Jen Marlowe I Human Rights Activist
Playwright I Documentary Filmmaker I Author
"I love what I do, but I think for me, it’s not about loving it or not loving it. It’s whether I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing or I'm supposed to be doing. For me, the questions are more about how can I get more of it done or how can I do it more effectively. I feel like I’ve created a position for myself, where I really get to choose what I respond to and how I want to respond.."
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Philadelphia in a neighborhood called Roxborough until I was twelve and then we moved to a suburb called Lafayette Hill, which is one town a way from the Philadelphia city limit. Roxborough, at least it was then, was a working class community and my memories of the people there are really the neighbors I grew up with and the kids my age. I grew up in an apartment complex and there was kind of a big courtyard in the center of. It was a gentler version of Lord of the Flies.
What were you like as a child?
I was kind of a strange cross between a bookworm and a tomboy. I always loved reading and always had a book with me. I also hated all the things that were traditionally girly. I was never into playing with dolls—maybe I went through phases where I was playing with a Barbie—but generally was never into dresses or playing things that were stereotypical girl things. I played much more with the boys in the neighborhood. If I wasn’t up in a tree reading a book, I was playing baseball or soccer or something like that.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
As a younger kid, I think the things I wanted to be when I grew up had something to do with acting and something to do with writing. As a teenager, I thought I was going to be a social worker or psychologist and something related to working with kids.
How old were you when you first left home?
When I was 18, I went to college in Philadelphia, which was not far from home but I was funding myself. So it was like a break from home in that sense. Then when I was 22, I moved to Seattle, which has been the only place I’ve called home since then. There have been other places that I have lived but it’s all been more temporary. I lived in Palestine/Israel for five years because I was working on projects. While I was living there I developed very deep relationships with the people and the places I spent time in there, but it was never my “home.” After Jerusalem, I spent the better part of a year mostly on the East coast, mostly between New York and DC, but I was surfing on people’s couches and working on projects. So even when I’ve lived other places, it’s always felt like Seattle was home for me. But in the last 6 months, I’ve been experimenting with this idea of trying to develop a foothold in New York but still keep Seattle as a home base. I’m still figuring out how I want that to work and how I want that balance to work.
What do you love about Seattle?
It’s a beautiful city. I love the physical city, the mountains, the water. I love walking around downtown Seattle and hearing seagulls. I love the culture of Seattle, which has a lot of emphasis on the environment, the arts, and reading. It’s a kind of culture that matches mine. There’s a lot of emphasis on really being a part of the world around you—not politically so much, but the physical world. A lot of people are very serious about hiking and camping and skiing and really appreciating what the natural world has to offer and feeling connected to that in ways that aren’t as evident in a lot of East coast communities. I’ve also got really good friends here, a really strong community that I’ve built over time.
You're involved in a lot of projects revolving around human rights. You're an author/documentary filmmaker/playwright and human rights activist. Can you walk us down the path that has led you to where you are today?
When I was in Seattle, right before I went to Jerusalem for the first year that I lived there, I was working in theatre and I was developing a theatre education outreach company with a friend of mine, where we were getting grants in order to bring theatre into the public school system, mostly middle schools in Seattle. We were using theatre as a tool with the youth there. In some of the cases, we were using theatre to explore their history curriculum, to find ways to bring the history to life for them. And we were also doing programs where the kids were creating their own theatre pieces based on their life experiences and issues that were important for them. So using theatre as a tool for social change and as a way to understand the world and their lives better. And so, I start there because I think in some ways, doing that work, using theatre as a tool, is on the same spectrum as the work I did later with film and writing. Theatre was a platform on which the kids were telling their stories, and I was helping them craft that and shape it. I was providing the platform for them to tell their stories. And in many ways, that’s the same philosophical approach I have with my writing and my documentary filmmaking. I’m trying to provide a platform on which people are telling their stories, and I’m trying to help those stories get heard and get amplified. And I see myself as the vehicle, not so much the storyteller per se.
