A pathway to cultural understanding


BRATTLEBORO -- Kiera Lewis never made it to Spain.

Intending to travel there as a Spanish student at Ithaca College, Lewis instead journeyed to Oman -- it's a long story, but it includes having the word "Oman" appear to her in a dream.

That detour rocked Lewis' world.

"I fell in love with (Oman). It's like Vermont in a lot of ways," said Lewis, who grew up in Brattleboro, graduated from Brattleboro Union High School in 2007 and recently returned to live here. "They're very humble. They're very down-to-earth. They're progressive, but they're traditional, which is kind of like Vermont. It's also really peaceful and quiet. The people are very cool and laid-back, friendly but reserved."

Struck by the similarities and wanting to share some of that cultural understanding with a wider audience, Lewis ultimately embarked on a film project.

The result is "Dates for Coffee," and the public is welcome at the first ever showing on Wednesday at the Latchis Theatre. Doors open at 4 p.m., and the showing begins at 5 p.m. There will be time for discussion and a chance to meet people involved with the film. Suggested donation is $9.

In "Dates for Coffee," Lewis focuses on the importance of storytelling, folk tales and folk traditions of dance and poetry in Omani culture, and the effect they have on Omani national identity.

"It connects them not only in a very physical way to each other but also to their culture," said Lewis.

Lewis became intrigued with this idea during her first four-month visit to Oman, a small, modestly oil-rich sultante of just under 4 million people located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.

With the urging and support of a folklore scholar and an expert in international conflict resolution, Lewis returned for another four-month stay, this time to capture some of the Omani people telling stories, reciting poems and bringing their rich culture to life.

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Beyond capturing some of the beautiful aspects of Omani culture, there's a bigger purpose to making the film, a true pathway to cultural understanding.

"For the American audience, the main goal is to say 'Here we have this particular world view, but it's not necessarily the idea of other people's world view.' ... It's important to understand the national narrative of other cultures, particularly if we want to view others with understanding," Lewis said. "We really need to understand the fundamental narrative and folklore of a culture to really understand the world through their lens."

"Dates for Coffee" is also intended as a love letter to the Omani culture, a way of showing the people there what at least one American sees as their great cultural gifts. It's also a bit of a cautionary tale -- Oman, like many cultures, faces tremendous pressure to modernize and globalize. Lewis wants to make sure they don't lose their unique culture in the process.

"Leaving behind your folklore for Facebook is not going to help your culture," Lewis said.

The title, "Dates for Coffee" is an intentional play on words, designed to highlight cultural differences. To Americans it means meeting for coffee; to Omanis, it refers to their tradition of eating dates as they enjoy their coffee.

Lewis embarked on the project without any background or experience in filmmaking -- "I was definitely learning on the go," said the film's writer, producer and cinematographer.

She has since pulled in a team of more than a dozen people who share her passion for the project and are willing to lend a hand. Many of them are friends from the Brattleboro area.

On Wednesday, Lewis will show a 30-minute short version of the film, but she ultimately hopes to make it feature-length and have it ready to submit to festivals early in 2014.

If "Dates for Coffee" is accepted to festivals, that will likely put on hold, once again, a trip to Spain -- she planned to go there next fall.

Jon Potter can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 149, or jpotter@reformer.com.


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