Interview with Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni

Raed Andoni

 “Palestinians are generally depicted in films in the West as terrorists, and in the Middle East as guerillas. In my films, I want to portray Palestinians the way they are. They’re simple human beings like anyone else in the world,” says Palestinian producer and filmmaker Raed Anduni, who broke those stereotypes of Palestinians in cinema. His work reflects, at the same time, their difficult and unjust everyday life under Israeli occupation, their difficulty in movement because of the crossings and checkpoints and their struggle to preserve their identity.

Out of all the Arab countries, you can only come across a “producer,”  in its internationally understood meaning, in Palestine. How was your experience as a producer?

It depends on what we mean by the word “producer.”Film productions in the region are mostlyserials, commercial films or “showcase movies,” if I may say that, which are valued by the amount of the profit they bring in. This commercial character of Arab film productions formed in local peoples’ minds an incorrect stereotype of the producer as an investor. But if we look at cinema from an artistic cultural perspective, as a tool to preserve the memory of peoples, we will find that only a producer’s passion for cinema can motivate him to work in film since working in any other area will get him much more profit than that generated by documentary filmmaking.

Perhaps Palestine is the leading Arab country in this domain simply because there is no film industry in Palestine. Thus, when Palestinians began to make films, they started it independently with auteur film.  The terrible living conditions in Palestine also play a major role in forming the country’s film production. The hard and unjust reality in Palestine triggers questions and produces contradictions that push us Palestinians towards a cinema that raises questions.

What did you study? From where did you get financing for your films?

I didn’t study cinema, I learned it from life. My story is like that of thousands of Palestinians. I studied business management but I was jailed before graduation.  Immediately after my release from prison, the intifada broke out. It was when I went down to the streets to photograph the intifada’s events that I had my first contact with cinema. Since then I’ve been working as a producer and filmmaker.

It’s my passion for cinema that motivated me to work in cinema, not studying. Filmmaking is not like a mathematical equation, if you apply it correctly then you get a successful film. Filmmaking requires high sensitivity, talent and passion.

As for financing, some young filmmakers manage to make films with little funding by borrowing cameras and asking their friends to volunteer in filming and montage. But in general, substantial funding is a must in case you wanted to make feature length documentaries. To do that, you need to find different financing sources, such as pre-sales to international TV channels, or applying for cinema funds, which are all foreign ones. Unfortunately, the only investment in cinema by Arab countries goes to film festivities and not to making films.

The government’s revenues should be spent on the nation. Intellectuals form an essential part of the nation and should be supported for their pioneer role in developing their countries. But I think lack of support for arts is closely connected to politics. Independent cinema is built on freedom of expression and Arabic governments only support voices that advocate them. However, this might change.

You started your career as a producer and later on turned to filmmaking with your film “Improvisation” (2005) which was a milestone not only in your life, but perhaps also in the history of Palestinian documentaries. Even though it’s a film about a country under occupation, it doesn’t tackle the Palestinian cause from a direct political point of view and it doesn’t resemble any other films. How did the idea of “Improvisation” occur?

Many Palestinian directors make films to let off steam. Instead of throwing stones at an Israeli army patrol, they attack the patrol and Israel through their films. But that’s not what cinema is about. The art of filmmaking is the art of storytelling. You can tell the same story in a hundred different ways.

The hard living conditions under Israeli occupation and the emergence of Palestinian cinema with the start of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s cinema production has transformed it into a cinema of slogans. And I am not undermining the importance of the PLO’s cinema productions here; those films form an important part of the Palestinian uprising. However, it took us Palestinians a while to realize that films should both challenge the mind and appeal to the senses. Thus, we must stay away from slogans and delve into the details. Cinema is about details. It should reflect the personal side of the story and not the big picture. Viewers relate to personal stories much more than general slogans.

I’m a close friend of the Joubran family (the main characters of the film), I witnessed the difficult birth of their trio and I was very much moved by it. I felt that their story had to be told.

“Improvisation” follows the Joubran trio, the well-known Palestinian musician family. It remarkably follows internal happenings in the family’s life: the development of the younger brother and his relationship with his older brother, the middle brother’s music studies in Italy, the trio’s attempt to give their first concert as a trio in Paris, and ending with the concert itself. How did you develop the film’s narrative? Did you strictly stick to chronology? How many hours did you film, and how long did the montage take?

