For filmmakers behind documentary on terrorism, a strange journey to Hollywood

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; 12:50 AM

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF. - The Oscar gifting suite at the Beverly Wilshire hotel is a roiling hive of shiny swag and bursts of crepe paper and crystal chandeliers and gargantuan orchids. Peppy vendors slip bags of free product onto the buckling arms of aspiring starlets and real housewives, who flit from table to table, leaving no gift behind. Amid the clucking crush is Carie Lemack, who's wondering how she got here. She's a tiny, intense policy wonk who lives and works near Dupont Circle.

The bestowers of swag make small talk, and she tells them her story. A short documentary she executive-produced is nominated for an Oscar. It's about terrorism. Her mother was aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which was piloted into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

"Oh," says a chocolatier, after hearing some of her personal history. She hands Lemack an Oscar made of fudge. "Oh."

Fate has brought Lemack, 35, to this Xanadu through a series of excruciating maneuvers. First, there was Sept. 11, 2001. Four years later, a suicide bomber in Amman, Jordan, detonated himself at a Muslim wedding, killing 27 members of the wedding party. Next, Lemack met the groom, Ashraf al-Khaled, at a United Nations symposium for survivors of terrorism in 2008. (His wife survived, too, but three of their parents died.) Together in November 2009 Lemack and al-Khaled formed the Global Survivors Network, which aspires to prevent future acts of terror by giving voice to those who survived past ones. Lastly, using a grant from the Council on Foreign Relations, Lemack executive-produced "Killing in the Name," about al-Khaled's efforts to confront radicalized Muslims with his pain.

The 38-minute film was nominated for an Oscar. And this weekend, Carie - whose life's work hinges on profound loss - has been grappling with excess, with a community that blots out the ugliness of the world by showering itself with gifts and trying on dresses until everything feels good and fits right.

"If this was Capitol Hill, I could navigate it," she says Thursday en route from the Four Seasons to a penthouse gifting suite on Rodeo Drive. "I know how to fight global terrorism, not do my nails. Which are gross, by the way." She looks up from her cuticles, slightly surprised with herself.

"This whole thing is getting to be really complicated."

Hollywood pre-gaming

Lemack arrived in Hollywood on Monday without a clue, without a decent dress and without a confirmed ticket to the big show (the documentary's director, Jed Rothstein, is the actual nominee, and therefore gets the tickets and, maybe, the statuette). Tuesday after appearing on a panel at the United Nations' "Global Creative Forum" at the Hammer Museum, Chase Masterson, an actress best known for a five-year arc as a ridge-nosed Bajoran on "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," approached Lemack to praise her work. Masterson discovered that Lemack lacked a suitable wardrobe and was without a guide to the bevy of perks available to someone associated with an Oscar-nominated film.

So Masterson connected Lemack with her friend Judith Orr, a makeup artist who was once married to the bassist for the Cars, the late Benjamin Orr. Lemack's new acquaintance knows the ins and outs of Oscar week in Hollywood: Where the gifting suites are, who's hosting cocktail parties for A-list nominees, how to find a decent gown at the last minute.

Cut to: Elevator doors opening into the crammed penthouse of the Luxe Hotel on Rodeo on Thursday. From a buffet of freebies, Judith Orr grabs a tall-boy energy drink and pops it open with her glossy, leopard-spot-patterned nails. The shaman is ready. The game is on.

"This is Carie and she's nominated for the Oscar," Orr says over and over again, escorting Lemack from table to table, scooping up gift bags, brushing by the porn star Ron Jeremy, posing for photos so vendors can demonstrate that people in Hollywood were, at some point in time, holding their products: exfoliators, jewelry, perfumes, bottles of liquids that eradicate wrinkles or cure insomnia, a $1,000 gift certificate for a personal styling session, jugs of alcoholic chocolate milk doled out by two blondes in white denim cutoffs, mutant extra-long-stem roses that retail for $70 each.

"I work with victims of terrorism," Lemack tells the woman promoting the obscenely priced flowers.

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