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.

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What a Wonderful World!

Three major Gulf countries, namely Saudi, Qatar & UAE, admitted that they have been funding people on both sides of the conflict in Syria with money & weapons. The three gulf states held a joint press conference in Damascus earlier today, and apologized to the Syrian people. Qatar said it will cancel plans to build its sub-merged resort, The Amphibious 1000, and hand the $500 million to Syrian farmers. UAE said it will share half the profit of the Dubai Expo2020 they just won the bid for, while Saudi pledged a “carte blanche” commitment to the rebuilding of Syria and its infrastructure. The gulf states added that for every personal weapon they supplied during the past three years, they will pay to educate ten students from preschool to high school.

In Lebanon, most political leaders felt embarrassed when they saw what the Gulf countries did. Since the country has no ability to donate anything really, the ministers submitted permanent resignation from political life and returned all the money they stole from the public taxes or that they had obtained through shady transactions.

Thousands of Lebanese & Syrian citizens took to the streets of Lebanese cities and towns in joy. In a very post modernistic fashion, not a single bullet was fired during these celebrations. The people carried balloons and distributed Baklava to the passers by.

What a wonderful world…it would be.

Faith & Hope in Lebanon

I was taking a look at older posts I had written when I was still a recent returnee to the country.

It is unsettling for me to admit to myself that I had not returned to Beirut with a neutral self. In fact, I had returned to Beirut with extra enthusiasm and energy to try and make it somehow part of who I am. I wanted it to be more than “a city I was born in but feel nothing special towards”.

Three years later today, I still don’t feel anything special towards it nor towards any other city in the world.

My “complicated relationship” with Beirut has given me a lot of awareness. First of all, it encouraged me to take up any (and every) opportunity to travel out of it. These experiences are always good to get to know cities in various countries around the world. The more cities you get to know, the more you discover that, “Guess what? They’re all the same.” They all have good parts and bad parts, they all have thieves and filthy rich people and those who are neither this nor that, they all have good people and they all have hypocrites walking their streets day and night, they all have rather safe districts and rather scary neighborhoods.

“And guess what? It’s okay.” This is humanity. Nobody said life was going to be a nice and fair ride. It will never be. Get over it.

When you want to give a certain city the evil eye and walk around pointing fingers, you will be able to do that wherever you are. Pick Paris, New York, Beirut, Reykjavik, Toronto, or any city you name. The cities that won’t belong to this list are the exceptions (if there are any!)

The truth is that we have to give it to the people of Beirut. They have been to hell and they may still be trying to recover from that journey. Journeys take time. People need love, they need patience and they need a lot of FAITH to make it through such journeys. Faith in that patience pays, in that a better future is possible, in that good deeds pay most of the time, and in that one day things will be better for real. And just like in a film script, they need to be ready to do whatever it takes them in order to get to their goal.

The failure of generation after generation in rebuilding Beirut is no excuse for any of the generations.

“But guess what?”

We have not failed. The future for us (today) is better than our present (yesterday). And the future for the young generations (tomorrow) can also be better than their present (today).

My friends and classmates were all born during the civil war. Our country and our cities -Beirut specifically- handed us blow after blow. We might not be the best children for Beirut & Lebanon, we might not be able to tolerate it as much as our parents and grandparents do/did, we might not be very enthusiastic to give back to a place that hurt us so much. Yet, here we are. Giving back. We give back with broken hearts, with faded hope, with less faith in the country perhaps, but we still try.

To recover from war is not something people should do on an individual basis only. Recovering from war is a generational process. DENIAL has not been serving us well for the past two decades. The wounds have to be exposed. The past has to be unveiled. We need to know in order to move forward. We need to know how ugly was the road behind, so that we can see how good the road is now. And we also need to look around and see how green the grass is on the other side, so that we don’t ever stop and think, “We’re in a much better place than before.”

We need to keep the wheels of faith and hope in this country moving. Today quickly becomes yesterday in our age and tomorrow is already here.

