Name: Billy Tooma
Hometown: North Arlington, N.J.
Occupation: Instructor of English at Essex County College [in] Newark, N.J.
Where is your family from originally? Mom’s side of the family is originally from Calabria, Italy. Dad’s side, the Assyrian side, comes out of the Middle East. His parents were born in what was then the Soviet Union. Their families each having fled the persecution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My grandparents’ families left the USSR to escape communism and settled in Iran where my dad and his siblings were all born. My grandfather came to the United States in 1969 and in 1972 the rest of the family followed. Our family’s paternal line are [from the] Nochiya [tribe] and the late patriarch [of the Assyrian Church of the East], His Holiness Mar Dinkha IV, was a cousin of ours.
How did you get involved with literature? Were books a big part of your life growing up? I decided, when I was 10 years old and in the fifth grade, that I wanted to be a teacher, but for the longest time it was pretty much assumed that I would focus within the realm of history. In fact, when I was young, I did not like reading at all. But I had a teacher, Mrs. Albuquerque, for junior and senior year English, who, unlike most of her counterparts, saw something in me. It was that kind of mentorship and guidance which led me to discover a love of literature that I had not previously known existed. Once I was accepted to college and declared English as my major, well, the rest is history — pun only slightly intended.
You have an independent film company, Icon Independent Films, that focuses on documentaries. How did this come about? I have always loved movies. All different types. At one point I thought I might even give acting a try. In 2005, an indie filmmaker named Karl Petry and I were introduced by a mutual friend and I was in two of his movies as a background character. Karl, and this continues the thread of mentors appearing at just the right time, thought enough of me to offer up the opportunity to work with him behind-the-scenes of the second of the two movies I had appeared in. A year later, in 2006, I decided I should try and make my own film. After a few short and feature fictional narratives I figured I would attempt a documentary on a subject who Karl had actually introduced me to — Clarence Chamberlin, the second man to fly across the Atlantic, from New York to the European mainland, taking the first transatlantic passenger along with him. Fly First & Fight Afterward: The Life of Col. Clarence D. Chamberlin premiered at the 2011 Myrtle Beach International Film Festival.
What types of films do you enjoy making? I did one more feature narrative, Seeking Nirvana (2012), before I realized my passion was in documentaries. After a few months of searching for another subject, a friend of mine, Anthony Cirilo, asked if I wanted to get coffee with him at a local Barnes & Noble. We drank and perused the shelves and that is when Anthony started talking to me about poetry of witness, a fascinating genre that exists because those who have lived through, not necessarily surviving, war, torture, exile, and repression chose poetry to record their memories of the extremities they endured. Featuring the poet and scholar who gave the genre its name, Carolyn Forché, Poetry of Witness premiered at the 2015 Buffalo International Film Festival. I guess you could say that I tend to seek out the stories of those who have either been forgotten by history and those who have been marginalized.
What projects, writing or film, are in the works? I am currently in post-production on my third documentary — a biography on the life of Hubert Julian aka the Black Eagle of Harlem. Born in Trinidad in 1897, he went up to Canada after WWI before relocating to Harlem, N.Y., embarking on a career as a 1920s parachutist and aviator. In the 1930s, he made three different trips to Ethiopia, the last one occurring just as the Italians invaded. Post-WWII he became an arms dealer, conducting business with the Guatemalans and Cubans. He got himself locked up by UN soldiers for four months in the early 1960s when he entered Katanga, the secessionist province of the former Belgian Congo, carrying a bill of sale for a massive amount of weapons and ammunition. After about a decade and a half of retirement, he passed away in 1983.
Types of films you like watching? I do not have one particular genre that I gravitate toward. I am a person who judges films on their storytelling. I cannot tolerate bad storytelling. I have a deep love for the films of Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick. The Star Wars film series needs to be mentioned as well. One of the happiest days of my life was when George Lucas sold the rights of the franchise to the Walt Disney Company.
Favorite director? Why? Fiction films — Stanley Kubrick. There was a methodical individual who never settled for anything less than perfect. I love that he did not marry himself to one genre. He pushed the storytelling envelope each time a new film of his went into production. If the world was going to end tomorrow, I would probably opt to watch 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Documentary films — Ken Burns. While he did not revolutionize non-fiction storytelling from a technical standpoint — the pan and scan method existed before him — Burns was able to approach historical events and people with a very humanistic scope. He gives his films souls which help viewers stay fixated on the subjects. I am not a Civil War buff by any means, but I have watched his series on it several times. And, as a huge New York Mets fan, I adore his series on the great American pastime.
Your take on the current state of Hollywood? I would like to see less big concept and see more intimate stories. That does not mean I am not eagerly anticipating the next Marvel Cinematic Universe films, rather, I would like to see a greater balance. I also think there are a lot of great independent filmmakers out there who should be given the chance at having a legitimate budget and marketing machine behind their works.
What kind of music do you enjoy listening to? Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of music, however, I do have my favorites, which include: The Doors, Soul Asylum, Gin Blossoms, Counting Crows, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rodriguez of Searching for Sugar Man (2012) fame — getting to see him in concert was a dream come true.
What is your favorite book? I do not have one favorite book. I can say my top five titles, in no particular order, are: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Dune by Frank Herbert, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Jim Henson (biography) by Brian Jay Jones, and John Adams (biography) by David McCullough. Each title — including the two pieces of non-fiction — represent some of the greatest achievements in storytelling. They require multiple reads.
Favorite author? The names above.
What does being Assyrian mean to you? I have always been proud to be an Assyrian. Knowing that we descend from such an ancient people makes me feel like I am standing on the shoulders of giants.
How does the current situation facing the Assyrian people in the Middle East make you feel? It breaks my heart on a daily basis. Knowing there are no Assyrians living in Mosul and no Christian masses being held in the area for the first time in hundreds of years brings tears to my eyes. When I watched the videos of those monsters destroying our ancestors’ ruins and relics I broke down. I also feel a great sense of guilt because I am living in the United States while our people suffer.
What is the solution to safeguarding the existence of the Assyrian people in the Middle East? Is there one? Once the current evil — I refuse to name them — is done away with — wake up Arab and Western worlds — I think the only right thing to do is create an autonomous State of Assyria in the historical homeland. The Assyrian people have suffered greatly, especially over the course of the last two centuries, so enough is enough — give our people the right to self-governance and the power over own destiny as a united community.
What is your favorite word in Assyrian? I, to my great regret, do not know Aramaic. My father speaks it fluently — the eastern dialect. I did have the word amina tattooed on my arm once I learned that it meant, roughly, forever. That is how I see the Assyrian people — we endure and cannot be done away with despite the actions of those who have committed and are committing genocide against us.
If someone asks you to explain what an Assyrian is, how do you respond? I keep a picture on my iPhone of a map of the Middle East with the Assyrian homeland — the “triangle” highlighted. I tell people Assyrians are Semitic Christians, distinct and separate from our neighbors like the Arabs, Kurds, Turks, Iranians, and the Jewish people.
Any final thoughts? If the Assyrians around the world would stop using the churches they belong to as their identifying markers, our people would be able to unite and work together to achieve what is in our best interests.
Portions of this interview have been edited.