Pre-production: 20 weeks (July – October 2008)

October 31st 2008 – fewer than 3 weeks to the shoot

My social life normally grinds to a zilch during my seven nights on shift; not thus far on this last shift before taking five weeks off to shoot the film.

The week began with meetings on Monday with —-, who will play “Bisan”, at a cafe in Hammersmith where we discussed the latest developments on the project, script, and schedules. I am looking forward to working with — on the film.

Around noon, I had a meeting with Jade Page, our costume designer. Jade’s meticulous attention to detail regarding characters, their histories, their world views and convictions made me certain that she will add tons of magic to the project.

Later on Monday, I had the pleasure of spending a few hours with Hammoudi al-Harithi, a writer-director-actor from my parents’ part of the world who is affectionately referred to as “Abbousi”, the name of the character he played in a series on Iraqi television back in 1961. As we were walking through Edgware Road and Marble Arch, people would come out of Middle Eastern shops, newsagents and restaurants to say hello and shake hands with the man on whose TV shows they had grown up. A remarkably kindly man.

Tuesday evening, the first pre-production meeting of “Mesocafe” was held in Soho. Present: Daniel, our production designer, and Mahmoud Chour, our 1st AD. We discussed locations locations. There are still a few locations that need to be confirmed and we are looking at grouping locations into as small a list as possible to make for a smooth shoot that does not involve disruptions brought about by travelling between too many sites. Mahmoud and Daniel pointed-out certain formatting issues with the script which have led to the scheduling software vastly inflating the number of locations in the film.

Wednesday evening: second pre-production meeting with Daniel and Alessio Valori, our director of photography. This was the first time Daniel met Alessio with whom I had first broached the topic of shooting the film back in January 2007. Fortunately for me, Alessio has kept the faith in the project for almost two years during which he has shot feature films all over the world, including a stint of filming in Afghanistan.

Thursday morning: Visited the hotel in which we hope to film the hotel room scenes in the film, in addition to as many locations that the most kindly hotel management would allow us. The meeting went incredibly well and Nirvet, the young lady in charge of PR and marketing, went above and beyond the call of duty to provide us with an overview of the facilities.

This morning, after having a desperately needed nap straight after work, I got together with Daniel who kindly went through the formatting issues in the script. I think we finally have the shooting script.

Later today, I am meeting Kawa and Arij, the husband and wife team who will be separated by the camera- Kawa infront and Arij behind. We will discuss locations locations.

Next week will begin on Monday with a visit to a location in Knightsbridge where we hope to film the dinner party scene. The owners have been incredibly generous in giving us permission to film in their home.

Later on Monday, I will meet with sit Ahlam Arab to talk further about the film and her role in the project.

Until next week friends,

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 24th- fewer than 4 weeks to the shoot

Marahib ya asdiqa’i/Greetings friends,

What a busy week; I actually feel part of a real film production unit.

The week began with a day that stretched to well over 24 hours without sleep, as I got off the night shift on Monday morning, headed to the University of London Library to further research a couple of historical events mentioned in the script, then headed to Tottenham Court Road for a quick haircut- where the young hairdresser complained about how she keeps finding clients’ hair in her belly button:-), then home for a quick shower before meeting up with Daniel Nussbaumer, our production designer, to recce a location, then my first ever taste of (”leave the gun, take the) Cannoli Italian dessert. After all these years of watching that “sweet death” of the character in the Godfather as he was enjoying a particularly delicious looking Cannoli, one finally had a taste; delicious.

Being so tired on Monday night, I fell asleep around 9pm and was up by 6am. A day of emails and phonecalls ensued.

The same was true of Wednesday; I met the British director Paul Hills. He is the director of “Do Elephants Pray?” and whose blog making the film I have been following with great interest for over a year now. I bumped into Paul at the Marche du Film at Cannes this year and fortunately for me I had the presence of mind to recognize him from a photo on his blog. We met back in London during the summer and he has been most helpful and instructive in guiding me through the maze of pre-production.

I am pleased to announce that Paul Hills is onboard as Executive Producer of Mesocafe.

