This Too Shall Pass…

I have been working on “Twice Upon a Time”, a documentary film about my childhood during the Lebanese Civil War, for some years now. The film is finally about to come to a conclusion.

For the fact that you grew up during a war there is no changing. You will always have grown up during war. What can change is what you make of that experience.

On Friday, June 20, 2014, I got an opportunity to meet people who were making the best out of it!

I was invited to attend a lecture by Dr. Joseba Achotegui, Professor of Psychiatry at University of Barcelona, Spain, and author of “Ulysses Syndrome” and “Ulysses Scale for Refugees”. The invitation came from the Veteran, Immigrant & Refugee Trauma Institute of Sacramento (VIRTIS).

Between emails and in-person introductions, I managed to meet around 40 or 50 people that day at the lecture and the informal exchanges around it. That on its own is a fantastic achievement for someone like me, but it was not the highlight of the event for sure.

My favorite personal high note of the event was the fact that most of the people attending the lecture and all those esteemed professionals working and volunteering at VIRTIS today were war or trauma victims themselves.

At that time, this was a great unifying and defining trait about those in the room.

Today, when I come to think of it again, I find it all the more reassuring and uplifting.

These were people from all over the world who must have witnessed some war horrors or traumatic situations along the journey of their lives. Today, they are all doctors, engineers, professors, businessmen, or successful professionals working towards the improvement of other refugees and trauma victims’ lives.

When I wonder about their pasts, I see things I don’t want to know about. When I look at their present today, I feel that I want to raise them high and show them to all the sad refugees and war victims living in horrible conditions all over our planet.

Thirty years ago, in July of 1984, life was not beautiful at all for my family and hundreds of thousands of other families in Lebanon.

If somebody at that time had come and told us that we will be where we are today, we would’ve ignored them at the very least.

I wonder sometimes, when I feel so helpless towards all the refugees, specifically those living in Lebanon today, what can we do to tell them that even this, this too shall pass…

And will it?

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Film Students and Film Stories

Soon after I returned to Lebanon in 2010, I was given an opportunity to look into the inner and outer worlds of Lebanese Youth through teaching scriptwriting to undergraduate university students.

Truth is, I was blessed for the time I got to spent with my students, my friends. Most of them were mature youngsters who needed an opportunity to express themselves and an opportunity to be listened to. But for some reason, they always chose to express themselves in abstract terms.

Telling a story is something that students in Lebanon, and all over the world I am sure, do on a daily basis.

Gossip is all stories:

Somebody, somewhere, something, conflict, succeds, fails.

But for the life of me, I could never understand why our film students failed to tell stories when it came to film.

Whenever there is a film festival in Beirut, I ask my colleagues and friends if there were any good short films. Most of the time the answers range somewhere between, “None” to “They were too abstract”, “I didn’t understand”, “It looked really nice but there was no….how to say it? Something was missing”.

A story is missing. Characters are missing.

Everything else is always at its best: Exceptional Cinematography, superb production design, great locations, talented actors… But a story that goes all over the place with no beginning, middle or end. And characters who laugh and cry and act and react with no dramatic motivation.

When I taught two years of scriptwriting I had hopes that my students will possibly make better films, maybe films that some people will understand at least. I know they wrote scripts that everybody else in class understood. That was a good sign.

But their films were made and not much changed. When I asked,

“Why didn’t you make the script you wrote in class? That was a good story! You worked on it for months.”

“But it was too simple, too understandable. I want to make something more sophisticated.”

Truth is, I have stopped wondering why we don’t have good short films showing at our festivals.

I now believe it is a societal issue that goes beyond film as a discipline.

There is a lot of bravery in Lebanon, and a lot of cowardice.

Our students rebel. Unfortunately, they only rebel against rules.

And our society is so full of sh*t that even the young ones do not feel safe producing material that is simple for others to understand. Because they fear their work won’t be appreciated. The safest thing is to produce material that nobody will understand. After any screening in Lebanon, nobody, not even I, will dare to say, “I didn’t understand what the film was about.”

But the truth has to be told to these young people: Courageous are the ones who expose their minds and hearts to others in simple storytelling techniques, accessible for the masses. Those who want to be sophisticated can enjoy their sophistication in the one and a half screenings that their films enjoy in sophisticated environments. For sophistication definitely travels less than simplicity does.

Unpaid Job Available – Starts Immediately!

