Have camera, will travel
Jim Parker, owner of Riverview Studios, during a trip to Albania.
Islamaphobia is not an American phenomenon. Twenty-five years ago in Bosnia and Serbia, for instance, fear and hatred of Muslims led to one of the worst examples of genocide since World War II.
But today, fear of Muslims in the Balkans is far less pronounced these days than you might think. In the very place you’d think would still host the most virulent type of fear, aggression, and reprisals, the thing most people fear is general civil unrest, because the region is still trying to settle the last remnants of civil war.
“In Sarajevo, people are afraid of crazy people with guns,” says James Whittier Parker, founder of Riverview Studios, down on the waterfront. “They’re not afraid of Muslims.”
Obvious question: why does Parker, a mild-mannered, Catholic, 64-year-old videomaker from Bordentown City, have such a handle on national and international politics surrounding Islam, especially in a former central European war zone? Well, the short answer is, he’s seen it up close, and he has the video footage to prove it.
Jim Parker is not your usual small-town entrepreneur. Beyond his video and television studio work—which, for the record, covers an array of subjects, from corporate-style videos and commercials to regular programs produced by the Diocese of Trenton and independent documentaries—Parker does the type of public service and humanitarian work that most people only aspire to. He’s cued up a lot of this world in front of his lenses and recorded the lives of real people facing real issues, and he’s put down the cameras to help them directly.
As for the Islamaphobia thing, well, this is Parker’s latest foray into doing whatever he can to make the world a better place. “I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to do cool things,” he said. “I feel like I’m making a positive difference and that’s very satisfying.”
Parker’s work on the Islamaphobia front centers around a recent alliance he and his studio have forged with Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom, a Trenton-based organization that looks to bridge historic divides between Jewish and Muslim women. The words “salaam” and “shalom,” not accidentally, mean “peace” in Arabic and Hebrew, respectively. The Sisterhood’s reach is on the rise, with about two dozen chapters either active or in the process of becoming so all across the country.
The specific program Parker became involved with is the Sisterhood’s “Building Bridges: Transformative Journey to the Balkans,” which in January became an actual journey to the Balkans. The trip was designed to start a positive dialogue between leaders in places like Sarajevo and Albania, and Parker became the official recorder of the trip.
Another obvious question would be how this same mild-mannered videomaker from Bordentown, who has not a trace of Muslim or Jewish or Balkan in him, became the filmmaker of record for a trip to a former warzone of ethnic hate he’s never seen before.
Well, that’s actually a somewhat involved answer.
Parker grew up in Little Rocky Hill, just north of Princeton, at the corner of his grandfather’s farm in a home his father, an engineer, designed and built. Parker loved to play in and explore his grandfather’s barn and decided when he was 13 that he wanted a horse. He mowed lawns until he earned $150, enough to purchase a pony, and ended up constructing a stable and fence with posts he gathered from the woods—and his father’s help.
“I learned about hard work from my dad, and I also learned ingenuity and how to be creative using materials that we had around,” he said. “I built a pony cart out of two bicycles that I found and created a harness from machine belting from my grandfather’s barn. Those were wonderful days.”
Parker was then able to board horses for friends and others, and ended up paying his way through college with the money earned from this new venture. He studied special education at Trenton State College—his mother was a special education teacher—and discovered filmmaking during an 18-month study abroad trip to Germany. He sold his car and purchased a camera for the trip, returning with “suitcases full of slides” and soon realized that he couldn’t afford to have the film professionally developed. So he learned to do it himself.
“I became such an expert at developing color slides that I ended up working for a company doing just that, shooting and developing slides for corporate slide presentations,” he said.
After teaching for two years, he left to pursue photography full-time in 1976, when Panasonic had just released its first professional video camera. Parker promptly purchased one—it looked like a radar gun, he said—and his first job with that camera was interviewing then-Gov. Brendan Byrne. From there, the business grew through word of mouth. “I’ve lived off referrals for close to 40 years,” he said.