It took a whole year to shoot the film. I self financed the first six months with the help of my brother and friends who brought equipment and volunteered in filming. We shot about 150 hours and used them later to promote the film and get funding. We signed a pre-sale contract with France’s ARTE TV, got production funding from Finland, Sundance Fund and from an Australian TV channel. Montage took another year.

I more or less followed the chronological order of events because I reflected the development of an 18-year-old young man’s character. Not doing so might get the viewers lost. I used the “fly on the wall” effect, leaving the camera as a neutral, patient observer that films reality as it is. The trio’s first music rehearsal and their first appearance on stage were really the first ones. However, I recreated reality by putting the brothers in certain circumstances that pushed them to talk about the things I wanted them to talk about.

My close friendship with the family also helped me to shoot the details of each scene with great intimacy and spontaneity. If I were a stranger to them, that would have been impossible. It was this intimacy that made the audience empathize with the Joubran family. Your relationship with the characters is what affects you the most in a film.

Your new film “Fix me” was screened at Dubai International Film Fest and Sundance. Could you tell us more about the film?

I believe that important films are the ones that look for new things. That’s why I tried to undertake an experiment by making a film based on a simple but at the same time deep idea that no one thought of before. I exposed myself to a complex psychological experience by attending psychotherapy sessions. I asked the cameraman to fix his camera behind reflective glass so that it wouldn’t spoil the spontaneity of the sessions.

This film is a complex one and very different from “Improvisation”. It raises general questions about life and sensitive issues that, unable to face them, people usually ignore. Its style also differs from my first film in that it combines elements of fiction and documentary films.

Are you planning to work again as a producer or will you continue with film?

I am ready to work in any field that excites me, so everything is possible. Maybe I moved away a little from production, but I’m still working in that field through my cooperation with my brother’s Film Production House in Ramallah. I’ve also established with my wife, French producer Palmer Badinier, a “Les Films de Zayna” production company which produces films from the Arab world.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.

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Interview with Palestinian Jordanian filmmaker Sandra Madi

Sandra Madi

When Madi was a little girl she dreamed of studying international law, but she ended up specializing in athletics. It wasn’t long before she left the stadium behind, though, to enter the world of theatre, quickly becoming a well-known stage actress in Jordan. After receiving several prizes, Madi switched careers again. This time, the restless Madi studied creative documentary cinema in the Arab Institute of Film and quickly became a promising Jordanian filmmaker.

You’ve tried your hand at several professions before entering the world of cinema. Why did you ultimately choose filmmaking?

That’s right. I’ve loved theatre since my childhood and somehow I regard my turning to cinema as an extension to my artistic career. Furthermore, I even benefit from my seriousness and experience in theater and its human aspect in my cinematic work. Although theatre is a different artistic form, completely independent of cinema, many professionals who had been working for years in theatre ended up as filmmakers. One such director is the exceptional Tunisian filmmaker Abdullatif Kashesh, who began his career as a stage actor, then moved to theatre directing and has become now a well-established filmmaker. As to why I chose cinema, I haven’t got a definite answer! However, I can tell you that cinema gives me bigger space to express my ideas!

When you chose cinema, you chose documentary filmmaking in general and creative documentaries in particular. Why?

Creative documentaries are artistically and intellectually challenging! They are a condensation of life and reality from the filmmaker’s point of view. So are all films, not just documentaries. But the difference between them is that the latter is a “real” tale, while a fiction film is no more than an illusion that fascinates viewers for an hour or so.

Palestinian themes appear frequently in your works. In your films we meet a Palestinian boxer whose refusal to play with an Israeli sportsman ruins his career. We also find out about the fate of the guerilla fighters of the PLO. Why did you choose the Palestinian  Condition as the main subject of your films? Are you a fan of committed art?

All my topics are Palestinian. And it’s not only because the Palestinian case is undoubtedly a momentous and very compelling subject. What attracts me more are the vast memories of Palestinians that are yet to be told.

I think that growing up with a deep sense of loss – like all the Palestinians in the diaspora who were expelled forcibly from their homes – and not having the privilege of living in a homeland I could call my own, is strongly present in both my consciousness and subconscious.  This has inevitably affected the choice of my films. Of course, the stories that I highlighted in my films originate from my surroundings. From the refugee camp that I see and  about which I constantly heard stories even though I didn’t grow up in it. On the other hand, some of those freedom fighters that were literally discharged by their Palestinian leadership live here in Jordan… That’s what I see, that’s what surrounds me, and it is part of the Palestinian memory that hasn’t melted away in the course of time. It’s important because it forms a part of the Palestinian memory as a whole; it is like a mosaic piece. Each one of us has his own piece – his story – and this is what frightens the occupiers most, that the memory stays alive.

