Creative endeavours – a way of staying sane!

Blog

Bismillah

Recently a dear friend of mine fell prey to a common yet severe problem. He had a nervous breakdown…

He had been under a lot of stress for a while and the inevitable was brewing, till finally he snapped and had to be admitted to hospital.

I visited him there the other day and we spoke for a short while about how it was a good time to stay away from work and do something creative, like paint, or write poetry (or both!).

It may have been that I suggested that because I couldn’t offer much more in the way of advice or good words, but I realised after thinking about it that, really, creative outlets are a way of expressing things without being so explicit, the various art forms a medium to say something without having to utter a word. Obviously this doesn’t really apply to lets say rap lyrics! But what I mean is that it can be quite a daunting prospect to tell someone you need to talk about the problems you’re having, so to be able to draw something or write a short piece gives you a voice you can rely on to make sense of what you might be going through.

I entered the #projectfilmsupply competition on themusicbed.com and a friend/colleague of mine agreed to do the artwork for my entry. It’s the multicoloured picture you see above. A robotic hand made up of a multiplicity of colours. The title reads ‘Robo-love meltdown’. The competition is to make a film pitch and I think the concept of my film (the cyborg spouse of a scientist becomes her enemy after jealousy takes root in her heart) came from this creeping feeling that our relationship with technology is a poisonous one wrought with psychological disorder and disfunction. It could make for a good short film, but as I explained earlier, it was really just a fun, silly and quick creative outlet for me to express something that had been playing on my mind.

It’s sad that at its heart it holds far too much truth in the case of my friend. I wish him a quick and full recovery. In our prayers.

 

Making sense of life through art

Blog, News, Video Production

Bismillah

The world right now seems quite a scary and crazy place. As I write this the twitter sphere is buzzing with the sad news of the death of journalist James Foley. Iraq and Syria have degenerated into lawless areas of land being fought over by psychotic militant groups with bloodthirsty ideologies. It’s also been over a month since the start of operation Protective Edge in Gaza which has taken the lives of over 2000 people, 540 of which were children. Ok so maybe you’re thinking well that’s just the Middle East, the Middle East is always burning, always a headline for depression! Actually in the United States, in a small town called Ferguson protestors are being shot by police and the Ebola virus is rampaging through parts of Africa. And most of this I suspect is the result of power and money being held in the hands of the few.

So how do we make sense of the chaos? How do we feel hope, and how do we find solace in the daily deeds of our own lives? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently.

I finished a music video shoot the other day for Omar Esa (@1OmarEsa). The song is called ‘Happy’, it’s a kind of cover/reworking of the hit Pharell track that dominated airwaves earlier in the year. It might seem, as it certainly did to me, an odd choice for a song to put out at a time like this. With so much madness and focus on the darkest parts of humanity a song about happiness (and especially it being about Muslims too!) seemed a bit proposterous. Omar did this track at his own expense, not planning on making any money from it either! Crazy! After chatting to him, and actually completing the shoot things made a little more sense. What I derived from his objective was that you can’t let what’s happening in the world dampen your spirit, not let it deter you from your mission. 

I’m no theorist but for me art is a way of reaching out and expressing a message. And for him, his art is part of his purpose as a muslim, to spread a message of justice and peace. So in his art he fulfils a meaning of his life. To try and counter stereotypes and make people feel positive, in a time when fear and sadness is a tool to abuse a consumerist population, that’s actually quite heroic and magnanimous. I’m sure that being part of the project will do me countless good and earn me countless blessings (inshAllah).

So I still can’t help but feel despondent some days. And I’ll wake from a nightmare some mornings. But then I get up and do what I do. I go to work, try to be a good husband to my wife, father to my girl and son to my parents. And I make films. Films that make me happy. Films that have something to say about being alive, or truth, or the things that just interest me. And in doing so I find meaning in my short life.

To find out more about Omar Esa and his music visit http://www.omaresa.com and make sure to follow him on Facebook and twitter.

And follow me on twitter at twitter.com/Safiyyahsdad

 

The way I do it

Blog, Video Production

Bismillah

I’m on a journey of learning. I don’t think anyone simply qualifies into their profession and that’s the end of it. Everyday, from the moment you start your job, you learn, grow and improve. The you today is way different from the you from last year, and the year before that. So since I’ve been making films (videos I should say, but films sounds better!) I’ve been picking up techniques and ever-sharpening the kit in my toolbox of filmmaking. Furthermore I’ve been discovering my voice and also what I want to say.

So I’m compelled to blog today for a number of reasons. One is because I’ve been reading from  a number of different sources about the amount of knowledge and information about the craft of filmmaking Shane Hurlbut shares with his readers. Shane is a very established and well known cinematographer. His blog (http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/) is leagues ahead of this one, but nonetheless it was a motivation to share the little I’ve learnt with anyone who’s interested. The second reason, the one that’s been creeping at the surface of my thinking for the last few days is my wondering about what kind of a filmmaker I want to be.

I joined twitter very recently (twitter.com/SafiyyahsDad) and discovered it’s a very newsy medium. By that I mean it’s far less like Facebook (at least to me) where friends connect with each other and it seems more about following various people as sources of information, entertainment and news. So with that discovery I noticed my behaviour on it changed slightly. Though I’m regularly keeping up to date with the news, I found myself sharing more and more things to do with current affairs, and making press release-like statements.

What does this have to do with this blog post? Well I suppose it’s because over the last few days I’ve been wondering about the future of my career and the kind of filmmaking I want to do. Being on twitter and being buried under a barrage of current affairs info has inevitably led me to think about journalism. Video-journalism more specifically. I’ve been wondering about how that squares with my current and general style of filmmaking. In an attempt to figure these things out, I want to share here the way I approach a basic short documentary, more specifically the interview process.