And on the charitable side, Parker and his family are no stranger to helping out. All the Parkers, from his wife, Jan, to their three children, Christopher, Jamie, and Barbara, are deeply connected to community service through their work.
Jan, Christopher, and Barbara, in fact, all work in special education students. Jamie, Parker’s eldest daughter, has worked for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen for more than a decade and is now TASK’s manager of programs and services. As she became more involved with TASK, her father got more involved with the agency as well. He is now a TASK trustee and has served as chairman of its board.
“My dad has always encouraged me to follow my heart and to look for work that is satisfying emotionally as opposed to finding the job with the biggest paycheck,” Jamie said. “My parents raised me to have compassion and to see things from other peoples’ perspectives. They really set the framework for all their children to work in careers that serve others. It is very satisfying work and I am grateful to be in the field I’m in.”
How this all relates is, one of TASK’s initiatives that launched a couple years ago was Muslims Against Hunger. According to Sperling’s, about 1.4 percent of Trenton’s population identifies as Muslim. The U.S. Census stated that as of 2015, Trenton’s population was about 84,000 people, meaning that there are about 1,200 Muslims in the city itself.
And a lot of Trenton’s Muslims are professionals, such as doctors, who, as part of their faith, seek to help those who need it. Many of those, Parker said, volunteer through TASK, as well as other organizations and programs.
Many of these same professionals formed Medina Community Clinic, a Trenton-based group primarily comprised of Muslim doctors who provide specialty care for people who otherwise could not afford it. Not coincidentally, one of Medina’s board members is TASK executive director Dennis Micai.
So about a year ago, somewhere in this vortex where TASK, Parker, and active Muslim professionals cohabitate, Parker said he got to know “a lot of generous, caring, thoughtful people,” one of whom turned out to be Sheryl Olitzky, the founder of SOSS. Olitzky was impressed with Parker’s track record for helping community outreach-type organizations, as well as by the fact that Parker runs his own nonprofit charity (more on all this in a bit).
Olitzky told Parker about the “Building Bridges” initiative and Parker jumped at the chance to be part of what he considers an extremely valuable and needed organization.
“I offered to do a documentary about the trip,” he says. “I’ve already done an expanded trailer, but I want to make a 60-minute documentary for PBS.”
The expanded trailer, viewable on Vimeo under the title “SOSSBALKANS,” is a 14-minute look at some brutal facts about the Serbian/Bosnian conflicts in the ’90s—as an example, 8,373 Muslim men and boys were executed for being Muslims and buried in mass graves—and the Sisterhood’s visit as a way to find common ground and heal old wounds. Olitzky, who is Jewish, states in the film that travel is essential for getting to know other people and that she wanted to find a place that had significance for both Jews and Muslims.
Sarajevo was a good start, she found, given that 50 years before the Muslim genocides, Jews in this same region suffered a similar appalling fate. Also important to note is that some 15,000 Jews were evacuated to Israel from what was then the disintegrating nation of Yugoslavia when war broke out in 1991, in an obvious effort to keep history from repeating.
In the post-war years, according to the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, most of these evacuated Jews remained in Israel, but the 1,000-2,000 who returned are said to live in harmony with the Christian and Muslim populations there.
Olitzky did not respond to requests for comment, but said in the trailer that Sarajevo, given its history with both Jews and Muslims, was an obvious place to begin looking at the idea of healing and forgiveness that SOSS espouses.
Parker and the SOSS team spent about two weeks in Sarajevo and in Albania, where they met President Bujar Nishani, who was born, incidentally, into a Bektashi Muslim family. Along the way Parker was reminded of the fundamental humanness of other people, no matter where they come from or what faith they embrace.
Sajid Syed, a TASK board member and longtime friend of Parker’s, accompanied his wife, Simin, on the Balkans trip. Simin is a SOSS board member, and Syed says the couple were delighted to know that Parker was coming to record the trip.
