03  05  2009


The Hardships of Filmmaking 500 Meters below Sea Level

Filmmaker Rabee Zureikat navigated the winding roads with his worn out Honda Civic as we descended from Amman to the Dead Sea for the film shoot. Strong wind gusts and dark cloud formations over the lake confirmed the ominous weather forecast. Freezing temperatures at night meant the return journey from the lowest point on earth back to Amman could be a perilous one.

The quaint village of Ghour Mazra'ah by the Dead Sea came abuzz when the cast and crew of the film assembled on the set. A few village dignitaries arrived unannounced on location to enjoy the behind-the-scene action. This created some tension when we asked the guests to relocate their seats to a less visible spot.

Before the shoot even started, anything that could have gone wrong did. From the local power grid going blank denying us the use of our lighting gear, to curious people gathering all over the shooting location causing stoppages. Did I mention the nervous actor who suffered fits of laughter the moment the word Action was uttered, triggering a chain reaction of laughter among cast and crew.

We ended the production day with a scene by the brackish lake. This required a long exhausting march in the deep mud by the Dead Sea in total darkness with the help of mobile phone displays. When we arrived, the team responsible for starting a bonfire by the water discovered they had a small quantity of wood. We had a very short time to shoot before the fire went out. Sometimes I think there is a vast conspiracy to shake my belief in production planning.

Despite all of these obstacles, the shooting was completed.

And just as we were leaving the village, in a race against increasingly treacherous road conditions, we received an urgent phone call from one of the village elders demanding we never show the film in Jordan.

It seems someone had circulated a nasty rumor accusing the lead actress, Rasha, a talented village girl, of improper behavior during one of the scenes. In this conservative village, such rumors can spell trouble for any woman let alone a young baccalaureate. We went to great lengths to ensure none of this would happen. We even invited Rasha's younger brother on the set as she had requested. We wrote the script with an eye on local traditions and customs.

With all the production planning and all the attention to local traditions, nothing seemed to work.

The film could have been shot with the help of professional woman actor from Amman. The thought crossed our minds but that would have defeated the principal objective of the film, to engage and promote local talents.

Once we arrived safely in Amman, our top priority was to help Rasha, the young girl who played the lead role, respond to the rumors. We had a responsibility for the well-being of the local cast and crew, but we had ulterior motives too, a vested interest in the success and sustainability of our filmmaking initiative in this village and the area surrounding it.

Sure we already had Rasha's legal consent before we shot the film, but this was not about legality, it was about building trust with village residents. In Amman, we screened the film to a select group, including a religious scholar. They all cleared the film. As an added bonus, the religious scholar offered his critical analysis of the film. As it turns out, he is a movie buff. It was a far shot, but we figured in a conservative community, the opinion of a religious scholar can trump that of a local scoundrel.

Once we had all the ammo needed to support the young actress, we went back to the village. We considered legal action against the originator of the rumor. In Jordan it's a serious offense to engage in character assassination when the victim is a woman. We decided against this course of action because it might backfire on all of us. We would have been viewed as outsiders bullying the villagers.

After this incident, we did not know what to expect. Will we find it more difficult to enlist actors from the village, especially female talents? We have always prided ourselves on our respect for local traditions. It's frustrating to know that despite going the extra mile, we can still suffer such a setback. This was not a setback in the sense we can't make films anymore, but it's a setback in the sense that we wanted the filmmaking experience to be very positive for the cast and crew and the whole village.

Stories travel fast in this village and surrounding communities. We hoped the experience of making this film will give the village community plenty of good material to talk about in the next few weeks. And the positive publicity will attract more people to join in our filmmaking initiative. Filmmaking must be socially acceptable for it to survive and thrive in Ghour Al Marza'ah.

This film experience, thanks to the rumors, was anything but positive for those involved. We will have to wait for the film debut at the village to see if we can turn things around. Will the film rehabilitate Rasha? Will it make the rest of the cast and crew proud of their association with the film? Or will we be seen as false prophets who came and saw and filmed and caused pain to nice folks.

When we caught up with Rasha, a few weeks later, she was still rattled by the whole affair. Once she saw the film for the first time, her eyes sparkled and her 500 watt smile returned. We then explained to her the positive feedback from our focus group and the opinion of the religious scholar. She gave her concurrence to screen the film in Jordan. It was agreed the best defense is to show the film in the village, to dispel the rumors of whatever "indecencies" were concocted by someone's fertile imagination.

And before I wrap up, the controversial scene involved Rasha kissing her paralyzed father goodnight...on his forehead... on his woolen hat. Somehow a different interpretation of the scene had been relayed to others by one of the visiting dignitaries who caught glimpse of the acting but did not even know the story. He was one of those dignitaries we evicted from his prime viewing location during the shoot. I have always been open to audience involvement in the interpretation of my films, but a basic prerequisite is to watch the final cut of the film.

Was the film worth all of this? I can never judge my own films objectively so I'll leave that to the critics and the audiences. But was it worth engaging the whole village in this affair? Members of the cast and crew who watched the film in a private screening, after Rasha gave her nod, were as excited as she. Soon after, it's almost as if the village had developed its own celebrity news and tabloid journalism overnight (or tabloid texting via SMS).

Few hours before I put the final touches on this article, filmmaker Rabee Zureikat, founder of the Zikra Initiative who funded a basic indie filmmaking infrastructure in the village, told me that no less than 4 short films are being shot by members of the crew and cast, who have all attended our filmmaking or acting workshops. As always, we shall post those films for online viewing when we get hold of them.

It's hard to call this a victory except in the sense that a film was completed; a promising star was not extinguished before the start of her journey; and the show did go on.

Hazim Bitar