Masquerade ball

BRATTLEBORO — A phrase that means a meet-up at Starbucks here in the States has a completely different meaning in the Middle East.

A Brattleboro filmmaker decided her role was to help bridge the cultural gap that divides us.

The World Masquerade Ball is happening this Saturday, May 31, at the Stone Church in Brattleboro, a benefit for Kiera Lewis’ film, “Dates for Coffee.”

Lewis, a Brattleboro resident and 2007 Brattleboro High School graduate, studied politics and philosophy at Ithaca College in New York. She spent a semester studying in Oman, a modestly oil-rich Arab state of 3.3 million that is one of America’s few allies in the Middle East.

In Oman, Lewis studied storytelling and folklore, and how they relate to society’s world view. When she returned to Vermont, she attended Brattleboro’s School for International Training, where a folklore scholar and expert in international conflict resolution suggested she return to the Middle East as an independent research fellow and hone her focus on folklore in Arab culture.

This time, she traveled for four months in Oman and visited Jordan, Egypt and Israel and learned to speak Arabic.

“(The Middle East) is a place I feel comfortable and at ease,” Lewis said.

She had no filmmaking experience, but that didn’t stop her.

“I thought, ‘How can I share these stories?’ ” she said. “Then I realized the way to tell the stories of these communities is through film. I didn’t want them to end up in a journal lost somewhere forever. Film is more accessible.”

Back in the States, she took a video editing course and visited New York City to become involved with an independent film consortium. She pulled together a team of more than a dozen people — many from the Brattleboro area — to work on the project.

Lewis, a United Nations Civil Society coordinator, is the film’s writer, producer and cinematographer.

The documentary features interviews with Arabs from around the Middle East and North Africa and Americans from around the United States, all sharing stories, proverbs, poetry and other folk ideas. The interviews, combined with clips from popular television, animation, archival material, news, graphics and performances of folklore, are meant to explore the polarizing effects of misinformation and how understanding can solidify peaceful global relations.

“I found that people around the world have these intimate stories that drive the way they act and experience what’s important,” Lewis said.

“Folklore is an amazing vehicle. It’s a way to see a part of culture you can’t see on the news or by reading about it.”

The film’s title has a double meaning — “dates for coffee” in the Arab world refers to a daily practice of eating dates with coffee with family or guests as an extension of hospitality.

In the U.S., the term conjures the image of an informal meeting to work or share information, the quintessential American story of success and individualism.

“It shows you can use the same words, but without context, they really have no meaning,” Lewis said.

So far, Lewis has raised money for her project through online crowd funding, personal contributions and private screenings in Brattleboro and in Washington, D.C., where she showed a 30-minute rough cut (the film will be feature-length) to the Alliance For Peace Building and the Center for Strategic and International Study. Proceeds from this weekend’s benefit masquerade ball will help fund an original score for the film as well as post-production elements, including editing and sound.

The anticipated completion date for the project is January. Lewis plans to schedule some local screenings of the film.

Her hope is the film will not only stimulate conversation, but be used as a tool for international policy makers and those who work in international diplomacy — including the military.

“The use of narrative to build international relations isn’t new at all,” Lewis said. “(The film’s) purpose is to forward those initatives put forward by the U.S. government and the U.N. to build peaceful communications.”

The World Masquerade Ball is this Saturday, May 31, from 7 to 11 p.m. at The Stone Church, 210 Main St., Brattleboro. The event will feature live entertainment, refreshments and an auction of masks created by local artists. Formal attire and a mask are required for admittance. An unmasking will end the evening’s festivities.

Suggested donation is $18 in advance, $22 at the door. Tickets can be reserved by e-mail at datesforcoffee@gmail.com.

Those interested in volunteering and sponsoring the project can contact Shanta at 802-275-8152 or email shantavns@gmail.com for more information.