As for committed art, I don’t understand what it really means. What I understand is that any film that achieves artistic or intellectual distinction deserves to be seen. I don’t think that we could categorize films into “committed” and “non-committed” films according to their subjects. Of course by virtue of our emotion or sympathy, we are driven to believe that a film that is talking about Iraq or Palestine for example, or other issues of particular importance to us, is more important than other films, but this is not accurate at all.

You cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s MBC group in producing your last creative documentary, “perforated memory.” What is the nature of this cooperation, and how do you value your experience as a writer and director cooperating with Arab television?

Our cooperation was limited to production only. I submitted my project to a contest designed for independent Arab filmmakers by the MBC group and I won the first prize and thus I made a short version of the film for the television. However, it is the long version that participated in the festivals.

It’s good to have Arab televisions producing documentaries in collaboration with independent filmmakers. However, it is necessary to regulate the relationship between the producer and the director so that Arab filmmakers can have significant local support instead of having to turn to European producers most of the time.

But I think this is inaccessible for many reasons, most notably the lack of vision by those in power and the lack of specialists who can truly appreciate the importance of cooperating with independent filmmakers and supporting creative documentaries. It’s no secret that one of the main reasons behind the lack of support for documentaries is purely political. It’s because these films are mostly critical and require a high level of freedom of expression. When will we be ready to face all this? I don’t know and I am not optimistic.

Have you faced any technical or social difficulties as a woman filmmaker in Jordan?

I haven’t faced any gender-based difficulties or real obstacles, or at least not until this moment. The main obstacle I’m facing is a cultural one. It’s the widespread ignorance about documentaries in Jordan. Commercial cinema productions -mainly American films or the derivatives of them by Arabs or foreigners, like the Turkish soap operas for example – are all the rage in Jordan and the rest of the Arab countries. It’s this kind of film that investors want. This is drawing a false image of Arab societies, their culture and causes.

You said in a former interview with journalist Sarah Alqudat: “in order to alter the consciousness of others, we need a great deal of freedom of expression without internal or external censorship”.  To what extent can you get rid of these censorships?

It seems I was remarkably optimistic at that time. First of all, I don’t think we can alter the collective consciousness for the time being, or even just get close to that. Awareness accumulates, it doesn’t happen suddenly. Therefore, one, or even ten films can’t build the audience’s awareness. However, it might contribute to the creation of a critical approach at the best. But this also requires a viewer who is fond of cinema and seeks these films at film festivals. I don’t mean here Arab film festivals, which are held mainly for political propaganda and networking, or the mere duplication of International festivals. I mean a film festival that resembles people and addresses them. As for censorship, it is easy to get around it. Under these totalitarian regimes we try hard to avoid clashes with censorship. I am not very optimistic about changing this, because there will be no change unless these regimes change, or at least the mentality of those who run them changes, because they always level accusations against any artist who tells the truth. These regimes are fragile; they oppress their natives who perhaps love their homeland more than they do.

As a young director from Jordan, what changes do you want to see in the Jordanian cinema scene?

To talk about the cinema scene in Jordan, we need to understand the complex structure of Jordanian society and its social, cultural and political context which is, in my opinion, very special and worth looking into it. I’m saying this because I believe that for local cinema to be successful and outstanding, it needs to convey the local culture and the real features of the society it comes from. We still need a lot to achieve this. Of course, one cannot demand a lot, the scene is still developing. There are serious attempts by individuals that I hope will continue and garner support. Of course both The Royal Film Commission and The Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts (RSICA) play a major role in developing the infrastructure for a Jordanian film industry relying on local groups. In my opinion this is very important, but I hope they will be able to complete their projects and won’t hit up against the bitter reality of Arab film production that the majority of Arab filmmakers suffer from.

What is your next film project?

At present I’m preparing a long documentary entitled “Gaza Gaza.” I’m also writing my first fiction film project.

Filmmaker Sandra Madi answered my questions in writing.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.