Interviewing for a spontaneous short doc:

‘Lutfi’ still fresh in my mind (https://vimeo.com/102573933) I can say my current approach is quite ‘casual’. I started off in my career conducting interviews in quite a heavy-handed way, trying to guide my subjects to give me the answers I wanted. This happens generally when you work for an NGO and the purpose is fundraising. I’m glad to say I’ve been able to move away from this thanks to colleagues and mentors; now it’s a much more relaxed method of letting the interviewee tell their story, but still trying to focus on a particular element of the story. It’s finding that particular element which is the difficult and strenuous part.

With Lutfi I was incredibly short of time so I had decided beforehand I wanted to focus on his love of photography. This was based on information I had already gathered in a brief conversation that took place earlier in the day, otherwise it would have been a time consuming process of probing questions eating up precious memory card space and battery life. I should mention I’m well aware that research plays a key part in documentary film making but I’m talking about the kinds of docs and interviews that an NGO or regular online/magazine feature filmmaker might be doing, where they have no idea who the heck they are going to meet when they get to a location.

So I began by asking him to say hello, tell us his name and a little about his relationship with photography. A tip to myself for future is to get subjects to repeat this statement towards the end of the interview. This is because generally everyone eases up by the end and you get a much warmer and friendlier opening line for your film.

After that I asked questions based on points that Lutfi mentioned in his answers. He was prone to going off on tangents so whenever he gave us a natural pause I’d make sure to jump in with a question that would get him back on track. It’s important asking open questions otherwise you’ll get answers like ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If I do fall into that trap then I’ll remember to follow up with ‘can you explain?’ or ‘why?’. It’s about playing dumb, letting your subject feel like they’re teaching you something. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that people don’t share the same level of knowledge on subjects so you have to make your interviewee feel they’re teaching you something new.

I’m still getting the hang of it, and where possible I much prefer having someone conduct the interview so I can worry about technical matters. In any case it’s a balancing act; going with the flow of your subject but making sure your subtly keep them speaking about things you can use. The more time you can spend in making them comfortable the more honest and unselfconscious they’ll be. It’ll really help in asking them questions that are a bit more direct. But never try and force those types of answers without earning the trust or your doc will come out contrived and very brief! I’ve been in those situations and always ended with boring and slightly false-seeming films.

And sometimes you get lucky, like I did with Lutfi, where he was just a really interesting and well spoken guy.

So with future posts I’ll include more details and techniques to my process. Keep up to date on twitter by following me at twitter.com/safiyyahsdad and if you didn’t already then please check out my tribute to Lutfi, war photographer from Jerusalem: https://vimeo.com/102573933

Jubair, OUT!

 

Portrait of a War Photographer in Jerusalem

Blog, Video Production

Bismillah

With great excitement and pleasure I bring you my short film ‘Lutfi – Portrait of a War Photographer in Jerusalem’.

https://vimeo.com/102573933

Lutfi Abu Umar is a photographer and journalist who has worked for over 32 years covering wars, conflict and news. He worked for the likes of Combat magazine, the BBC and also Der Spiegel. Now he works as a freelancer and also helps in his nephew’s jewellery shop.

Finding Lutfi was a gift from God, truly. I’d been asked to go to Jerusalem to film a number of things and knowing I’d be in such a historic place (especially at an important time what with the conflict happening in Gaza) I knew I wanted to work on a personal project too.Time wasn’t permitting, however, and I was getting desperate. Right at the end of the trip when I eventually conceded that my own film might not be possible, I was out on a (conscripted) shopping excursion when I came across Lutfi’s shop, only for the fact that I spotted him putting away an old SLR. I stepped into his tiny cove of trinkets and knick knacks and we began speaking about cameras and also his amazing career. Without difficulty he agreed to be interviewed for my documentary!

He doesn’t mention it in the film but he has a collection of over 70 cameras. 70!! I have 5 (including my iPhone)! He’s also a proponent of film over digital. Proper orthodox photographer. I remember he was even criticising (amicably) my use of a DSLR to film the documentary! But his many years of experience, his knowledge of his craft and the fact that he was my gracious host and subject kept my mouth zipped.

Another reason why it was fateful for me to stumble upon Lutfi was the fact that he was someone who knew too well the traumatic effect of documenting suffering. It’s something I’ve been going on about a lot in this blog, and not really been able to reconcile. Meeting Lutfi and hearing his answer got me closer to a singular understanding of why we do what we do in this field. He puts it really well. 

So in terms of the production info, it’s quite simple. I used my trusty Canon DSLR with Tamron 17-50 f2.8 VC. I took my other lenses, the super wide Tokina and a super zoom Sigma but didn’t need them. I used a Sennheiser G3 radio mic set up, and annoyingly it picked up the air conditioning. I knew it was running and would have turned it off but it was so hot I got complacent. I was accompanied by 2 good friends  who helped carry equipment and also asked a few additional questions at the end that really helped get some nice information out of Lutfi. 

In post I was a little bit stuck for cutaways. A perennial problem. So I decided to use some of the shots of the clashes between people and police I managed to get in Jerusalem. It seemed relevant and gave me a chance to use them. I also had to use my own photography for the trip, which don’t get me wrong, it’s totally gratifying but I had to as Lutfi didn’t have any of his pictures with him in the shop. 

And there you have it. A film I’m pleased with, only because the subject is an amazing guy whom I have great admiration and respect for, and hopefully have learnt from.

https://vimeo.com/102573933

To stay in touch or keep up to date follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/SafiyyahsDad

And to see other docs and films jump over to http://www.vimeo.com/jubair

Peace!