By Wendy M. Levy/The Commons
BRATTLEBORO—In local filmmaker Kiera Lewis’s upcoming documentary “Dates For Coffee,” the viewer is reminded things are not always as they seem. Seemingly innocuous cultural differences can lead to dangerous misunderstandings.
The title alone has disparate meanings, depending on one’s background.
For many Americans, “dates for coffee” often means planned, informal social engagements occurring outside of the home, to perform work or share information. The activity conforms with the American story of hard work, success, and individualism.
In the Arab world, “dates for coffee” does not mean “going on a date.” Rather, hosts serve dates — the fruit — with coffee as part of the Arabic cultural traditions of supporting family cohesion and offering hospitality during daily visits from guests.
The common element in both is in storytelling: narrative, sayings and folklore, traditions, opinions, and tales passed from person to person or group to group.
By making this film, Lewis aims to bridge the gap between these two worlds, often seemingly at odds. By what she calls “seeing the world as a series of different national or regional stories,” viewers are confronted with the limitations of their own worldviews.”
In other words, she says, viewers become aware of how their worldview is just a set of stories reinforced by histories and institutions of different nations or regions.
Lewis says her commitment with this film on a personal level is to be someone who stands for eradicating elements of racism in the world and for transforming global relations, specifically between the Arab world and the United States.
The film describes the worldviews of the two societies through several media and personal interviews.
Elements of popular and traditional culture from the two societies used in “Dates For Coffee” include archival material, news releases, articles, and online video combined with clips from popular television, animation, graphics and performances of folklore.
In 2012, when she was overseas, Lewis began conducting interviews with subjects from nations of strategic interest to America — Sudan, Yemen, Palestine, and Oman — as well as Americans from around the United States.
Currently, Lewis and her crew are preparing for their next shoots in Vermont and Washington, D.C., wrapping up the interview phase.
Lewis anticipates beginning post-production in July and plans to enter “Dates For Coffee” into the film festival circuit, where audiences at universities and colleges around the world will see it.
She also hopes to create what she calls “an opportunity for dialogue” with the United States Department of State Office of Public Diplomacy and Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
“The underlying mission of ‘Dates For Coffee’ is to show how an understanding of the master narratives and folklore of other societies is effectively a tool for peacebuilding,” Lewis says.
Lewis adds that one of the least challenging aspects of making her movie is finding collaborators: “People immediately jumped on board and loved the idea.”
Other than a few New York City-based film professionals acting as consulting producers, Lewis tapped local talent to complete the film:
Wyatt Andrews, videographer for Brattleboro-based public relations firm Mondo Mediaworks, performs second camera and videography duties. Freelance web designer and graphic artist Cory Bratton of Brattleboro is the graphics assistant. Shanta L. Evans-Crowley, also of Brattleboro, is media liaison and publicity director. Tim Mathiesen, owner of and lighting designer for Brilliant! Lighting & Design in Brattleboro, is on the events team for fundraising.
Lewis resides in Brattleboro and spent her childhood here and in Putney. Growing up in this area provided Lewis inspiration for the film, where she drew upon personal and collective experiences.
“I think growing up in a community of artists, activists, and peacekeepers with global experience definitely shaped my perceptions of what matters and what’s important and inspired me to think on a global scale,” she said.
When asked if living in a region with an overwhelmingly homogenous demographic affected Lewis’s project, she responded that in making this film, as a person of color in Brattleboro, she found that she has been concerned with telling potential supporters that she’s from here.
That’s something, she says, that she might not have to emphasize “were it more standard to be a young, multiracial woman from Vermont.”
“I found that in making the film I wanted to highlight the extraordinary people of color who not only grew up here, in the case of Joseph Kerlin-Smith, who is from the area and in the film, but also international scholars who choose to be here like Nawal Al-Jameel [of Oman], Manal Taha [of Sudan] and Ammar Aqlan [of Yemen]. These people live [...] and work here and represent another part of the Vermont experience.”
Originally published in The Commons issue #256 (Wednesday, May 28, 2014). This story appeared on page B1.