“The Peace and Building Bridges trip was very relevant to what we are seeing today in our own country;” Syed says. “And it was important to learn lessons from history so that we don’t make the same mistakes. There are over 9 million Muslims in the U.S.A., but there is a trial in the public square for all of them, for actions that are perpetrated by criminals who have no other connection to them, other than the fact that they have Muslim names.”
Syed added that it was important for the group to see history, especially in Albania, where 92 percent of the population is Muslim and, significantly, where those Muslims took in hundreds of Jewish families into their homes during World War II.
In other words, it seems that the image of Muslim/Jewish hatred that we see in the Middle East is not the same everywhere. Syed says Muslims in 1940s Albania gave Jews “Besa,” which translates into a promise to protect them at all costs. So yes, Albania was certainly the right place to start the dialogue about righting misconceptions.
And yes, Parker really is putting together an hour-long documentary film that he hopes will air on PBS. After 36 years running his production studio, he’s gotten rather proficient at making films that, as he puts it on his Riverview bio page, “tell stories of hope."
People, he states, “want to have something to believe in. By telling the stories of an organization’s successes, through real people, in their own words, viewers can empathize with the people in the story, and empathy is the key to motivating them into involvement.”
For Parker’s daughter, Jamie, her father’s approach of quiet compassion is a needed tonic in a world that needs to be reminded that it’s not all strife or big, angry personalities out there.
“My dad is really good at creating films that highlight the kind, compassionate, and quiet things that people do to improve life for others while expecting nothing in return,” she says. “He truly appreciates the underdog, the unsung hero, the girl or guy at the end of the line who’s been given the least resources and had to make do.”
She says also that it is the inspiration inside the stories of these folks that her father is able to bring into the light for the whole audience to appreciate, and “transfer into an aspiration to become someone who commits wonderful deeds for others’ sake.”
“My dad is a brave man,” Jamie said. “I admire his ability to see the individuals and humanity where others look away, make friends everywhere he goes, and travel light.”
Indeed, Parker has long been keen on motivating people to help others through humanitarian causes and charities. In addition to his work with TASK and Catholic Charities, he created the Parker Mother and Child Foundation nearly a decade ago.
The PMCF is a nonprofit foundation that helps mothers and children in Uganda—where there is no free education beyond primary school, and many families cannot afford to educate their daughters—by providing direct scholarships and microloans to families looking to send their daughters to college or professional schools.
The charity was inspired by a trip Parker took to Uganda in 2006 as part of a different humanitarian outreach. There, he was stunned by the generosity and general happiness of the people, who just happened to be living in what could by American standards be considered primitive. He found a reason to help and set up the PMCF to do just that.
Importantly, for Parker, help is help. People can ask him why he’s involved in Africa or Albania, but his response is typically low-key and direct—people need help everywhere. So he tries to give it to them.
Indeed, as Parker sees it, concentrating on the “this is for us, not them” mentality is what gets the world in the trouble it keeps getting itself into. The us/them mentality breeds fear and suspicion that becomes some kind of hideous self-fulfilling prophecy of mistrust, hatred, and, often enough, violence.
Muslims, of course, are this era’s new outgroup in America, and Parker says that given what we’re presented about Muslims through the news and political rhetoric, it’s no wonder so many people are jittery about those who dress, act, and speak in ways so many are unfamiliar with.
“I think people fear what they don’t know,” he says. “The news and social media feed this image, the terrorist acts in the name of the Islamic State.”
Adding to the problem, he says, are those who pass on these stories of mistrust and hatred of Islam without really understanding anything about the faith, much less about the perversion of faith that a few crazy people with guns use as a weapon against humanity. There is, in other words, no context to what is happening, merely a mention that someone of a particular religion has done something terrible, and we’re left to fill in the blanks.
Terrorists are using the name of Islam, but terrorism is not part of the faith, he says. “If people got to know [Muslims], they’d see it’s a whole different picture that they’ve been given.”