The sacks of labneh, olives, salt and sugar that the anxious mother is piling in her child’s suitcase are growing at an astonishing rate. “He’s travelling to Damascus!” explains the Golani mother with a weary smile; although only a few kilometers away, studying in Damascus is a life time journey for Syrians living in the Israeli occupied Golan.
“Shout” follows two young Golanis as they cross the shouting hill that separates the Golan from Syria for the first time; the hill which they often visited to catch a glimpse of their relatives in Syria and shout to each other their news.
I interviewed Dutch directors Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould to find out more about the film.
Why did you choose the Golan as the topic of your first film?
When I first heard stories about the Golan and the Shouting Hill, I was very intrigued. I started doing research and met a lot of young, enthusiastic students living in Damascus: extremely nice people, but it was obvious they were different from most of the Syrians I had encountered. These young Golanis have difficult choices to make and in Damascus they are once again confronted with their strange reality. Having just turned eighteen, they choose to study in their homeland, but it has great consequences: they have to leave their loved ones behind. And this happens again when they finally have to leave after graduation.
Yet, the Golanis remain optimistic, and interested in the world around them. Most stories we see and hear in Europe about the Middle East tend to be very sad, portraying battered victims and evil enemies. This results in the region seeming incomprehensible for the European public in large, who are tired of the conflict and have begun to turn their heads away from what they consider to be a hopeless situation.
In our documentary, we wanted to tell a different story, one that is more recognizable for people all over the world. Young people from the Golan are just as ambitious and full of dreams as young people all over the world. In a sense they are victims, but our main characters have a lust for life, even though they must live with the daily consequences of the political power play.
There was an intimacy between you and the film’s main characters, how did you achieve this?
That’s a difficult question to answer: how does one explain social contact? We had to find some kind of balance between friendship – fooling around, having some fun – and a working relationship. In the end all we did was simply try to be honest and open, sometimes explaining why a scene was important for us. We showed them who we are and so did they. Ezat and Bayan are natural talents: open to the idea of being filmed and remarkably relaxed with the crew, but they weren’t craving for media attention. That tends to be a good combination.
3. You used a film camera in shooting your film which limits your filming time because it’s much more expensive than video cameras. To what extent did that force you to have staged scenes in the film? And how many rushes did you shoot?
In total we shot 99 rolls of 16 mm film. That’s about 990 minutes of rushes, so more than 16 hours in total.
Shooting on film demands a different way of working than with video. For sure, it has disadvantages – you might miss that one precious moment – but the advantages were greater. You have to be extremely focused when you’re shooting, very aware of what you want to get from every scene. It forced us to think about every shot, and although that took days, weeks, months of talking (being two co-directors who had to agree on everything) it protects you from simply filming everything and ending up with almost nothing.
The adrenaline rush of a 10-minute film roll rolling through the camera makes not only the crew, but also the characters live up to the moment. The good thing about video is that more people have the opportunity to make the film they dream of making, the downside is that you tend to stop being critical and think you will work things out in the editing room. A good filmmaker knows very well what he or she wants and shooting on film forced us to make decisions.
As for staging scenes, it’s a myth that while making a documentary, everything just happens in front of your eyes, by chance. Every filmmaker organizes scenes to some extent and so did we; in that sense using video would have made no difference. However, every single idea for a scene came from reality, from what we’d seen or heard during research or shooting.
For example, we’d heard that Ezat had to scratch all Hebrew labels off his shampoo bottles and decided that that was an interesting way to start a packing scene with him. In that sense, we would have shot on video in the same way. Perhaps the pressure was indeed greater during interviews: we had to make sure we got to the point quickly because there’s no time to beat around the bush.
4. Did you face any difficulties in making your film?
Of course, the list is endless! It was a very long process, and many problems rose: technical problems, a lack of funding despite the fact that the situation for documentary filmmakers in Holland is paradise, time pressure… We couldn’t be in Damascus all year long, so perhaps the hardest thing was capturing what was happening in our main character’s lives during the short periods that we were there.
For example: when Ezat and Bayan only just arrived in Damascus, we spent 48 hours desperately seeking them. Time was passing and where on earth were they? The second time we arrived, Ezat’s grandfather had died. It was clear that this was an important moment in both Ezat and Bayan’s life, as they had only just found a flat together and now things had changed.
It was a difficult thing to puzzle out how to explain what had happened, when some key moments had already taken place. It was also crucial that we were so lucky to be able to work with a production team from Syria – without them we could never have made the film in the same way. And, despite the fact that we love them dearly and are grateful for the way they welcomed us in their lives, it was also sometimes difficult to work with our characters, as they weren’t always so keen on our presence. We spent hours convincing them to let us shoot certain scenes.
On the other hand, funny, silly things happen, like for instance the scene shot on the water basin. It is very high, almost 10 meters. Sabine can be fearless in many ways but also very scared of heights. It was one of the first scenes and she wanted to keep her cool towards the main characters. But when we had to climb up these narrow stairs, and crawl on top of the basin, it wasn’t cool at all.
6. “Shout” will be premiered in Syria in DOX BOX international documentary film festival, how do you think it will be received here?
We are very excited that our one and only premiere is in Damascus, it’s an honour for us and the best place to show the film for the first time! We hope people will like it… We think it’s interesting to show it here because some subtle details in the film might not be picked up by a Dutch audience but will be understood here. The Syrian public is aware – at least to some extent – of the situation in the Golan and it’s sad to say, but a lot of Dutch people have no clue and don’t even know where it is. So for sure it will be a different screening experience.
Above all, we hope to get some attention for the ironic situation of Golani students living in Damascus, for a short but crucial period in their lives. On one hand, they are offered a “lifetime opportunity” but for various reasons, it’s not a happy-go-lucky adventure at all.
5. Where else will “Shout” be screened?
On the 28th of March, the Dutch premiere will take place at the Movies That Matter Festival in the Hague. Later on, the film will be shown on Dutch television and the Arab satellite channel MBC has shown interest in the film. We are applying for festivals around the world and hoping to travel a lot with the film.
Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Ester Gould answered my questions in writing.
This article was published in the first issue of “Point of View” DOX BOX 2010 documentary film festival’s bulletin.