurdishCinema.com - 12 October 2007


Humor Helped me Survive … »- director Jay Jonroy

What strikes at first sight when you meet director Jay Jonroy are his
eyes, they reflect a mixture of kindness, unpretentious wit and
genuine humor. A cosmopolitan by nature he seems to be drawn to
stories that generate hope and a good laugh is enough to make his
and your day brighter. Little in him betrays that he is an Iraqi Kurd
other than a charming exotic accent covered up by his fluent
British-American accent that only adds to his charm. Neither can one
imagine that his life was marked by tragedy. His family in Kurdistan
under Saddam's dictatorship was devastated by Iraq's genocide of
Kurds: younger brother and brother-in-law, were both murdered. His \
other siblings and their spouses and children escaped Saddam's
terror to settle as refugees in Europe. After 13 years of "missing", his
brother's remains were found in a mass grave at Saddam's Abu
Ghraib prison in Baghdad. A glimpse of these horrors is reflected in
his `David & Layla' film. Jay was obliged to abandon his film projects unfinished for about ten years,
returning to Europe to help his family to escape Saddam's genocidal horrors. Many of his siblings and
relatives now live in Diaspora in England, Holland, Germany and France. He is also the producer/director
of the romantic comedy David & Layla that was previewed to an enthusiastic audience in Paris last

” Humor is the thing !” says Director Jay Jonroy ©NewRoz films

A graduate of UCLA Film school in L.A. he was drawn to films from a very young age.

“My most far reaching memories of films” says Jonroy ” goes back to when I was 7 or 8 years old and
would skip school to sneak into the dark movie theaters in Sulaymani. It was the “cultural” capital of
Kurdistan. My parents were wealthy  but not  consciously into culture, although my Dad often quoted
Kurdish poets as well as Hafiz and Saadi. I first read underground Poetry books at my Uncle home who
himself was a poet. Kurdish poetry, folklore and literature were not taught in Iraq then. My elder brother
and I would watch Italian films like Bitter Rice with the beautiful Sylvano Mangano or Hollywood action
heroes like Burt Lancaster and Errol Flynn. We never got to see any movie end because we had to get
out before the managers would get in.”

He ponders at those days with some philosophy “After University most short films I tried to make were
rarely finished due to financial and technical shortcomings, I nevertheless got to observe and absorb a
great deal of experience about storytelling and directing actors. I finally decided that I would only focus on
feature films. And David & Layla has been a satisfying experience and for once completed and shown in
the Theaters”

In post 9/11 New York where cultural and religious tensions are still vivid particularly in the Moslem
community, Jonroy manages to capture through humor the complexities of inter-racial and inter-religious
differences without ever offending or judging anyone's personal beliefs nor faith. In New York, David
(David Moscow) , a Jewish American TV host of “Sex and Happiness” , falls in lust with  sensual Layla
(Shiva Rose) , a Kurdish immigrant. Faced with deportation, Layla must make a crucial life decision: to
marry the exciting, witty Jewish David or conservative Muslim Dr. Ahmed? David's lust turns to love as he
discovers that behind the mysterious Layla is a strong, intelligent, sensitive human being with an ancient
culture that parallels David's own Jewish tradition- spice, music, dance and humor, despite unspeakable
tragedy .

The film offers some very good moments even if at times one would have wished that Jonroy had a
stronger bugdet and stronger performances to count on. However special credit should be given to the
fact that he does break ground in talking about issues that are often taboo within the muslim community
and in the way they are represented in Diaspora films. Like his male protagonist David, the film director
takes an agnostic look at religion and its contradictions. There are some very hilarious scenes that
remind you of some of Woody Allen's funny self introspections particularly in regard to sex with his
psychiatrist or with his physician. Although David seems to have a very active sexual life with his jewish
girlfriend he seems very insecure to the extent of considering Vasectomy as a recourse. This leads to
some funny scenes and at times embarrassing for any male chauvinist. Jonroy's film shows how sex
language as spoken in the West can be very un appealing to an Oriental « Khanoum » aka « good lady »
or on the importance of family ties. What is considered in the West as ringard or old fashioned like the
French protagonist François ( Alexander Blaise) in the film suggests is on the contrary highly esteemed
in the east. This may seem cliché but less if one considers that despite a new and younger third
generation of Muslims particularly Kurds or Iranian actors who tend to take bolder looks towards sex or
even violence as is the case for Sarah Shahi in the L-Word or Shohreh Aghdashloo in 24 the aspirations
and values of the second generation of middle eastern immigrants have often been ignored in Diaspora
films. An interesting scene shows Layla calling her Jewish mother in Law « mother » in sign of respect
which disturbs the latter who misunderstands Layla's comment as if she was considering her as an Old
women. David & Layla has the credit of reminding us of simple values of love and togetherness so
important to our elders and which is disappearing gradually…

    Learning to cope with one another Left to Right: Peter Van Wagner, Shiva Rose
    and Polly Adams ©NewRoz films

A special credit should be given to the supporting actors in the film particularly to Polly Adams and Peter
Van Wagner often seen on the successful TV show Law and Order. They offer some very hilarious
moments as Layla's Jewish Mother and Father in Law with their ebbing religious thoughts and yet
matrimonial sexual concessions.