Thanks to Paul’s recommendations and introductions, we have onboard Do Elephants alumni:
Axle Cheng, sound recordist
Kate Higgs, focus puller
Jose Ruiz, gaffer

As per prior arrangement and discussions that began in January 2007, we have onboard Alessio Valori for the role of DP.

A recent posting on a filmmakers’ noticeboard has put me in contact with some very talented and passionate potential crew members. Over the next few days, I will be holding various meetings to agree upon the final components of the production team.

Last, but not least, on Thursday I had the pleasure of holding a meeting with Ahlam Arab, the director of “A Democracy and a Half”, the Arabic language play the footage of which I edited a few weeks back. Sit Ahlam, [sit being the Arabic equivalent of Donna in Spanish or Portuguese] has in many ways been a mentor for this budding filmmaker- I have recorded her journey as she led a group of mainly first-time actors from the Iraqi and Arab community through the process of rehearsing and staging an Arabic language play in London. The play, “A Democracy and a Half”, was staged last summer, and sit Ahalm has since directed another play, staged in the past couple of months.

For the past six months or so, sit Ahlam and I have been trying to find an appropriate couple of hours to hold an uninterrupted pre-production meeting for Mesocafe. From the moment I began to attend her rehearsals of “A Democracy and a Half”, over 18 months ago, I have been convinced that sit Ahlam would be ideal for the role of Zaynab, the cafe owner in the film. The character of Zaynab is, as a dear friend recently said after reading the script, is the “Italian mama” and Arab mother rolled into one; she is the kind of woman to whom the community members resort for help with their concerns, no matter how big or trivial.

Having waited for all these months to get the opportunity to hold the meeting, we had such a great time talking about the project, about sit Ahlam’s work in Iraqi theatre, her visit to Iraq post-2003, that we both were shocked to realize that the meeting had lasted for more than four hours without either of us even so much as asking about the time or even appreciating why the kindly Polish waitress had disappeared half-way through our meeting- her shift had ended before we got round to asking for the bill:-)

I am overjoyed to announce that sit Ahlam Arab has agreed to take on the role Zaynab in Mesocafe. Simply over the moon:-)

Another piece of great news: for the role of Suad, the PR manager of the political leader in the film, I am very pleased to announce that Houda Echouafni has agreed to be part of our film. Wonderful news.

For the role of Yusif, the Lebanese actor Nasri Sayegh has also agreed to be part of the tribe:-) Great news.

The above roles do not affect the remainder of the yet-to-be-filled roles in the film. The recalls will be held in the week beginning the 3rd of November.

Films I’ve seen this week: “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort/ The Young Girls of Rochefort”, with Catherine Deneuve and her late sister Francoise Dorleac, directed by Jacques Demy (France, 1968); Louis Malle’s “Le Feu Follet/The Fire within” (France, 1963). At the pictures, I watched “Burn After Reading”, the latest from the Coen Brothers

I am back to work for one last seven-night push before taking five whole weeks off for the film.

Thank you all for your support.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 16th- 5 weeks to the shoot

Hello All,

Well, the great news is the shoot is only 5 weeks away: We start filming on Monday the 17th of November. Shoot dates are: 17/11/08 to 5/12/08

Preproduction is moving towards the level of optimum speed and intensity that it needs to be at for an indy production such as ours to be a success.

Crew: We have onboard an experienced Director of Photography and Production designer. The crew is being assembled on daily basis.

Locations: We have secured a cafe for the main location in the film- we are very fortunate to be given access to a location such as this for an extended period of time. The cafe is in central London.

When writing the scenes in the film that take place at a hotel room I was inspired by my own first night in London at a particular hotel in central London over 20 years ago; I am chuffed that we have been given the green light to film at the very same hotel- can’t remember the number of the room where I stayed, but will try to get a room with the same view.

The production designer and I are still looking for other locations, including offices, a couple of council flats and a big luxury apartment/house.
For the scenes that unfold at an airport, we are talking to a couple of locations.