Interview with Syrian filmmaker Hazim al-Hamwi

Hazem al-Hamwi is a young Syrian who entered the world of filmmaking without any introductions or academic studies, and even without learning the “craft” from dedicated filmmakers. Working hard to “earn” his first home video camera, al-Hamwi carved out a place for himself as a documentary and experimental filmmaker in his local cinema scene. Today, nothing can hinder his steady and composed camera from crossing red lines and following his favorite theme: the place.

Hazim alHamwi

 

Syrian filmmakers always complain about censorship, which is considered by many to be one of the main reasons behind Syria’s limited film production. Yet, like many other Syrian directors, you managed in “Tufulet Al-Makan” to cross religious as well as sectarian red lines. Do you think self-censorship has become stricter than that imposed by the government?

Fear mostly originates from past experiences related to the prior history of a person or a group. But a fearful mind is unable to produce art. This, of course, does not mean that one should be reckless, but we often hear our government making statements about development and change, so why don’t we think positively and try to test that. Even if we only achieve part of what we want, we would still be creating more productive conditions for the upcoming generations.

As for censorship being the main reason behind Syria’s limited film production, I strongly oppose this view. With this, filmmakers are only making excuses for themselves. It’s enough to look at the great accomplishment of Iranian cinema in spite of the harsh censorship regulations imposed on their cinema industry to negate this view. Not to mention that censorship is a very loose term and I personally believe that indirect social censorship can be stricter than that imposed by the government.

Few Syrian filmmakers have been working as independently as you; it was only recently that you studied filmmaking in the Arab Film Institute in Jordan and most of your films are self-financed or lack financial support. How far can independent Syrian filmmakers go?

My working independently was the result of the lack of governmental support for cinema rather than a choice or an objective. I personally regard it as a reaction to the production problems and it has, therefore, its pros and cons. The downside lies in the stress caused by my being in charge of handling all technical, operational and executive aspects of the filmmaking process.

The positive side, on the other hand, lies in developing an active and productive mentality that doesn’t resort to mere “complaining”, but which finds solutions to face up to and change the status quo. After all, the reality that I am filming is much more important than the type of camera I’m using. By adopting this mentality, I reversed the spell by transforming my problems into strengths and my struggle into a source of respect.

It is also important to highlight that independent filmmakers need to have a means for survival and continuity. The government and civil society organizations should support filmmakers. Unfortunately, we have very few such organizations in Syria and most initiatives are undertaken by individuals. They deserve a lot of respect for that.

Syrian critic Khalil Sweileh wrote (Al-Akhbar /27 January 2007) that “the main characteristic of Arab young filmmakers’ films is the ‘uprising of the ego’”… and their moving away from “nationalist concerns that marked the past decades”. Looking at your films and at the Syrian film production at large, to what extent is that true?

I think it’s true. Even though many of the old Syrian films had a highly cinematographic language, they were overloaded with ideologies. This affected the film’s intellectual as well as artistic shape. As a result, they seemed sober, obscure, and had no sense of play, so to speak. Although this does not apply to all Syrian films, generally speaking this was the main characteristic of the first Syrian films.

Back to the argument of Sweileh, the ego will have the final say. It will find its way to express itself; to play, to distress and rejoice, make mistakes and succeed… I can see that in the works of my colleagues. While this might be unprofessional, it’s definitely healthy. I personally make films for the fun of it. It gives me a special sense of pleasure. That’s why there’s a lot of experimentation in my work because I enjoy working on the unexpected. Making a film is like going on an ego trip where you discover a lot of inner treasures. The ego is very demanding but it also has a lot to give.

You have recently been awarded a grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture in 2009 to produce the second part of your documentary “Tufulet Al-Makan.” Could you tell us more about the film?

“Tufulet Al-Makan” will be three parts and I will make the second and the third part with the grant funding. All three parts are depicting place, or rather the soul of the place, so to speak.

What are the Syrian, Arab or international films that had the biggest impact on you?

I was never influenced by a film as a whole. Rather, I was touched by some aspects of films. I admire, for example, the cinematography of “Kombars” by Syrian director Nabil Al-Maleh, the visual language of Osama Muhammad’s “Sunduk Al-Dunia”, the harmony in the Egyptian film “The mummy” by Shadi Abdel Salam and the rhetoric of Stanley Kubrick’s works in general.

This article was published in Tafaseel periodical e-magazine specialized in documentary films. Tafaseel is a publication of Proaction Film company.