The story of Layla & David also has the credit of reminding us of one of the cruelest crimes committed
against a poud and ancient people by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein that of the mass killing of the
Kurds in 1988 . It offers some very harsh images of kids killed by poison gas which are truly
heartbreaking and a bitter reminder of how we Iranians abandoned our Kurdish brothers in Iraq in the
mid seventies for political reasons. It is unfortunate to say also that American and European
governments at the Time including France was selling arms and biological weapons to Saddam
Hussein's Iraq and to this day the responsibilities of these governments has never been seriously
subject to investigation despite Saddam Hussein's downfall and trial.

I brought up this particularly sensitive subject with Jonroy who loves Iranians and Iranian culture. In his
film he reminds us that Kurds were initially Zoroastrians like in Persia.

The film refers to the 1975 peace accord during which the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein agreed
upon a mutual non aggression pact. The result was that Iran refused by then to offer any support to the
Kurdish rebels in Iraq in exchange for
a less disturbing Iraqi neighbor. The years that followed however proved wrong on both accounts for it
led to an 8 year war between Iran and Iraq after the revolution of 1979 in Iran and the killing of Iraqi Kurds
by Saddam's regime. Although the Shah's regime not more than that of the Ayatollahs participated to the
suppression of the Kurds by the Saddam Regime, yet understandably the Kurdish people have kept
some bitterness towards the Shah for having accepted this treaty they found particularly unjust to their
cause. Jonroy insists “ Kurds and myself have no issue with Iranians.  culutrally, linguistically and racially
we are bros…the issue is only with Henry Kissinger and the Shah-Saddam scheme and now with the
Islamist' regime of suppression of Kurdish culture. In fairness to the Shah, after the Kissinger-arranged
sell out, the Shah did give safe harbor to the Kurdish leaderships of the two main parties Mustafa Barzani
and Jalal Talabani (who even bought a home in Tehran since serving as a  defacto Kurdish embassy in
Tehran). Jalal Talabani, a consumate politiican survivor, is now President of Iraq with long standing
diplomatic relations with past and present Iranian leaders of all parties. » Jonroy continues “It not always
easy to be a Kurd even in today's Iran which I visited several times particularly to bring back some of his
relatives including his ailing mother. The Shah's era was culturally rich and a Golden era for Iran and the
Empress' love of Arts was particularly important for Iran's rise as a film Industry and its subsequent
recognition as an Artform after the Revolution with the works of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf or Kurd Bahman
Ghobadi. I regret that the Kurd film Industry is not that developed and we are nearly starting from scratch.”

Although morally supported by Kurdish cultural organizations, Jonroy had to entirely finance his own film
through his film company NewRoz films which name also proves if needed Jonroys attachment to his
Kurdish and Persian ancestral roots. For the role of Layla he was not able to cast fellow Kurd actress'
who would accept to play the role of an emancipated Kurdish women he so often came across in the NY
Kurdish community. The religious and sexual overtones didn't make that possible. He used the talent of
the beautiful actress Shiva Rose (daughter of Iranian TV host before the Revolution Parviz Gharibafshar)
who is also very much involved in humanitarian causes with co-star friends like Hollywood Legend Jane
Fonda and in active in organizations like Amnesty International. « She loved the Script » says Jonroy «
and was sensitive to what her role meant to many Kurdish women who like Iranian women expatriates
have been divided between Western and Eastern Values ».

Left to Right: Iranian American Shiva Rose was cast as Kurdish immigrant Layla. She is the   daughter of
famed TV presentator Parviz Gharibafshar.

Jonroy faced many challenges to make his film particularly using 26 different nationalities of different
confessions and religions in the New York district, a proof if needed, that Art and Humor can replace
politics and religious prejudice that is so appallingly dividing our World and the middle East in particular.
« I often thought of Yilmaz Guney the director of Yol » confesses Jonroy « he directed via prison to his
assistant. The film awarded at Cannes in the early 80's and saluted by Elia Kazan has become the
International reference for Kurdish films. Thinking of Yilmaz helped me overcome many obstacles and
outright humiliations making this politically sensitive  film. » It was not always easy to explain to American
distributors or fianancers including that the muslims in his film were not Arabs but Kurds. The whole
process explains why Jonroys film may at times seem educational or didactic. « That was intentional »
says Jonroy « It explains why I tried to introduce humor to explain the misconceptions of David's parents
in regard to muslims. All the scenes at the dinner table or the parents reaction to the fact that David
wants to marry a muslim that makes his mother faint in the synagogue or David's recurrent nightmares
were to illustrate the gap between generations. Also I tried to show the confusion often made made by
Americans who see the Moslem Middle East as an Arab World forgetting that Kurds are not Arab and that
they are less concerned by the Israeli Palestinian conflict than by their struggle in preserving their identity
and culture so misunderstood in America and yet so close in many aspects to that of Jewish people with
whom they share a common quest for freedom and acceptance .»

