It sounds crazy, but that’s her plan. Asheville filmmaker and Arabic scholar Jennifer MacDonald fires up her “Luminous Scope” for a daring cross-cultural project.
by Jess McCuan . portraits by Rimas Zailskas
Mass uprisings in Egypt? Check. Yemen on the brink of civil war? Check. Thousands of civilians killed as American-led forces bomb Libya? Check. Not the best time to make Middle East travel plans.
But that’s exactly what Jennifer MacDonald is doing. This summer, the 37-year-old Asheville mother of two is kicking off an ambitious trek to Turkey and all 22 countries in the Arab League. In June, she’ll start wandering through Turkey, Syria and Lebanon, traveling mostly alone with a camera and video equipment. If it seems a little insane, it is. But MacDonald, who speaks Arabic and has worked for the U.S. Army as a cryptologist, is more likely than most to be able to hold her own. “I’ve had a long love affair with the Middle East,” she says. “I want people to peep into a world they don’t normally get to see.”
Because she wants to offer Westerners a new view of the Middle East, she’s calling her project the Luminous Scope. This month, she’s launching a website for the nonprofit endeavor, and she intends to make month-long trips to various countries over the next two years as she seeks out funding. Her goals are both artistic and, in many ways, journalistic. MacDonald, who says she will be “couch-surfing” during most trips, will document the lives of ordinary people. She’ll ask them what they think of Americans. Or perhaps how they look for a date.
She’s been emailing friends she knows from previous trips to the Middle East, and she’s seeking out new contacts on (of all places) Facebook—even though, ironically, until the recent unrest, countries like Syria didn’t allow their citizens to use Facebook.
Ultimately, she wants the Luminous Scope site to be a place where people can take a virtual tour of the Arab world. As she moves through the countries, she’ll collect audio and video footage. On her site, she intends to create a sophisticated map of the Middle East that incorporates both the video clips and bits of basic history.
Even in peacetime, it’s an ambitious plan. But add to that the fact that, since January, the Middle East has been in constant upheaval, with violent democratic uprisings against longtime dictators seeming to spread like wildfire. In February, the Western world cheered after 18 days of bloody protests led to the resignation of longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. By late March, the U.S. had launched air assaults to support Libyan revolutionaries trying to oust the country’s longtime leader, Muammar Qaddafi. So far, more than 1,000 Libyans have been killed.
MacDonald says the recent turmoil is no deterrent. If anything, the fact that people around the globe are now discussing Arab world conflicts means her project is even more relevant. Misconceptions about Arabs abound, she says, particularly among Americans, who don’t seek out varied media and are generally poor at geography. Ask an American to point to Yemen on a map and nine out of ten can’t do it, she says. Because she’s traveled there and tunes in to outlets like the Qatar TV network Al Jazeera, she’s taken a broader view for years. “I don’t see it as—holy crap, the world is being taken over by Islamic extremists,” she says. “I see it as a time of growth and change. Their version of freedom is different than ours.”
This won’t be her first global travel project, nor will it be her first time handling a camera. MacDonald was co-writer and producer, with her former husband Chusy Haney-Jardine, of the movie Anywhere, USA. The movie—a quirky tale that, in part, addresses how Arabs were treated in America after 9/11—was the couple’s first feature-length film. When it was released in 2008, it won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It starred several Ashevilleans and the couple’s actress daughter, Perla Haney-Jardine, who has worked with stars like Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2.
Chusy, who was born in Venezuela, now splits time between Asheville and Puerto Rico, where he is working on a documentary. The couple met while making a movie and then moved to Brazil for a short time. They now share parenting duties of 13-year-old Perla and a 9-year-old son, Lux.
If her life sounds like it could be a movie itself, the plot thickens. MacDonald’s father was a Green Beret in the U.S. military, and his intelligence and computer work took their family to several cities around the U.S. and Canada. MacDonald says she learned from him how to do martial arts and handle weapons at a young age. Sometime in 2004, after her father had retired and moved to Asheville, MacDonald walked into his apartment to find him dead. A few weeks later, a few of her father’s former colleagues called with information suggesting he may have been poisoned. Though she has not confirmed it, she still suspects foul play.
MacDonald’s own career started in the military but led quickly to the movies. At 17, she joined the Army and got her first training in Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California. For four years, while working as an Army cryptotologist, she also started making short films. After the service, she moved to California, where she studied Arabic, anthropology and film in San Francisco and L.A.
For a brief time, MacDonald thought she would be a Hollywood actress. She appeared on TV shows like Dream On, produced by the same team that made Friends. She starred in indie movies in the early ‘90s, and then in a live-action video game, Wing Commander III, as the love interest of Mark Hamill (who played Luke Skywalker in Star Wars).
But it turns out MacDonald is entirely too serious for bit parts on TV and in B-movies and video games. Her latest project is nothing if not a testament to that. She’s been on the edge of her seat watching the latest Middle East drama unfold, and now she feels it’s time for her to put her skill set and background to good use. Since last January, MacDonald has been teaching Arabic to high school students around Asheville, at Odyssey Community School and Christ School. Now, her goal is nothing short of a global teaching project—showing Americans, through a website and eventual film, that the Middle East is not quite what they thought. She has no illusions about the region’s problems, nor does she think she can solve them. “This is not the story of a young woman who thinks the Middle East is about camels and magic carpet rides,” she says. “I’m not going to impart hippie wisdom to everyone.” But she does think she can be provocative enough to shatter some Americans’ notions about Arabs. “Maybe you won’t blow their whole world open, but you’ve given them something to think about.”
For more on MacDonald’s project, check out www.theluminousscope.com.
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