The main thing that shaped me politically was when I came back to Jerusalem a second time in the fall of 2000. I was there for four years, and I was doing work for a peace organization that worked with Israeli and Palestinian youth. And that’s when I really started what I would call my political writing. Most of the writing I do is the intertwining of the personal and the political, and that started there. The defining event of that four years, was when one of the kids in the program that I worked in, was murdered. He was killed the week before I got there actually. So struggling to figure out how to respond to that—we had to respond as an organization, but personally I wasn’t satisfied with the organization’s response and I wanted to find ways to respond to that personally. And so the play that I wrote was my attempt to do that, but I think that also very much informed so much of my analysis of what I saw going on around me and the questions that I was asking myself about what I wanted to do about that. After a period of time, it didn’t feel like it was enough to bring Palestinian and Israeli youth together for dialogue. I became progressively critical of that work for a lot of reasons, but even aside from that I wanted to be able to say the things that I thought were important to say. And that wasn’t my role at the program, so that was when I began to move away from that organization.
During that time, I had been writing email updates to my friends and family back home about what I was seeing and what I was witnessing and what was happening around me in Palestine and Israel. I began to realize that more and more people were reading them, and friends of mine were telling me that the perspective that I was writing was not one they had access to elsewhere. It certainly wasn’t the perspective they were hearing in the mainstream media. They started to forward my emails to their friends and family and so I began to write those emails a little bit more intentionally. I started to really craft them and think about what I wanted to say with them and how I could say them. I think in many ways, what I do now as writer comes from there.
And then in terms of the filmmaking, I started a video dialogue project with Palestinian and Israeli youth. That was my first time picking up a video camera, to exchange these messages between the kids, or should I say teenagers. They were not often able to meet face to face, especially because the Palestinian youth’s freedom of movement was greatly curtailed by the Israeli army with curfews and closures and check points. But as an international, I had far more freedom of movement so I could go to Ramallah and take messages from Palestinian youth there, then I could go to Tel Aviv and show the Israeli youth the messages from the Palestinian youth, then I could film their responses and I could take these responses to the West Bank town of Jenin. I did this over a number of years, and the youth themselves began to push the project into more complex realms. And in the summer of 2004, a group of youth invited me to go to Gaza with my video camera because they wanted to deliver messages to their Israeli counterparts. What I later realized is that they had set up my first documentary shoot because they realized it would be far more effective not just to speak to the camera, but to use the camera to show their Israeli colleagues the destruction and what had happened. So they brought me places to show friends of theirs whose houses had been destroyed, friends of theirs who had been killed on a strike that was aimed at militants (but of course civilians in the vicinity of militants would get killed), or to talk to the family of the 16 year old boy who was killed in one of those strikes. So that project and that experience of filming with those youth in Gaza and then finding someone to help me edit the footage and figuring out that end of it, really excited me in the sense of what a powerful tool video and film could be. Not just a tool of dialogue as it was in this project, but it began to make me think about how it could be used as a tool for activism. And so yeah, a few months after that was when I ended up going to Darfur and ended up making my first documentary film with two colleagues of mine, which was called Darfur Diaries.
What initially drew you to Jerusalem and Palestine?
I grew up Jewish, and so Israel had always been on my consciousness but mostly because I had all these friends that had gone on a teen tour in Israel in high school or did a semester abroad there. In my mind, Israel was sort of Jewish summer camp or Jewish youth group. I don’t think that was a conscious association I had, but I think subconsciously that was my association with Israel because that was the context in which I had learned about Israel. A very partial narrative. And I was never able to do one of those teen tours or spend a semester in college that all my friends had done. So later in life, like in my mid-20s, I found out about this fellowship from the Dorot Foundation to spend a year living in Israel, and I was like, “Okay, this is a good opportunity for me to be there and check it out.” I don’t really think I had any particular strong feelings about Israel except for that I definitely knew that I liked the idea of going and spending some time there. So I applied for this fellowship, and I got it. That was the 1997-1998 academic year. That was eye opening. I’m almost embarrassed to say how little I followed the news at that stage, how little I knew that there was an occupation, let alone what that meant and how it impacted the lives of Palestinians.
