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Entries in documentary (2)

Sunday
Dec242017

Open Shutters (2008): Cinema of Empowerment

Dear readers,

Below is an interview I conducted with UK based Iraqi filmmaker Maysoon Pachachi about her documentary film Open Shutters and on occasion of her preparing to shoot her first fiction feature Another Day in Baghdad, a project that happens to inolve participants in Open Shutters made a decade earlier.

 

1. The discussion about the line between exploitation and evocation in photographing people is a provocative and generative one that comes up early in Open Shutters. How does this concern come up in your own work, in what you decide to photograph and what you decide to include in the film’s final cut?

I think 'exploitation' is when someone is used in an instrumental way, to illustrate a point, to represent a type, state of being, when no proper attention is paid to the actual person as a particular individual. As a documentary filmmaker, I work in an observational way, trying to look and listen as carefully and honestly as I can, to maybe intuit what is going on 'under the surface.' I try to remain as open as I can. I don't write a 'narrative' ahead of time and it is actually in the course of shooting that I discover what the 'story' might be. I really don't like documentaries, which try to foist a spurious sense of drama or a fictional storytelling form on what is essentially something being lived at that moment in front of the camera. This feels to me like a kind of exploitation.  You never really know what will happen, or what someone will say and for me, anyway, this state of unknowing is very productive and allows you to really open yourself to the people you are filming. I'm also careful about  including something in the cut of a film that the person might have a problem with. I always check.


2. A little into the second half of the film, shot in an art center outside of Damascus, Nawara Mahfoud makes two wonderful critical observations relating to which I’d like to ask a question: How did you as a filmmaker handle tapping into the inner worlds of grief and heightened trauma of the photographer women? If, as Mahfoud states, she had encountered people who appear mighty, but then at some point when turning inward they collapse, if as Mahfoud states, one of the challenges of expressing pathos is that others never fully appreciate our own experiences then how do you as a filmmaker maximize the pathos channeled to the viewer? Perhaps you disagree with these postulates, but as a documentary filmmaker you are compelled to make decisions about highly sensitive, private, and painful matters in electing to make a film such as Open Shutters. Your production company website states that “all of Maysoon’s and Oxymoron’s documentary films have in common a drive to let people tell their own stories and to depict them not as victims only, as so many well-meaning films do, but as complex, often contradictory, individual human beings, who may be caught up in difficult circumstances.” Could you fill us in on some of your thinking?

This relates to the answer to the first question.  For me it's a matter of looking and listening in as open a way as possible.  You can actually feel the grief or trauma or fear in people even if they are being stoic or are trying to hide it--I won't push it but it's like a vibration you feel from people and it's maybe subtle, but it's visible if you are really watching. Sometimes it's a word stumbled over, a flick of the eyes, the way they actually structure a story. Sometimes you get a turn of phrase or an image which surfaces suddenly almost from nowhere. I remember one woman I was talking to--I wasn't filming, just talking--and she was recounting something and suddenly she said, 'I saw them burn my sister, it was in front of me and my mother.' I asked her something about this; she answered and continued to talk about something else, and then a while later, the image burst through again and she repeated what she said.  This was a pretty strong example of what can happen, but one way or another things do break through, sometimes.  I think really one of he most important skills as a documentary filmmaker is to be someone that people feel they trust, someone who is truly interested in their story and is not judging them. Also I think it's important that if you are expecting people to open up to you, that you be prepared to answer whatever they want to ask you, so there isn't just a one-way power relationship. Although, of course, I am the filmmaker and I am filming them and will edit their material and they are not filming me etc.


3. Just as I was thinking about what might have become of the art center in which the post-production part of the residency takes place, considering the Syrian civil calamity in the second decade of this century, a scene came on in which Um Muhammad calls you toward an image she has on the computer of a cultural center that has since become the headquarters of a religious organization. The destruction of Iraq in the twenty-naughts seemed unprecedented to the region for an outside, concerned observer. Today, we have three or four “Iraqs” in the region. Millions of peoples’ lives have been ruined or lost and in the wake of ever expanding unrest cultural heritage and institutions have been assailed or neglected. How do you navigate this scene as a filmmaker? 

I carry it around inside me.  The devastation is something that affects me even if I've experienced it from a distance.  It is somehow very close.  I had a very strong feeling of this when I watched the coverage of the '91 Gulf War on TV in London. I felt like the country and its people (who were nowhere to be seen on the screen) were being erased from the face of the earth. And this country was where my family had its roots; it held a part of my personal history. I remembered sensual details--a certain bird's song, the light at a particular time of day... and Syria? One of my grandmothers was Syrian, from Aleppo, where I'd never been but about which I heard so much in my childhood.  So, I'm walking around with this sense of the catastrophic loss that people are carrying.  What catches my attention is to see what the counterweight to that might be. It's often a powerful coming together of people or the making of something in the face of all the 'unmaking' going on inside and outside them--creativity, in a wide sense of the word, as an act of resistance.  This is very much what I came to feel was going on in the film you saw about the Iraqi women's photographic project.


