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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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!

I love America

I will always love it because I earned education there. Concrete knowledge. The equation is very simple.

Since I was a kid, I have always had huge respect for my teachers. And for teachers in general. Maybe it was my grandmother’s guidance that we should always listen to them. Maybe it was my fascination with knowledge and my curiosity and thirst for receiving more and more of these magic stories they used to tell. About the universe, about history, about geography, about the human body and the animals and the flowers and the volcanoes and everything. I am still in love with teachers who give me something. Maybe it is simply my Itani genes. Who knows! But this is why I love America most. Because I was taught there what I waited ten years to study and for that I will always feel indebted to the US.

I remember the first time I flew from Doha to Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C. I was on the one hand super excited about the trip and on the other hand super doubtful about what the hell am I doing taking a cross atlantic flight on my own to the unknown.

I was excited because this was finally it. This was my dream coming true. Did I not want to do this since August of the year 2000? YES! Here I was on the plane, financed by my own money, the money I worked hard (for real) to earn, to study film. I was ecstatic. Screw all the Lebanese & Arab money that is dedicated to teach yet more engineers and more doctors and more lawyers. Screw them all. It felt like a crazy thing, to spend your money studying cinema, and doing crazy things is great. Nothing feels better. Maybe. Except when you think of the other hand of the equation.

One colleague of mine at Aljazeera had been always telling me that America hates muslims. This regardless of the fact that he’s never visited the states –because it hates muslims. And although I always told him that the American people have no problem with us, I still had never met the American people to see for myself. I was going to be my own test. And, then, for the first time during all these years, I ask myself for the first time, in mid flight: Do I really want to do this? Am I sure? What if I discover I don’t like screenwriting? What if I turn out to be a horrible writer? What if I don’t understand their spoken English very well because they speak too fast? What if? What if? AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Shut up.

I always wonder if my love for a foreign country is just like foreigners love Lebanon. A poetic love of the superficiality of what America stands for and what Lebanon stands for. Because many of my American friends wonder what is it that I love about their country. And I always wonder what do foreigners love about our miraculous country.

However, I owe the people of Virginia in general, and Roanoke in specific, a lot. They welcomed me like no other. In fact, I still remember the first time for me entering the United States, the immigration officer looked at the passport cover and said, “Lebanon! How are things there now?” And I could tell he was sincerely asking not just chitchatting. And I told him things were alright. Because that is what things always are in Lebanon. Alright. Maybe this officer was the one who made me love his country. Because a young muslim woman who’s never set foot before in a certain country will expect anything from a pat down to an interrogation, but not a “How are things in Lebanon now?” friendly check. Today when I read a humiliating incident that happened at the Beirut International Airport, I realize that individual people like us, can change the world for the better and for the worse.

I owe all the Hollins community a lot of warmth and love. Klaus, Cathy, Euboea, Cynthia, John & all the other people (too many to list) who are now my best friends & teachers on the planet made it feel like home within few hours time -namely in the welcome reception. Hollins & Screenwriting have been changing my life for the better since we’ve known each other, and I hope that through this knowledge I’ll also be able to make other people’s lives better as well inshallah.

I resist the temptation to write sometimes because…

I resist the temptation to write sometimes because I worry I would border on politics. And the truth is I don’t really give a big damn about politics. Nor a small damn, as a matter of fact. Heck, I don’t give a damn at all. But, see, in Lebanon this is already too much politics.

The country celebrated Independence Day yesterday. It was cool. You get to hear lots of BS really. Not that it is rare on usual occasions. It is just cute when suddenly everybody gets proud of the country they mock all year long. I certainly don’t belong to that group of people. I am not proud on any day of year. I prefer to be honest.

Speaking of honesty,,,I saw a clip of the current Miss Lebanon being circulated heavily on the walls of Lebanese friends on facebook. Most of them were criticizing her for speaking “negatively” about her country. I salute this young lady. Somebody ought to tell the truth. And it wasn’t like she announced to the world that we don’t have electricity 24/7 or we have war criminals leading our highly educated people. All she said was that there is so much traffic and noise in the country. I salute this young lady again. Because she still lives in this country, while most of the people who were circulating the video live abroad.

I love the conversations I have with my friend. The other day we had a discussion about the effects of war on society and people collectively. How ethics shift and people’s judgement changes. I told her how it is very difficult to be “normal” in a society like this. If you can’t deal with people driving through red traffic lights, you need to “get over it”. If you can’t push and shove in places where you usually would find queues, you’re a pussy. If you think an M-16 and soldiers with machine guns filling the streets are odd scenes, you better get a life. When things like these become normal for people, they all become abnormal collectively. And when you, the pussy without a life who can’t get over these things, come to give it a second shot in your beloved independent country and point them out, people look at you as if you’re a foreigner: “Where are you from?” To heaven with you. To Lebanon with you.

In today’s conversation I told my friend a simple story that happened in my screenwriting class. A student pitched a futuristic story that takes place in Lebanon in 2047. In the world of her story, people were brainwashed, divided to two camps, and had no opinion of their own. They follow their leaders. In that environment, a man and his wife who’ve maintained their individualism start drifting apart when the woman gets sucked into the “public way of life”. The man decides to win his wife back and on the way to doing so he discovers a way to restore independent thinking to everyone else.
When my student finished her pitch, students started suggesting ways to add conflict to the story. One young lady said, “Maybe one time when the electricity goes off —” and I stopped her, exclaiming: “It’s 2047 for heaven’s sake. Will there still be electricity cuts?” And my beloved students all replied in unison: “Yes, Ms.!”
Tragically funny, I think.

The night is long. Thoughts consume me. Conversations never end. Love waits. Till a new post, have a good night. And good luck!

Tomorrow Feb 23 I’m supposed to be teaching…

Tomorrow (Feb. 23) I’m supposed to be teaching again. The first Scriptwriting class I gave two days earlier was fun. For me, at least! My passion for this profession is indescribable. I love my love for it. I am ready to do anything to help my students with their screenwriting skills and careers. I’m happy passing on my knowledge, and ready to learn more from them. Alhamdulillah 🙂