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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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!