حارس الحكايات

.هيدي قصة حصلت معي يوم الجمعة وكنت قد وعدت بالكتابة عنها بهد انتهاء التصوير، ولكني كنت منهكة فتركتها حتى اليوم

في بلادنا هناك مشكلة عنف (شراسة تقريباً) مدفون في النفوس لأننا ربما تربينا في ظروف غير مثالية. الحديث هنا عن لبنان بشكل خاص وبيئة عدم الأمان المستشرية فيه بحيث يتكلم كل شخص مع الآخر وكأنه يريد أن يأكله في كثير من الأحيان. حقيقة.

يوم الجمعة صباحاً، توجهت بسيارتي من بلدتنا غزة إلى بلدة قب الياس حيث تمر الباصات التي تنقل الركاب من بيروت إلى البقاع لكي أقلّ ابن خالي ابراهيم الذي يعمل معي على تصوير فيلم وثائقي في القرية

بما أن المشوار كان مقتصراً على أن يصعد ابراهيم في السيارة ونعود إلى البيت فإني لم أكلف نفسي عناء ارتداء ثياب مرتبة وذهبت بـ “شحاطة” البيت. هذه تفاصيل صغيرة لكنها ستصبح مهمة بعد قليل فتحمّلوا معي

ولكي لا أذهب بمفردي سألت خليل، صديقي الصغير، إذا كان سيأتي معي. فرح خليل وقال أنه سيجلب معه بطاقة الهاتف (سيم كارد) كي يصلح فيها شيئاً

وجدنا ابراهيم في قب الياس، حيث أخبرنا أن علينا أن نتوجه إلى شركة الـ “ام تي سي” في شتورا لكي يصلح خليل ما أفسده “الوزير” بجعل كل هاتف مربوطاً بالبطاقة التي فيه -وهو أمر لا زلت لا أدرك جدواه سوى إما التجسس على الناس أو قبض الفلوس. ولكن، ما علينا

وصلنا إلى الشركة وقررت أنه كي لا ينزل خليل منفرداً وهو ابن الأحد عشر عاماً سأنزل معه -خاصة أن ابراهيم قد فك جبيرة رجله حديثاً ولا يزال يستعمل العكاز للمشي. المهم أني نزلت مع خليل وتوجهنا إلى مدخل الشركة حيث لم يكن مظهرنا بالشحاطة يوحي بأننا نملك قليلاً من القيمة في لبنان على ما يبدو

موظف يعمل حارساً (!) في الشركة استقبلنا بمجرد أن فتحنا الباب والتهمنا بسؤاله

“شو عندكم؟”

نعم: يا ستار (في قلبي طبعاً

“نريد أن ننقل شريحة من هذا التليفون إلى هذا التليفون الذي تم شراؤه في سوريا،” قال خليل
“متى أتيت من سوريا؟”
“من زمان”

كان خليل حتى اللحظة يتحاور مع الرجل ولكني أحسست بأن الرجل يحدثه بطريقة فوقية جداً، وهو مع عدم المؤاخذة، حارس وليس موظفاً ونحن لم نجئ لسؤال الحارس عن كرت الهاتف. تضايقت وقلت للرجل

“ما دخل هذا بذاك؟ ألا يستطيع الموظف أن يجعل الجهاز يعمل؟”

فنظر إليّ الحارس بوجه مكفهرّ ورفع صوته قائلاً
“انت متى أتيت من سوريا؟”
“أنا لم أجئ من سوريا”
“من أين جئت؟”
“أنا من بيروت”

الموظف المحترم، تلبّك قليلاً، وتناول هاتفه وتظاهر بأنه يتكتك فيه بعض الأزرار. وفي هذه اللحظة قلت في نفسي أني لن أغادر هذا المكتب دون أن يعمل الهاتف. وقد كان