For days, maybe weeks now, I’ve been receiving daily screenwriting job alerts in my inbox with interesting* subject lines:

“XYZ Needs a Creative Screenwriter – Starts Immediately”

My blog entry is not about a particular job post. It is about hundreds of offensive job posts for people looking to hire screenwriters and/or screenwriter assistants. It is a topic that is often brought up but rarely leads to any change. This is why it is important to continuously bring it up. Writers have one trait that many other professionals may not need for their daily jobs: perseverance.

A million times we’ve heard the statement: Anybody can write.  Writing may be simple indeed. But good writing is not easy to do. Good screenplay writing is even more difficult. Let alone the first class screenwriting that all employers look for.

Often times, whenever and wherever a cinema industry struggles, screenwriters -or the lack of them- are the first to blame. Nobody asks producers how do they expect good writing when the right to get paid is something screenwriters have to negotiate (or beg!) for?

Visit any website that posts Film & TV Jobs. Browse the classifieds. Half -if not more- of the writing ads will be for “unpaid” or “low/no paid” or “deferred payment” writing assignments. These won’t be employers asking for “okay writers”. These are the ones looking for creative, experienced, produced, top notch screenwriters.

On the other hand, more than half -if not all- crew positions advertised on the same website will be paid jobs. But crew members are never to blame if a film doesn’t make it. Directors take blame. And money. Only poor screenwriters (literally and figuratively) are used as punching bags.

*I have decided to restrict this “rant” to comparing screenwriting to other film/tv industry jobs. I don’t even know how or where to begin if I wanted to compare it with professions like medicine or computer engineering. But I have yet to see a position for a doctor or a computer engineer that is no/lo/deferred or unpaid.  Until then, happy writing!

Twice Upon a Time – 35 Hours To Go

To all my followers on this blog:

We have 35 Hours left to complete our crowd funding campaign for Twice Upon a Time, my feature documentary.

Your help to support the post production process of this film is needed. You may help us by contributing and by sharing and spreading the word about our campaign during these last hours to people who would want to see this film get made.

Thank you!

Twice Upon a Time – The Documentary

Our IndieGogo Crowdfunding Campaign

To all readers and followers of this blog:

Yesterday, I launched a crowdfunding campaign for a documentary film I have been working on for the past three years.

I urge you to check the campaign out, donate if you can, but please please please SHARE it with as many people as you can, write about it, and help us put the word out!

Here is the link to the campaign:

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/twice-upon-a-time-a-documentary

Thank you!

Life, Stories and Films

Life around me here in Beirut is full of stories that make good film material.

When I traveled to America for a couple of months, I thought I will be away from stories and able to transform them to written treatments, synopses, and proposals. And although that was the case most of the time, there is still one pressing story that happened there and haunts me here.

I am already involved in many film projects from producing to directing to co-producing, etc…

The question is; when does the filmmaker decide to stop seeing the stories around and finish the tales they started to tell? Or do they? I wonder.

Venice Red Carpet: A Walk to Remember

This is a post I promised to write because we all know the thrills of walking the red carpet, but we don’t know the thrills of what comes AFTER!

The Venice Film Festival is not just any festival. It is Venice. And Venice is in Italy. So, yep, it is not a place where you can simply slip in your converse and go. You have to dress up. Particularly if you have a red carpet call. Never mind that it is at 2 pm in the afternoon, never mind that you are a young unknown celebrity-in-the-making, the show imposes itself on you. Even if your name was Niam and you really don’t fancy high heels and long dresses and red carpets altogether.

So for this festival, I got ready beforehand. I selected a long dress that will go with my hijab, and I took the high heel sandals I wore once before in my sister’s wedding to that special occasion. I am not a rookie when it comes to high heels. But these ones were special. They’re the hiiiiigh thinnnn heels you wouldn’t want to walk around with for a long time. But it was okay this time. All we had to do was walk the red carpet, and that is supposed to be easy.

By 2 pm we were ready and we had real fancy festival cars with classy drivers in suits -just like in the movies- we had them pick us up from the hotel entrance. They even opened the door of the limo and closed it for us. And the drive was neat and people looked at the car and started to peek to see who is inside and all that jazz… It felt GOOOOOD.

The driver informed us of the red carpet protocol, most important of which is, you never open the car door on your own. You wait for it to be opened for you. Could it get any better? And that was how it went… The door was opened. My high heel sandal was the first thing to step out of that car and onto the prestigious red carpet. The dream of thousands of filmmakers worldwide.