I really knew almost nothing and when I got there, I was walking through the old city of Jerusalem. I found myself talking to all the Palestinian merchants that I met and just heard from people about what occupation was and what it meant . And people were warning me that another war was going to break out and it didn’t happen until a few years later, but these Palestinian merchants were letting me know that it wasn’t going well and it was collapsing and fresh conflict was going to erupt. That is exactly what did end up happening. And then when I went back to Jerusalem in 2000, that was much more intentionally to do work around the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the interest of which really developed my year of the fellowship. I think my feeling of wanting to be a part of those stories being told and wanting to find ways to respond to the injustices I was seeing, that developed during those four years.
Can you talk a bit about laughter and joy as forms of resistance?
In my experience, I think some of the most inspiring moments of humanity that I’ve witnessed have come from people who have been experiencing the most brutal forms of dehumanization. In some cases, in those contexts, the ability to laugh, to hold onto your sense of humor, to have joy, to celebrate a wedding….all of that becomes a really powerful form of resistance because it’s holding on to one’s dignity and holding onto one’s humanity in situations that are seeking to strip people of that. It was really important in the Darfur film and other films of mine to try and show those moments when you see people laughing and you see people making jokes and celebrating. It’s only when we see that are we able to see people in their fully three dimensional humanity. Because so often when we see people on the news who have experienced horrible victimization, we usually only see them in the context of that victimization, and then they become victims with a capital “V” or refugees with a capital “R” as if that’s their whole identity. Even if it’s well intentioned, that becomes it’s own form of dehumanization. So recognizing that yeah, even people who are experiencing horrible oppression and violence, they still want to find reasons to experience joy. They want to sing. They want to celebrate. They just want to live lives of dignity and they carve that out for themselves under these impossible circumstances.
Another quick story that illustrates that is when I was in Gaza in 2008. I had this cartoon paper cutout with me called “Flat Stanley,” which my nephew had given to me. I was staying with a family in Gaza, whose daughters had experienced really horrible trauma. I brought out Flat Stanley to introduce him to everyone because I couldn’t just keep him in the bag. [laughs] And Doctor Samir, the father of the family, basically pounced on Flat Stanley. And what I mean by that is he just took him and started making funny poses with him and had a contest with daughters to see who could pose with Flat Stanley in the silliest or funniest way and so the girls were giggling and doing different funny photos with Flat Stanley. And Doctor Samir was very, very serious about what he was doing—it wasn’t just a dad being goofy. He recognized that this was an opportunity for his daughters to laugh and play, and he realized that if his daughters, with the trauma they had been through and were likely to still go through, were going to have any chance to grow up as intact human beings, they had to laugh. And he was taking that laughter very seriously. I think that’s a form of powerful resistance because people who want to formally dehumanize Palestinians in Gaza, they’re not interested in them holding onto their dignity, they’re trying to crush their dignity. And insisting on nurturing that humanity and that dignity, I think that is a form of resistance.
We know you’re a busy woman, but could you describe what some of your typical days look like?
I’d say there are three kinds of typical days…there are actually probably like 16 typical kinds of days…but there are three sort of categories of what my days might be like. So there are the days where I am working on a project “in the field,” meaning I’m in the place of where the project is based, whether that means I’m filming or writing or maybe I’m organizing. Maybe what I’m doing isn’t about filming and writing, but maybe I’m writing press releases because I’m doing media work around something because that’s what’s most important that has to get done. It’s being there in the mist of whatever it is.
Then there are the chunks of time where I’m generating the project back at home. So I’ve done the filming or the interviewing and now I’m working on making the film, or writing the book, or maybe the book or the film just came out and I’m working on all the publicity stuff around it. There is an enormous amount of hours I spend writing emails and doing administrative/logistical/organizing kind of tasks.