فلنعد إلى لحظة الـ: “أنا لم أجئ من سوريا”. لقد شعرت بعد أقل من جزء من الثانية على هذا التصريح الذي أدليت به أن المجيء من سوريا تهمة. وأنا إنسان يحبّ سوريا كثيراً ويعزّ عليّ أن تتم الإشارة لها كـ “هذا المكان الموبوء الذي يأتي منه اللاجئون.” لقد احتقرت نفسي في هذه اللحظة أكثر مما احتقرت الجالس أمامي. أدرك الآن أن كل هذا الحديث كان يدور والرجل جالس ونحن واقفون. ما علينا

المهم أنني لوهلة قصيرة جداً شعرت بمدى الذلّ الذي يتم التعامل به مع السوري في هذا البلد، حتى من قبل الناس العاديين

هل جاء السوريون ليتفسحوا عندك يا حارس مبنى شركة توتش في شتورا؟ هل تركوا بيوتهم وأراضيهم رغبة منهم وأتوا ليتعلّموا الفساد والطغيان وأكل الهواء الذي عندنا؟ كلا! لقد هربوا بأطفالهم ونسائهم من الموت، وهم ولم يطلبوا منك أصلاً أن تخدمهم بالمجّان
وأقل ما يمكن أن تفعله يا حارس مبنى شركة توتش في شتورا هو أن تحترم إنسانيتهم وتعاملهم كبشر. أنا وخليل لم نطلب منك أن تبتسم لنا أو أن تكون لطيفاً. ولكن أن تحترم نفسك وتتعامل مع غيرك بتهذيب، ولو أتاك بشحاطة، فهذا أضعف الإيمان

بين هجرة العقول و فقدها

عندما زارتنا صديقتي الأمريكية في بيروت أريتها الملجأ في بناية بيت جدي على الروشة، ثم حصل أن رأت باب ملجأ بنايتنا في الحمرا وسألت إلى أين يؤدي هذا الباب؟ فقلت إلى الملجأ. بعدها وفي مساء أحد الأيام بادرتني بسؤال: “لماذا يوجد أسفل كل بناية هنا ملجأ؟”

تكهنت حينها وقلت أن البلاد شهدت صراعات كثيرة، أو أن البنايات القديمة لم تكن قد شهدت مشكلة مواقف السيارات فأبقت الطابق تحت الأرض خالياً.

وقد عنّ لي اليوم أن أسأل أمي نفس السؤال لأتأكد مما أخبرته للزائرة. أجابت أمي أن هذه البلاد تشهد فعلاً منذ الحرب العالمية الأولى (أو قبلها) صراعات مسلحة كل فترة قصيرة.

اليوم وبعد أن تأكد لي مما يجري حولنا أن “السياسة” و”الإنسانية” مفهومان لا يتفقان مطلقاً، أفكر فيما يلي:

إذا كانت أجيال هذا البلد (وهنا أتحدث عن لبنان تحديداً) منذ عام ١٩١٤ قد عايشت حرباً إثر حرب، فإننا نولد في وطن تكون فيه أمور مثلُ الألم والفوضى والفساد والقتل والسرقة والعنف والطائفية والحرب أموراً عاديّة. فلا عجب إذاً أن لا يسعى اللبنانيون لمحاربة هذه الأمور أبداً وإنما للتماشي معها لأنها من روتين الحياة، “هيدا بلدنا. احمد ربك بعدنا أحسن من الفلسطينية ما عندهم بلد بالمرّة.”

يا أخي أنا أحمد الله في اليوم كثيراً -بقدر البلاوي المحيطة بنا- ولله الحمد. ولكن هل أصبح تمنّي العيش في بلد ينظر الناس فيه إلى الفساد والرشوة والسرقة والعنف والألم على أنها ليست من مسلّمات الحياة، هل أصبح ذلك بطراً أو كفراً والعياذ بالله؟ ألا يحقّ للطفل بداخلي أن يحلم بالأمان يوماً واحداً فقط في هذا الكيان؟

الأمر الوحيد الذي أفادتنا فيه هذه المشاكل كلها هي أن “هجرة العقول” أيضاً أصبحت بالنسبة للناس أمراً عادياً، فإني أرى معظم الشباب بين نارين، إما “هجرة العقول” أو “فقد العقول” ومسايرة الفلتان.