If David & Layla finds its audience as it has to a certain degree in Europe, Jay Jonroy hopes to realize two
other projects he cherishes for several years now. One is a film on the Legend of Gilgamesh the ancient
Mesopotamian hero and one on The Thousand and One Nights. For hope to show some of my concepts
on filmdirection that I owe to my favorite philosopher Aristotle who is my absolute reference when it
comes to concieving a scene with actors on a set.

Jonroy says he is more attracted by humour than tragedy in films. If Preston Sturges Sullivan Travels
impressed him in for combining drama and comedy he sees himself more attracted by the works of
Charlie Chaplin or Woody Allen and of course French director René Claire who has been a permanent
inspiration to him. « I am more appealed by the challenge of making people laugh in a movie theater
than making them cry. Amongst Iranian filmmakers I have to confess that I prefer Makhmalbafs poetic
approach in films like Gabbeh or his humour in Salam Cinema than Kiarostami whom I find has got
more credit than deserved eversince he was awarded the Cannes Palm D'Or in 1997 for his film the
Taste of the Cherry. As a Kurd I also loved Bahman Ghobadi's A Time for dunken Horses .» says Jonroy .

I asked him what he thought of the new Iranian Directors of the Diaspora. People like Kayvan Masheyekh,
Babak Shokrian or Ramin Serry ? « I admire their work, I think Serry faced similar challenges as I did in
making David & Layla on his film Maryam, the first attempt to show the plight of Iranian Americans during
the Hostage crisis. I believe I read in one of his interviews how difficult it was for him to convince his
fellow Iranian actors to play revolutionaries or monarchists based on their own family connections or
opinions. Its Just a Movie for heavens sake ! We are just trying to imitate that reality. It is not because we
talk about sex in a movie or try and suggest a sex scene that the actors actually do it for real. That is
something that is gradually changing and understood by muslim and middle eastern viewers but it is still
a challenge. What I am more pre-occupied with is that the stories I am sensitive too as a Kurd expatriate
are gradually dissappearing. I think that even amongst the Iranian Diaspora Directors we will see three
different categories: Those who like me are immigrants and who belong to the past. The second
generation that is still connected to the past like Serry, Mashayekh or Shokrian with what is taking place
in their former country, and a third generation that will be totally assimilated with no real connection to
their roots and totally Amercanized not to say lacking genuine personality. Its a harsh reality. I hope we
will be able to tell stories Like David &Layla or Maryam in the years to come, it is part of our cultural
heritage or should I say new Identity as an immigrant society.»

Selected for several film festivals in Europe and the US, David & Laya is a film with noble intentions of
reviving the Kurdish cultural Identity, history as well as its difficulties as an immigrant community. It has
been rated by NPR film critic David D' Arcy amongst the ten most major Kurdish production, the first
being Yilmaz Guney's film Yol .

Authors notes:

Music Score : The original score is by Richard Horowitz  who also composed for Bernardo Bertolucci's

Jay Jonroy's Bio : A dual American & British citizen, multi-lingual Jay now lives and works in New York
and Paris.

A WGA -Writers Guild of America- member, and ex-UCLA Film School, AFI & USC screenwriting courses,
Jay was born in Iraqi-Kurdistan. Made stateless in exile since teenager, he has studied & worked in
London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Rio, Paris & New York. Either through scholarships or paid for by
his own work, he has studied at the universities of Leicester, Imperial College, London,  Paris Sorbonne,
and UCLA & USC film schools in Los Angeles.

A younger brother and a brother-in-law went missing in Iraq. Later their remains were found in
Saddam's/Ba'athists' mass graves. Jay was obliged to abandon his film projects unfinished for about ten
years to help his family escape Saddam's genocidal campaigns against Kurds. (Some of those horrors
are reflected in his first feature film, DAVID & LAYLA.)

Many of his siblings & relatives now live as refugees in diaspora in England, Holland, Germany, and
France. His first feature DAVID & LAYLA is a gift, a ‘comic relief' to the oppressed ‘LAYLA' women of the
world. It's dedicated to the memory of the war victim members of his family.

Darius Kadivar is an Editorial Contributor for PersianMirror from Paris, France. He is a film reviewer and
film historian.

source: PersianMirror
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