4. Have more women gone through a photo residency similar to the one depicted in Open Shutters? Beyond the nine photo stories noted near the end of the film, have any been produced since? What has become of the archive of images produced? What has become of the “ongoing project” as Irada al-Jabbouri characterized it to one of the participating women photographers?

There hasn't been another Open Shutters photo residency. The first one happened with Syrian women in Damascus before the one in the film, with the Iraqi women, but those are the only two.  No more photo stories have been produced from the Open Shutters Iraq project, but some of the women who participated in it have gone on taking pictures, like Raya Asee, who did the story about the bombing of Mutanabbi Street. She is also, as it happens, the production designer on my current fiction film project.  The archive of images is held in joint copyright between the the women photographers and Eugenie Dolberg, the photographer who ran the residency.  They are there for the women to use when they want to.  I think what Irada meant at the time by 'ongoing project' was the project of collaboration, sharing experiences across religions, ages, class backgrounds etc, and trying to make more work.  It has not really continued as a project as such, especially since many of the participants had to leave the country because of the security situation at the time (2006/7/8)


5. How do you feel about the film a decade after its release? How did it impact your work and life?

I went into the project with no idea about what it was going to be or how it would work.  It was a remarkable thing to be part of and I was part of it, in a double role as participant and observer. At the beginning when Eugenie said she was going to ask the women to do 'life maps' I couldn't really understand what she meant, and I said, 'If you think that women who come from different backgrounds and don't know each other are going to get up and present their life stories to each other, you're crazy.  Iraqis have lived for decades, not trusting each other, terrified to speak out.' Of course, I was completeIy wrong.  Eugenie created a circle of trust. No one else 'from outside' was there--just us. I feel very lucky to have been involved.

People were carrying all the burdens of past wars, sanctions, dictatorship and now a country being ripped apart by insane violence and this project was a process of, I wouldn't say 'healing', but rather maybe the beginning of repair.  On this project I met Irada Al Jabbouri , the Iraqi project manager, with whom I have gone on to co-write the script for my current fiction feature film, as well as working with Raya, as I said, as its production designer. And, of course, I formed a very close relationship to the little 6 year-old girl in the film, Dima, Irada's daughter, who gave me such an insight into how a child, or this particular child, might deal with what was happening all around her.  I learned a lot from her, including something about not drowning in sorrow and grief.  As she says at one point 'Everyday I laugh at myself...so I don't cry'.


6. What is on your plate these days? How can readers learn more about what you are doing?

I am working on fiction feature film. Its working title is “Another Day in Baghdad”  and in (Iraqi) Arabic  “Kulshi Makoo” 

The film is an ensemble piece, made up of intersecting stories unfolding over the last week of 2006, in Baghdad, a time of intense sectarian violence and nightly curfews. 

It's about the daily effort needed  to sustain a fragile hope in the face of unrelenting destruction; it’s about resistance and resilience.  There are a lot of characters, and many of them are strong female ones.  And aside from the harshness of the situation, there’s also a lot of humour, a certain lyricism and music in the film.

The script was partly developed from notes that my co-writer, Irada Al Jabbouri, a Baghdad-based Iraqi short story and novel writer, women's rights and civil society activist made in 2006/7, when she found herself unable to write one word of fiction, shocked by what was happening into silence. At home, at work, with friends or out on the streets, she found herself in the middle of telling, resonant, sometimes comic, scenes; people trying to live their lives in this extraordinary situation. She wrote it all down just as she saw and heard it.  She said to me “this is all I can do right now”. From this material, as well as my own gathering of real-life stories and, of course, our imagination and experience we pulled our characters and dialogue together.  

We will be shooting in 2018, but are still fundraising.

Luckily, we've received good support from European and some Middle Eastern funds, including winning the IWC Schaffhausen script prize at the Dubai Film Festival in 2012 (presented to us by Cate Blanchett)  but it's not enough, especially since much of the European money, the major part of the funding,  must be spent on European crew and post-production.    

So, to support the Iraqi crew and actors, who are coming from all over, and some of whom are refugees in Jordan where we will partly be shooting the film, we are running a crowd-funding campaign, at this link: bit.ly/dayinbaghdad

There is a lot of information about the film and the people involved and there will be regular updates and new stories and pieces of writing. Anyone who wants to donate can do that at this website.

