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'Jay' Jalal Jonroy, writer, producer, director: "The Hardest Thing to Do is Comedy"

By David D'Arcy, Film Critic, ex NPR 'Art & Culture Critic', at

(David & Layla is currently showing in New York and Chicago. It will premiere in San Francisco at Sundance Cinemas/Kabuki on March 7 attended by Persian American Hollywood star Shiva Rose (Layla) and the filmmaker J Jonroy. The event is sponsored by More cities' premieres, visit movie site at bottom.)


Jay Jonroy

For those troubled by the seemingly eternal failure to find peace in the Middle East, one solution is suggested in David & Layla, the ecumenical New York sex comedy by the Iraqi Kurd Jay Jonroy, which has been making the rounds of theaters in the US since last July. It's now playing in New York City.

Jonroy's feature debut is a romantic farce with an American Jewish man and a Kurdish refugee of the Halabja gas attacks of 1988 as its protagonists. The script is based on a true Jewish-Kurdish romance, and the real David and Layla are happily married in Paris. In Jonroy's version, David (David Moscow, who played the child in Big) is a neurotic Jewish guy whose fitness-addict fiancée is predictably more interested in kick-boxing and stretching than in sex. He encounters Layla (Shiva Rose) on the street while filming for a cable show, and the ball gets rolling, with lots of meals and discourses on food and sexual pleasure. It will do wonders for your appetite.

With footage from Halabja mixed in, this story is quite the dramatic cocktail. Those who don't recognize the name might recall that Halabja was the village in northeastern Iraq whose inhabitants were gassed by Iraqi forces in 1988, during the Iran-Iraq War, a decade-long conflict started by Iraq in which the US was backing Saddam Hussein. That was when the Iraqis were actually using WMD, but we weren't so concerned back then. See an informative exchange of correspondence on Halabja in the New York Review of Books in 1990. It should be read by anyone interested in the roots of US policy in Iraq.

David converts to Islam for love, but it is not an Islam that you will recognize from any of Homeland Security's multi-colored alerts.

I spoke to Jonroy in New York, over Chinese food, about spice and politics.

Why is the audience not going to see films about Iraq?

The documentaries - I've seen a few of them on DVD - they are not well-made. They're politically correct themes. In David & Layla, we've broken a few taboos. It's the first American film in which a Jew has converted to another religion.

Except for all those films about Jesus?

This is based on a real story - a Jew changing for love to Islam. And this film was written before 9/11. I didn't know there would be a 9/11, or an Iraq war, which has really made some liberals, film critics and some festival directors wary.

I thought you planned 9/11.

Ha, ha. Yeah, and with a shot in the opening credits of a statue of a bull seen from beneath and behind - we must also have predicted the stock market crash. From the opening credits, we wanted to set up the idea that this film has comedy.

What part of Islam did you grow up with?

I grew up with moderate Sunni Islam, the Kurdish version.

Did you go to the mosque every week?

As a teenager, I went on Fridays with my dad, until my older brother discovered films. We would say we were going to the mosque, and watch films instead.

What was your father's job?

He was an entrepreneur. He owned a flour mill and some real estate.

Did your mother work?

No. But she was the wisest among us, and the most liberal. For example, she allowed my sisters to study in Baghdad, which was rarely done at that time. I have the impression, surprisingly, that American liberals, including some critics and festivals, they become defensive about the Muslim world. Even though the Muslim religion is only 1400 years old, we're supposed to forget about all the old traditions of Kurds, Iranians, Syrians and Lebanese, which were liberal and wine-drinking. These critics think women are supposed to be following their religion. In Christian films, you don't do that. You don't expect all Christians to follow the edicts of religion until they are married. Somehow the critics are being pushed around by Al-Jazeera and the pushy Saudi Wahabis, who are the most conservative.

How would the Saudis feel about a comedy like this?

Jack Nicholson said, "From 9/11 on, I'll only do comedies." It's the most honest - you either make people laugh, or you don't. Comedy is harder to write, act or direct. Festivals expect these serious subjects to be treated dramatically. People ask you to go for "a little more depth" and seriousness. There are so many documentaries, you see so many war images. It's time for comic relief, and you get away with a lot more.

How was your family affected by Saddam?

Two members of my family were in prison - my brother-in-law and my younger brother, who was in Abu Ghraib prison. So one of the upsetting things for me, and for a lot of Iraqi Shias and Kurds, is that this damn prison, where hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered, should have been declared a museum, instead of now being known only for atrocities of some American soldiers. Thanks to Al-Jazeera and Arab oil media, and thanks to Bush's stupidity, they wiped that history from Saddam's era all away. What do people all around the world know when they hear of Abu Ghraib? American atrocities.

