My bi-weekly blog anxiety

Ilan portrait

Every two weeks, before we change content on our site, I am seized with uncontrolled anxiety. Though I have millions of issues I could write about I am tormented by the question of whether they are appropriate for the Execution Chronicles. Can they deal directly with Hate Crimes or the Death Penalty? As I ponder, I delay writing, times passes, I miss the deadline and out of sheer guilt I finally succeed in writing a blog. I have tried many remedies: good sleep the night before, a glass of my favorite wine… nothing seems to work. This week, I just gave up and decided to write about what I care about and what transpired in the past two weeks when I was on vacation in Israel. You will have to decide if that story has any connection to Hate Crimes or to the Death Penalty.

One of the projects on which I am currently working is EXILE—an investigation into the myth of the exiling of the Jews by the Romans—a myth deeply etched in the collective Israeli and Jewish memory. As part of the research and development of the project, I visited and later filmed in the ruins of the ancient Jewish/Roman city of Sephoris, a city known around the world for its proximity to Nazareth, the place where Christians believed Jesus’ parents lived, and where Jesus was said to have begun his preaching in Galilee . Sephoris of Jesus’ time (1st century, AD) must have been a fascinating place. Though heavily Jewish, excavations found remnants of large early churches and Pagan temples. Sephoris was never swept in the Messianic religious fervor that finally led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple. Rather than rebel, Sephoris signed a peace treaty with Rome. Not only did it avoid destruction, it flourished and has become an important Jewish cultural center where the most important Jewish theological books (Mishna and Talmud) were written and edited. The fact that such important Jewish theological books were written in a city full of large churches and Pagan temples is a testimony to the tolerant character of the city and its multi-ethnic nature. Sephoris was never destroyed though it seems that around the 5th century it was mysteriously abandoned. At some point in history, on the ruins of the city, a Palestinian village named Saffuriya emerged. This village of 5000, existed until it was destroyed by Israeli forces in 1948. Most of its inhabitants fled or where expelled. Since the film explores the myth of the Jewish exile, it also examines the possibility that if Jews were never exiled, it is possible that today’s Palestinians have some Jewish roots. Could some of Sephoris’ ancient citizens have been transformed over thousands of years of religious conversions into the villagers of Saffuriya?

I spent a day last week in Nazareth talking to leaders of the Saffuriya refugees in a community that, 60 years later, still keeps the memory of its village alive. “What do you remember your ancestors told you about the village and its possible Jewish roots?” I asked the community leaders. Between endless cups of coffee and glasses of cold water, people pondered and tried to remember. The majority agreed that they had been told by their elders, as children, that the villagers has always lived in the village throughout history, while conquering armies came and went. Looking at my face and realizing that maybe I was waiting for more, Abu Arab, one of the leading activists in the refugee community, proceeded to tell me a story his brother, a well known poet, used to tell:

Saffuriya, his brother used to tell visitors, has always been a mixed village of Christians and Muslims. For decades, the villagers fought over the village’s true identity. One day, the Muslim inhabitants of the village decided to resolve this endless debate once and for all. They dug for days near the village’s mosque and finally found, among the archeological ruins, a crescent. They paraded it through the village as the final proof of the village’s Muslim origins. Then they celebrated for an entire day and night. The humiliated Christian inhabitants of the village were devastated and at a loss over what to do next, until someone came up with the brilliant idea of digging near the village’s church. Sure enough, after few days of intense digging, they found a cross, which they happily paraded in the village—proof of the village’s Christian origins. “But where do you go from there?” continued the poet, examining the faces of his listeners. The two groups decided to meet. Many proposals were debated when the villagers assembled. The consensus seemed that further digging was required in order to reach a conclusive result. It was at that moment, when  the villagers were going to vote on what to do next, that an elderly man rose to his feet. “Until when we will continue to dig?” he asked emotionally, “Until when?” Suddenly, silence befell the large assembly. “Since then, the crescent and the cross have become symbols of our village,” the poet finished the tale.

Now, you have to decide what the connection of this story is to the Execution Chronicles.



This week, I participated as a mentor in the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Academy. This year, the Academy took place in Santa Fe. It was, as in past years, an exhilarating experience. There is nothing more exciting than trying to help young, emerging filmmakers, full of enthusiasm and creative excitement, to launch great, stimulating projects. This year’s selected projects ranged from a film by a grandmother from New Mexico, who used the making of empanadas by four generations in her family as a tool to explore their Latina identities, to the haunting story of an abused Colorado woman, Virginia Gonzales. Her husband kidnapped their three daughters despite a police restraining order and got into a shootout with the police in which he and all three girls were killed. The film follows Virginia and her transformation from a survivor of domestic violence to a passionate activist who is now challenging the United States at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an international tribunal under the Organization of American States.

On the first night of the conference, Juan Mandelbaum, a producer, filmmaker and mentor in this year’s Academy, screened his riveting and beautiful film, OUR DISAPPEARED. The film is about Juan’s personal journey to Argentina, his homeland, to find out what happened to college friends during the repressive military rule of the late 1970’s. For me, the most moving part of the film involved Juan’s interviews with the children of friends that had been murdered. The children were infants when their parents were kidnapped and killed. Miraculously, they survived. Ines, for example, was only a few months old when her mother, Mimi, (one of Juan’s colleagues at a progressive summer camp they ran for poor neighborhood kids,) took her to the zoo. When Mimi saw the approaching soldiers she left the baby on the grass and went directly to the soldiers knowing full well what was at stake: torture and death. This brave move, against all her instincts as a mother, saved her daughter. Ines was picked up and raised by strangers. After a long and amazing journey, today she is a passionate young lawyer in San Francisco. It was riveting to see young men and women who were saddled by fate with a horrible legacy, trying to articulate their understanding of what happened and its meaning to their lives. It was exhilarating to watch how they were empowered by those horrors, transforming tragedy into hope.

It was precisely during that scene in the film that my cell phone rang. Embarrassed and annoyed, I of course turned it off immediately.

After the screening I listened to my voice mail message. It was from Mark Stroman’s daughter, Cassandra! It was the first time that I heard Mark’s daughter since I began the project almost 5 years ago.

Interviewing Mark on Death Row, I learned how important Cassandra is for him and how badly he wanted to see her at least once before his death. On this site, Shawna, Cassandra’s mother, wrote:

I can understand the very mixed feelings that people have for Mark Stroman. I myself spent five years with him and we have a child together who is now 15 and has not seen him since she was three years old. She is also a victim in this tragedy. I myself have cried for the families left behind of the people he killed, but mostly have spent years trying to explain to our child this tragedy. Shawna left Texas, where “many people grow up taught to hate” and settled on the West Coast.

For the past 5 years, I have been trying to get in touch with Shawna and Cassandra, so you can imagine how emotional Cassandra’s call was for me. I am still haunted by the coincidence of the timing of her call. Still under the impact of the film, I heard on the other side of the line, a mature, confident, amazingly honest and perceptive young woman. Cassandra, now 16 years old, told me that her dream is to pursue documentary filmmaking. She even researched potential colleges in her state with film programs!

In the future, I hope Cassandra can contribute her thoughts, feelings and impressions to this site and make her first, tentative steps into filmmaking by contributing some of the ideas and images she will capture to the film. I, for one, am excited to be her mentor! I have no doubt that despite this horrible tragedy in her family she will be empowered by it as she forges her own life, injecting our lives with her hope and optimism.