Then there’s the traveling I do in the US. That’s basically promoting the projects, but for me it’s helping them be as effective as possible. You make a film or you write a book, but if you want that to have an impact on the discourse that’s happening around the issue, then you have to do everything in your power for that. So I do a lot of speaking with my films and my books. And sometimes I do speaking that might not be around a particular project, but it’s more of a talk that’s connecting many different dots between my projects. So there will be period of time for a week or two where I’m on the road, going to universities or conferences and giving talks and that kind of thing.
What do you love most about the work you do?
I love what I do, but I think for me, it’s not about loving it or not loving it. It’s whether I feel like I’m doing what I should be doing. For me, the questions are more about how can I get more of it done or how can I do it more effectively. I feel like I’ve created a position for myself, where I really get to choose what I respond to and how I want to respond. And there’s always more happening that I feel pulled to respond to than I can. I would never get anything done if I were to respond to everything. There are always choices and trade offs, but I’m glad that I figured out how to create my life in such a way that I feel like I can respond in the ways that I choose to the things that I feel like I might have a useful response to. And for me, it’s not just a question of what I feel is the most pressing issue of the day, it’s also asking, "Do I feel like I have the capacity or the ability to make any kind of response that would be useful? Is there something I could actually contribute that would be useful for people there?" And if I feel like I can’t, I don’t.
Any advice for people who want to make a difference?
I always struggle with knowing how to answer that question because I don’t think there’s any sort of road or formula. The best way I know how to tell someone to do what they want to do is to just start doing it. That could mean taking some risks. It could mean making the decision that doing it is more important than financial stability. And there are some folks where financial stability is the most important thing because they’re taking care of loved ones, and I honor that, but I think for folks who feel like they have a calling, it’s just to do whatever that thing is…be it painting or writing or environmental work or human rights. Wherever you feel like you can make a contribution, you just have to start doing it.
What does the word authentic mean to you? How does your work allow you to live authentically?
When you talk about authenticity, the first thing that comes to my mind is I’m always trying to be very aware of the authenticity of my work in the sense that I often realize I’m part of representing other people and their struggles. And so one of my biggest fears in doing that is that I would be doing that not authentically or that my agenda would be layered on or things like that. So my goal always—and my struggle always—is to partner with people in a spirit of true solidarity, in a way that their stories are emerging as authentically as possible. Am I doing what I’m doing in the authentic spirit of solidarity and the authentic spirit of partnership? Because the danger of the kind of work I do, and even when it’s well intentioned, is there can be an imperialist kind of element to it…the white savior complex. And I think a lot of folks I would put in that category are very well intentioned, but I think there is a real danger of reinforcing power structures and power imbalances. So that’s the kind of thing I think about when I think about being authentic in my work. And my work and my life are all totally the same thing.
Often people will use this phrase when they’re describing my work: that I give voice to the voiceless. And I really bristle when I hear that. People say it with the best of intentions, but that very phrase implies that I get to choose who has voices and who doesn’t have voices and that I’m the one giving them that voice and it’s like no, I’m not giving anyone a voice. People have voices. The issue isn’t whether people in Darfur or Gaza have voices. The issue is whether or not those voices are being heard and whether or not, my work will amplify those voices and carve out the space here so that those voices can be heard and have some kind of impact.
It’s also recognizing that you can’t always do that entirely, but just being aware of that. If I’m the one editing a film, then I’m the one making choices about what clip of footage goes in and what clip of footage goes out. So it would be disingenuous of me to say that my own framing is not included. And there are times in some of my film projects where I’ve left a line in that makes the viewer conscious that I’m behind the camera, just to make sure that that’s owned up to. There’s no way to take myself out of that, but being aware of it and struggling with that honestly is the best you can hope to do.
And lastly, who are some badass women you admire?
There are tons, but a few names pop into my head instantaneously. One is Eve Ensler, who is phenomenal and is so inspiring. Huwaida Arraf is another. She the co-founder of the International Solidarity Movement. She’s a close friend and also another amazing source of inspiration. Another person I would say is a Bahraini activist, Zainab al-Khawaja. Oh, and Angela Davis.
To learn more about Jen's work, check out Donkeysaddle Projects