Lebanese Heroes

A small idea pops to my head out of the blue. But it needs collaboration with a higher power in the Lebanese media industry. I directly think, “Let’s find out who is the Minister of Information in Lebanon.” Bibi, my sister, says his name is Walid Daouk. Okay! Is he “alive” online? She doesn’t know but she remembers that he has a twitter account. Go to twitter, look for Walid Daouk. Gotcha!

No. He is not active. Check facebook. Nope. LinkedIn? Can’t find the guy. Way to go for our minister of information. But I say to myself, “That’s okay. One of our ministers, Nicola Sehnaoui, is very active online and maybe I can get him to carry the message to somebody.”

So here we go.

I am a screenwriter. As I sit down writing few scenes one day, a need arises to show the extreme wealth of one of my characters. He has to drive an expensive car. He has to drive the MOST expensive car in the world. I set out (on Google) to discover the most expensive car in the world. To my satisfaction -that is one thing usually Google supplies easily- one of the hits leads me to an article with the top ten most expensive cars in the world. I browse from the tenth most expensive to the extremely most expensive. And guess what? On this list, the second most expensive car in the world is from a “Beirut, Lebanon-based automaker”. Seriously? Who knew?

Anyway, these two guys, Ralph R Debbas and Sari El Khalil, are now on my list of Lebanese Heroes.

Another Lebanese Hero on my short list (I need help to make it longer) is Ziad Azarr. No, you don’t know him -not yet. Ziad is a young man I met while giving a screenwriting workshop at Al Balamand University in North Lebanon. The students I met at this university deserve a separate blog entry for their beautiful spirit. But today I write about Ziad, who just graduated with a BA in Mass Communication. He is 21 years young, a very talented and passionate photographer and cinema lover, an admirer of life and an advocate for change. The future and his life are all ahead of him. But Ziad didn’t apply for a job in the media industry. He will not be freelancing on film sets or Ad shoots either. Nope.  Against all expectations in his family, and to the surprise (and dismay) of many people around him, Ziad chose to be a teacher.

When I was curious to know more, Ziad wrote, “There is an NGO in Lebanon called Teach for Lebanon, it works with fresh graduate students from different majors. You apply there, and if you are accepted, you go teach in remote rural villages and schools in Lebanon to improve education there, where education inequality exists. I applied and thank God I was accepted. I am going for it. You might think why would a student so passionate about the field of cinema and shooting be interested in such thing? It’s something really interesting and I really want to be a part of. I want to change something in my country, even the smallest things count. It’s only for two years and I will pursue everything I want to do. What do you think?”

What I wanted to ask of our Minister of Information, Mr. Daouk, was to kindly request (or if necessary to beg) of TV stations and other Lebanese media outlets to include lots of positive stories in their news bulletins. Instead of spreading hatred and sectarianism and providing reasons for the citizens’ blood pressures to rise collectively every evening, maybe the media could narrate stories of positive change, of hope, of strong will and determination, intelligence, smart initiatives, and other good things that young and old Lebanese citizens are doing all over the country. If one story instills hope in one new person every day, we can slowly restore people’s faith in the nation and its future. And, guess what? As a trained storyteller I can tell you: Stories of success and journeys of hope always SELL more.

The Other Lebanese Citizen

Today, I came across the only other Lebanese citizen, besides myself, who waits at pedestrian traffic lights.

Suddenly, there was hope for this country again. Suddenly, the human race wasn’t so bad anymore and the future looked much brighter.

Amazing how small things like that can change the whole day for you. This stranger just made my day and possibly my week.

If you are another Lebanese citizen who respects pedestrian traffic lights, please announce yourself. And please encourage others to do the same.

I love you!