On Tuesday, Feb. 21 Nizar Wattad came to Kenyon for three events with the purpose of teaching everything he knew about screenwriting. The events included a the art of screenwriting lecture on Tuesday morning, a showing of his film, The United, in the afternoon and a panel discussion in the Community Foundation Theater of Gund Gallery in the evening. Wattad’s appearance at Kenyon was planned by Visiting Professor of English Ghassan Abou-Zeineddine. The two have been friends since they were roommates at The George Washington University. Wattad’s visit was planned last semester in response to current anti-Arabic sentiments, according to Abou-Zeineddine.
Before he became a filmmaker, Wattad’s passion was music. He first encountered hip-hop as a child visiting Palestine when a relative asked him to translate rap lyrics into Arabic. In the 2000s, Wattad formed the first Arab-American hip-hop group, the Philistines, with his brother and a friend. Mr. Wattad found it empowering to be able to tell his own story rather than having his story told to him by Westerners. In 2003 their group released an album titled Self Defined. Eventually, Wattad began to have qualms about his work with Arab hip-hop, feeling that he was “selling suffering” and playing into notions of victimhood. “On a philosophical and practical level it became, ‘Go all in or walk away,’” Wattad said. He chose to walk away. Instead, he focused on his screenwriting.
Wattad spoke about writing for film at an intimate screenwriting lecture. He stressed the differences between film and other art forms, especially playwriting. Using the blackboards in Samuel Mather Hall, Wattad walked through the process of planning a screenplay. He addressed the elements of setting, theme, character and structure. He used Star Wars characters to illustrate his points, using Han Solo as an example of a character who moves from living alone to having a family. He said about the climax of movies, “It doesn’t matter if the protagonist gets what he wants, it only matters that he deserves it.”
Wattad pitched The United, a film about a soccer team with players from across the Arab world, to Walt Disney Pictures as “the movie Bad News Bears with a bunch of Arab kids.” Disney’s producers hired him on the spot. Though the film is a comedy, it deals with issues experienced in the Arab community, including racism and sexism.
The movie was filmed at a fortuitous time in history. It had originally been scheduled to shoot in Egypt, but the location was switched to Jordan because the producers felt it would be safer. The week film production started in Jordan, the 2011 protests in Egypt began. The story Wattad presented of young Arabs working together seemed more relevant than ever as the Arab Spring became a reality.
At the panel discussion, Wattad spoke about how in between filming scenes of the movie, he and the film crew would watch the protests and wait for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign. One cast member, a prominent Egyptian celebrity, even went on to protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo while filming scenes. The film finished production the same week that Disney International, the branch of Disney that had produced the film, shut down for financial reasons. Though the film’s director had to push hard to have it released, the film is now available in over 80 countries.
At the evening talk, Wattad spoke on a panel that featured the Lebanese-American photographer Rania Matar and was moderated by professor Abou-Zeineddine. The panel began with Matar showing photographs she had taken, many of them published in her books Ordinary Lives and A Girl and Her Room. During her presentation, she showed pictures she had taken both of Middle Eastern and American children. One featured a teenaged Palestinian refugee who wore an outfit inspired by Hannah Montana as well as a hijab. Other subjects for her photographs included the fallout of the Lebanese civil war and adolescent girls in their rooms.
At the panel discussion, Wattad and Matar discussed the the representation of Arabs in Western media, whether Arab-Americans have the responsibility to focus their writing on the Middle East, and their thoughts on the current exhibit in Gund Gallery. Wattad was impressed with the questions that Kenyon students asked during the Q&A session.
“At your particular time in life you have more time to dedicate to activism, to dedicate to volunteering, to dedicate to spreading the good word,” Wattad said. “I think college students and youth are the front line activists for change. Whatever you are passionate about, if you’re committed and respectful in how you share those views, get out there and make it known. And for God’s sake, vote.”