And now they'll get a love story?

I told you that the hardest thing to do is comedy. Even harder is romantic comedy, because everyone in the audience knows something about sensuality. We have Shiva Rose, who is very sexy, even though we're told that Muslim women are supposed to be shown without having any sexuality. Not one single sexual body part is shown. It's suggestive, people imagine it. In London, one person said this film needs to be censored. It doesn't need to be censored. Peoples' imaginations need to be censored.

How would you explain the Iraqi gas attack on the civilian population of Halabja to people who don't know it?

This was an eight-year war in which the Reagan and Bush administrations supported Baghdad. Helicopters, airplanes, both sides needed to be supplied. Eight years. Iran was sending waves of youth, saying they would go to heaven. Meanwhile, Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction that he had experimented with, gas bombs from Germany, some delivery weapons from the UK. He used it on Halabja, because Halabja was not only a Kurdish stronghold, but the Iranians were on the border. So he assumed that there wouldn't be any cameras.

What's different about Iraq today is that all the cameras of the world are there. Saddam would not allow any journalists there. (For that matter [in Kurdistan] neither does Turkey.) He didn't realize that there would be the footage in the film that I use showing the massacre of five thousand people, including babies, taken by Iranian amateur journalists. There was also a famous photographer from National Geographic. He used it because he wanted to see whether through these weapons he could get rid of his opponents, without destroying the real estate, and in five minutes, more than five thousand people were gassed to death.

At the time, the United States did not think this was serious enough to impose sanctions on Iraq.

No. There were no protests.

There were, but not from the US government, even though the attack was evoked by Bush, Cheney, Condi Rice and Scooter Libbey as a reason why the US should attack Iraq in 2003. Back in 1988, trade was too profitable with Iraq to endanger it with any human rights concerns, even if thousands of people were being gassed to death.

The attitude seemed to be "let the two dogs fight until they're dead."

I think it was clear that the US was eager for the Iranians to die first, and the civilians of Halabja were perceived to have been on the Iranian side. As Iraqi Kurds, given the genocidal treatment of that population by Baghdad, that would have been no surprise. At the time, Saddam Hussein was "our son of a bitch" in the region, as Frankin Delano Roosevelt would have put it.

To this day, what is American policy in the Middle East? To talk about democracy and to support all these sheikdoms - oil sheikdoms in the Gulf, dictators in Syria, a corrupt military government in Egypt, all the way from Morocco to Iraq.



You shot this film all in New York City?

And in Brooklyn.

That's part of New York City. How did you cast this film?

We tried to get Salma Hayek. She was shooting in South Africa, and the script, to be immodest, was too strong. We actually got a French-Iranian actress, and we had a bigger name to play David [Jeremy Piven], but schedules changed. Shiva Rose was our biggest surprise. It was her first film role. Fortunately we also had Kerry Washington on the set at times - she was the girlfriend of David Moscow, and she would direct him. Her advice tended to be just what we needed - get more physical.

When I've seen David & Layla with an audience, the crowd has loved it. You've been out in theaters for some time now, and the film has not reached much of an audience. What happened?

We still haven't finished our run. But I have learned that you need $5 million to market a film successfully.

One of my favorite lines in your film is said by an older woman as she is about to perform oral sex on a man her age: "Okay, Mr. President."

At the end, when David and Layla get married, I didn't want to just end with love scenes, so we had the older couple eat some baklava made with marijuana.

You end with sex and drugs.

Sex and organic drugs.

Did you smoke marijuana as a young man in Iraq?

No, I was too young.

Did you drink?

I started that as a student in London.

A lot in the film focuses on male anxiety about the penis. Is this an anxiety that you experience?

Who doesn't? There were some small-town film critics who complained that the Jewish characters in the film were obsessed with sex. My point would be that all men, if they are honest, are obsessed with sex at a certain age, especially if they eat spicy food.

As someone who loves food and is obsessed with sex, could you tell me which food is the best aphrodisiac?

Generally, spicy food helps. All these "viagras" work on the principal of increasing the blood flow. Spice is supposed to be good for the blood. So is wine.


Cities, Showtimes, Trailer and Reviews at official movie site: David & Layla

Original article at:

... Payvand News - 02/27/08 ... --

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