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Making a Feature Film in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 24.01.2008:

By Najwa Najjar

Having literally just finished shooting my first feature film, Al Mor Wa al Rumman (Pomegranates and Myrrh), at the end of last month, I’m no authority on making feature films. But from the experience of the past five weeks and past several years, it became clear that despite all the preparation, persistence, and patience – it’s a gamble.

It all begins with an idea followed by research. The story is built. Characters start to have life. Arguments begin between you, as the writer, and the characters on the screen. You win some, they win some, and the story takes on another tangent. More research, writer’s block, scripts torn up. Deep breath; start again and again until you have your story.

If you follow the footsteps of most filmmakers – you want that story to be read by producers – preferably ones with funds to make your movie. To be truthful at first, you just want anyone to read your story and hopefully tell you that you have something there. You send your story out and wait. And wait and wait. Bouts of insecurity, sleepless nights, and moments of depression.

Also like most filmmakers, if you want to avoid depression you may use the “waiting” time to make other stories that require a smaller budget and crew. I made my first documentary and then my second and third. By the fourth film, I had a lot of interest in my script from some of the top producers in Europe. The budget was blown up three times what was initially in place; rights of the film were distributed; and arguments were under way to remind me that this is a business venture like every other venture – everything else was secondary.

Finally three years ago I was ready to start; but the political situation in the country worsened. Unable to move between Ramallah and Jerusalem and the consequent fear of the foreign crews coming here, followed by the death of one of our co-producers, forced us to stop production of Pomegranates and Myrrh. We plummeted into debt, and this time there was no way to avoid the depression that followed.

“As I was seriously reconsidering filmmaking, the European Film Academy chose six filmmakers to make two-minute pieces for its awards ceremony

Being one of the six, I found myself back with a story and characters. And then the money that I had previously applied for for a short film, Yasmine Tughani, came through. Once complete the 20-minute short, Yasmine Tughani travelled the festival circuit, and with the travel came renewed interest in Pomegranates and Myrrh.

This time around we decided that being a producer is essential to ensure that production goes according to our plan. It was easier to raise funds for Pomegranates and Myrrh after Yasmine Tughani, which was funded by local and international institutions that support culture in Palestine, won awards, and was bought by international television stations.

Our company Ustura Films managed to bring in money for the local production budget. Further investments from the Arab World and Europe helped make us “official” co-producers – meaning that we had both the rights and the final say on the production decisions. That also made it easier for us to find the right European co-producer for the film. The funds that were brought in covered the six-member foreign crew and post-production costs.

However, financing even a low-budget film takes time. Using the travel and invites to festivals – we called for auditions. After 100 casting auditions from New York to Paris to Amman and all over the country for 13 roles, renowned names were on board, but the role for the main character was not filled. After a long search I found my actress, but she was a Palestinian who was born in Lebanon and had a French passport. We knew that wasn’t good news. Even though we were not sure that she could enter the country despite her French passport, she landed the lead role.

Nor we re we sure that our Palestinian/Icelandic 1st AD (first assistant director), or even the rest of our German crew would be able to enter the country. And if they entered via the airport, would we have problems at the checkpoints? We were filming around the West Bank and in Jerusalem which meant that our passing through the checkpoints (the permanent ones as well as the “flying” checkpoints) would depend on the moods of the soldiers manning them, leaving us and our production vulnerable to their whims.

There were of course the feuds on the social, familial, and political levels – which made us change a few locations to avoid any eruption of conflicts. Long-standing feuds hindered us from using two locations we were keen on but, fortunately, we found out in ample time to find alternatives.

Actors, crew, and locations were finalized before the budget was finished. Long nights were spent poring over details; trying to find where we could minimize expenses; making decisions to cut shooting schedules from six to five weeks; finding more affordable accommodations and catering. Where were we going to get the camera equipment? What should the shooting ratio be?

Finally the first AD passed out our shooting schedule. The relatively small crew of 30 was ready – first call sheet was distributed, production meeting set, drivers with their lists of pick-ups. Another sleepless night. October 22, 2007: everyone was on set. The foreign crew, with the exception of the director of photography, had just arrived, and the Palestinian crew were not familiar with each other – and there was no budget for mistakes.

Our local crew, which numbered 23, were a mixture of residents of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Haifa, West Bank, and Gaza. We knew that the West Bankers and Gazans couldn’t come to our Jerusalem shoot. And the residents of Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Haifa would be stopped on the checkpoints inside the West Bank, where Israeli soldiers would ask why “Israelis” were in the occupied territories. But logistics nightmares kept us on our toes until we reached each set.

Luckily the delays due to permanent and flying checkpoints were minimal: one actor who was stuck at the Qalandia checkpoint was held up for six hours; some video material and pictures were confiscated when crew members took pictures of the checkpoint; at that same checkpoint several soldiers were hitting up on the female crew and cast while others waited out the ordeal; one particular flying checkpoint with soldiers stopping cars with their Kalashnikovs gave everyone a scare as we were returning back to Ramallah in the middle of the night.

As the days passed we started to expect the unexpected – from knees being knocked out, to serious allergic reactions and motorcycle accidents. When one of our drivers was in the hospital, gossip on the set was that the actress he fell for had finished her work – and he had a heart attack. Logic, however, indicated that the four packs of cigarettes a day, four wives, and fifteen children had something to do with it. Nonetheless not a day passed without his tamarhindi, water and rosewater, and salad on the side for the crew.

A phone call in the middle of the night does mean trouble, like when two of our crew members left our set in Jeyba to return the “Israeli” jeep we had made to its owners in Ain Arik. Coordination was done for them to pass through the Palestinian territories. Apparently there was a loophole and not all the Palestinian authorities were informed. The jeep left Jebya and passed through Bir Zeit and before nearing Surda word was out that the “Israelis were entering Ramallah.” Barely passing Surda – our guys were surrounded by the entire Palestinian President’s motorcade and the special Force 17 – it was a while before they were released and our “Israeli” jeep “accompanied” back to its owners.

On the last day of our shoot – we had just cracked open a bottle of champagne to celebrate – four jeeps filled with Israeli soldiers were waiting for us as we exited our set at 1 a.m. At first we weren’t allowed out, and then we were ordered to get out. In addition to worrying about the crew and their safety, there was a real concern for the rolls of film that had been shot. Confiscation or destruction of the rolls of film would definitely put a damper on the end of the shoot.

At the end of the five weeks we knew that the best days are those that start early. Long drives to locations are not advisable as they end up eating up your 12-hour day – which starts the minute you leave your hotel or home. A two-hour limit set by the crew for lights and camera setup, and for hair and makeup counts as part of the 12-hour day; add another hour for lunch and breaks – and you are left with a seven-hour day to shoot three to five scenes.

A low-budget film like ours can impose even more scenes. We ended up shooting 140 scenes in 42 locations in 31 days.

A hectic schedule but well worth it. For me working with Palestinians from the Diaspora and throughout the country together with a foreign crew and a local crew to make a film in a land still under occupation; to bring to life in five weeks what was written on paper; and to enjoy the ride along the way … is what cinema is all about!

So yes, making a feature film in Palestine is a gamble – it’s months and months of preparation before taking a deep breath and jumping … and then waiting to see if you come out on the other end …

Najwa Najjar is a filmmaker living in Palestine. Her previous works include several award winning films shown at film festivals worldwide (Dubai, Berlin, Cannes, Locarno, Hamptons …) : Yasmine Tughani, Naim and Wadee’a, Quintessence of Oblivion, Blue Gold, A Boy Called Mohamad, and They Came from the East

This Week in Palestine

January 2008

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