Our social media accounts are: 

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/anotherdayinbaghdad/

Twitter: @AnotherdayinB

We would really appreciate if people could help by forwarding the link to the crowdfunding site and our regular announcements and newsletters over the next weeks of the campaign, to anyone they think might be interested in the project and/or might be able to make a donation. People can also help by ‘liking’ our Facebook page and ‘following’ us on Twitter etc, and by sharing or commenting about campaign content on their own social media accounts.

Aside from the money raised for a specific purpose by crowd-funding, we also need further general production funding. If anyone is interested in talking to us about this, they can contact me through my website www.oxymoronfilms.com.

Thursday
Mar152012

How Newt Ended up in a Palestino Jersey


Goal Dreams

In summer of 2006, during my first stint as curator of Mizna’s Twin Cities Arab Film Festival, I sought out a feature documentary film titled Goal Dreams, on the disturbed and perturbed experience of the Palestine national football team as it sought to qualify for the 2006 World Cup tournament in Germany. The festival committee that previewed the film liked it and voted to include it in the upcoming festival’s program. I thought it a heartwarming, accessible crowd pleaser that could draw in audiences who would otherwise not attend a film festival.

The particularity of the challenges facing the team leaves the viewer wondering how the Palestine Football Association had managed to assemble a team at all, a national team representing a state that hardly resembles a state. Without a functioning football leagueat the time (the West Bank Premiere League has been functioning without interruption since 20081), adequate funding, or a location in Palestine in which the team could train, no thanks to restrictions by the Israeli authorities, qualifying seems nearly unattainable, though possibly not other rewards--less tangible rewards.

To add to the experiential, financial, and logistical challenges the team faces, the national team’s players struggle with cultural adjustment, having descended from four continents, speaking several languages natively. Yet, the players’ commitment to their collective goal of promoting Palestine through sport persists despite the challenges that would eventually prove insurmountable.

Among the players are six of Palestinian descents hailing from South America, one of whom, a Chilean Palestinian named Roberto, piqued my curiosity about Palestinian immigration to Chile. I would later discover that Chile is home to the largest Palestinian population outside the Arab World2, a population thought to number to between 250 and 400 thousand people3.

Months then years would pass before Newt Gingrich would claim during his run for the Republican nomination for the US presidency that the Palestinians are an invented people. I was naturally enraged, though I recognized that posturing for approval and for financial support of his campaign may have informed his observation. For some reason, I found myself casually looking online for content on Palestinian Chileans. That was when I learned of C. D. Palestino, a Chilean first division professional football club. Upon visiting the club’s web site, I was pleased to see images of the team depicting the words “Bank of Palestine” in Arabic and in English printed on its jersey (though I’d have been happier if it had been in Arabic and Spanish), suggesting an association between new and old country confirmed by the team’s intent, in 2009, to be listed on the Palestinian stock exchange4.

Upon learning of the team’s genesis, I grinned with the satisfaction of the evident truth: Why would immigrants name a football club “Palestino” upon its founding, in 1920, if such identification didn’t mean anything to them, especially considering that such naming/founding had occurred twenty eight years before the founding of the Zionist state. The obvious answer is that these immigrant deliberately named the club because “Palestine” did mean something.

Soon thereafter, I went online looking to buy a Palestino jersey. Alas, there was none for sale on the club website and those few I did find elsewhere were exorbitant. All I could afford was a pin:

 

Unlike well-heeled Newt, who could afford any jersey his sour heart desires:

Newt Gingrich comfortably retired to a Palestino jersey

*Goal Dreams is available in the US through Arab Film Distribution.

Works Cited

1.  "Brief History (in Arabic)." Palestine Football Association. Palestine Football Association, 14 May 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2012. <http://www.pfa.ps/article.aspx?id=2>.

2.  "The people of Chile." this is Chile.cl: Chile's ofificial website. Fundación Imagen de Chile, 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2012. <http://www.thisischile.cl/Article.aspx?SEC=357&ID=1206>.

3.  Smith, Douglas. "Story of Chile's Palestinian Refugee Community, Past and Present." The Palestine Chronicle. The Palestine Chronicle, 16 May 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2012. <http://palestinechronicle.com/view_article_details.php?id=16724>.

4. Cerda, Claudio. "Soccer-Chile's Palestino tapping roots to go public." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 17 Aug. 2009. Web. 14 Mar. 2012. <http://uk.reuters.com/article/2009/08/17/soccer-latam-chile-idUKLH07455520090817>.