There were fans (don’t think they were mine) taking photos with their cameras and mobile phones, there were photographers, there were random people and bodyguards. We were told to wave and smile so I waved and smiled to the fans who always get thrilled when someone on the red carpet waves (that is one of the great lessons learned from the event).

We walked the red carpet. It was a bit shaky because of the long dress and the high thin heels but no big deal. We walked a bit of a longer path than I imagined then some stairs into the Sala Pasinetti where the screening was scheduled. This was a nice journey because it was one rare time where no one asked who I was or what I was doing there or where’s my ticket/accreditation. In a place other than LAU (inside joke).

Two and a half hours later, the screening was over, Michael Fassbender had announced the winner and we were all ready to go to the cocktail reception held in our honor. I had started to develop some pain in my feet but wasn’t complaining yet. I knew that Vidya was also wearing special high heels for the occasion. I kept my smile on and we went upstairs and took lots of pictures and the high heels were starting to irritate me for real, so I chose a couch and sat in a corner on the balcony outside. But as soon as I took a seat and a deep breath, somebody came to say hello and encourage me not to stay in the corner when there were lots of industry folks to network with. In fact, they were absolutely correct. And I couldn’t allow my feet-ache to stop me from networking with important people who came specially for our screening and reception, so I went around. The reception was probably between 90 and 120 minutes long but my feet felt it was an eternity. Those shoes were killing me and I couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to get rid of them.

As soon as the reception concluded, I was the first to leave (almost). The pain in my feet was unbearable that I couldn’t take a step without having to ooh and aah. Literally. However, the nicest surprise was yet to come. As soon as I left the reception venue, I discovered that there is no arrangement to take me back to the hotel. There are no drivers to open the fancy car door for me. And worst of all, there isn’t even a non-fancy car to pick me up. The job had been completed. We walked the red carpet. Now how you walk back is a totally different story.

There were no photographers or crazy waving fans or anyone. It was just me and Vidya, in our high heels, with killing foot aches. Few meters away from the venue, I had already thought a plan. As soon as we were further away, I’ll take off the shoes and walk barefoot. My dress is long enough to cover my feet, so I don’t have to worry about getting busted. The sight of my shoes in my hand won’t be very pleasant, but I really couldn’t care less at the moment. We walked away very slowly until we were far enough and I stopped next to a pole and started to bend down to take off my sandals when,

“You’re the filmmaker!!”

And I jolted back straight again, “Huh.”

“Yeah you’re the filmmaker of Super.Full. aren’t you?” There was a young lady, an actress, she later informed us, who was following us to introduce herself and say hello and congratulations. It was such a sweet gesture. And it prevented me from taking off my shoes at the designated spot because we feared there might be still more fans to whom my image may be affected (This makes me wonder if I should post this at all -NOT).

So we walked few more steps away and chose a new spot and I stopped and took off the sandals without hesitation. I couldn’t take one single step with them in my feet anymore. I was so relieved when I took them off, I can’t explain how much really. But it is one of the best feelings I’ve ever sensed in my whole life. Forget the Venice Red Carpet. The Venice ground is way better! And so, this was the beginning of the journey home from the red carpet. Our next impossible mission was to find (and stop) a cab. My selfish gesture, and the fact that we have to stop a cab, forced V to walk few more hundred meters with her killer heels. I happily wandered on the sidewalks and streets of Lido barefoot.

After a long wait for a cab, a driver finally saw us and stopped for us. We gave him our hotel address and that was the best part of the trip. That is, when we discovered we don’t have any money on us. See the red carpet attire is not one that allows for pockets and/or practical accessories. It is very much one of show off. So someone has to be doing the practical things for you while you do the red carpet. And that is why, in our excitement saga, we both forgot to put money in the small bag we had brought along. But frankly, I was laughing my butt off for the thought of an Arab and an Indian, in a cab in Italy, with no money, and we both can’t speak a word of Italian -except for Cappuccino. It was not a tough solution for that part of the problem though. As soon as we stopped by the hotel, Vidya ran up to the hotel room and brought the driver his money with a generous tip. But she didn’t forget to change her shoes before coming back down with the bills.

And that is how I returned from the red carpet. One unforgettable evening. After “a walk to remember”!