Cast:
I will be holding the recalls and auditions for the yet-to-be filled roles late next week. [dates, to be confirmed: Thursday or Friday 23rd/24th of October]

Please feel free to recommend people for the yet-to-be filled roles:

Role: Ziyad (Male)
Description: a 50+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a politician.
Days on set: 7

Role: Saleem (Male)
Description: a 50+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a wealthy expatriate.
Days on set: 1

Role: Hushyar (Male)
Description: 50+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a political leader.
Days on set: 1

Role: Dawood (Male)
Description: 65+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a Jewish-Iraqi expatriate.
Days on set: 1

Will be in touch as soon as the auditions and recalls list is finalized.

Many thanks,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid,

October 10th- 6 weeks to the shoot

Salam and peace friends,

The main focus of this past week has been the ongoing search for locations. There are two airport scenes in the film which I don’t think we realistically stand a chance of filming at any of the London airports, especially not during the run-up to the Christmas period. I have tried my luck with the major airports and the prices that I’ve quoted would not leave much change from a significant portion of the budget for a few hours of filming at an airport terminal. The security considerations, in addition to safety issues for passengers, the cast and crew, mean that airport authorities are very reluctant to allow a low-budget film crew on their premises. The logic seems to be, by setting the location fees at such a high level only mainstream fully-funded projects would film at airports.

The building work taking place at the office has given me one or two ideas as to how imply the vastness of space that one normally associates with airports, without necessarily being at a real airport. More on that in the coming weeks.

I had a couple of fruitful meetings with potential members of the cast this week. I am finalizing plans to hold the recalls and final auditions in the week beginning on the 20th. Over the course of next week, I will contact those selected for the recalls and final auditions to make the necessary arrangements.

I am meeting the production designer later on today with a view to discussing a few ideas regarding locations and the limited budget we have for dressing sets.

Books I am reading this week: “Hawks on Hawks”, part of Faber’s directors series. “Chicago” by ‘Ala’ al-Aswani whose “Binayat Yacoubyan/ Yacoubyan Building” was a bestseller and widely translated from Arabic.

Films I watched: “Il Y A Longtemps Que Je T’aime/ I’ve Loved You So Long” (Dir. Philippe Claudel, France 2008) – Without a doubt one of the best female film protagonists I’ve seen in a long time; a role of a life-time for Kirstin Scott Thomas.

See you next week,

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 3rd- 7 weeks to the shoot

Hello,
Still going through a final read through of the script.

I am receiving applications for taking part in the project. I am very pleased with the quality and experience of the applicants and sincerely feel confirmed in my belief that through our combined effort and passion, we will make a feature film by the completion of which we will all feel justly rewarded.

This week I am going through the first of the three seven-day shifts I have remaining before the shoot. I will have a couple of weeks before the shoot to focus solely on pre-production, though one is already in pre-production almost all the time.

The auditions for the yet-to-be filled roles will be held in the week commencing October 20th. Will be contacting people over the next week or so.

Once the cast is in place, I would very much like to have the opportunity of holding a weekly workshop with the actors to work through the script- the process will be most rewarding and instructive for all concerned, especially yours truly.

A sense of closure is taking hold of me at the moment as I finally have gotten round to editing the footage of a play a couple friends and I filmed last summer in London. The play, “Democratiyah wa Nuss/A Democracy and a Half”, was directed by sit Ahlam Arab, who also directed “al-Yawm al-Thamin/ Eighth Day” of which I spoke a few weeks back.

Next week, I will be attending a couple of meetings with potential members of the cast, and will continue the search for suitable locations for the film. We already have locations for the cafe and hotel room scenes; we need locations for the office scenes and a couple of council estate-like flats.

Until next week, friends,
Ja’far

September 25th- 8 weeks to the shoot

Marahib friends,

As far as the preparations for the feature film are concerned, I am still spending time with the characters on paper- I am also streamlining the actual formating of the script, the way the text appears on the page.

The response to the Spotlight casting call has been very encouraging indeed and I will be contacting artists over the next couple of weeks in preparation for the final recall and audition in the first half of October.

I am humbled and touched by the positive feedback I am getting from those who have read the script. I hope their support and trust will be rewarded by the completed film.

Locations: for the scenes in the film that take place at the main character’s hotel room, I would very much like to film at the very same hotel where I stayed for my first night in London more than 20 years ago. I have called the hotel in question and the young lady in charge of marketing has been most helpful and supportive. For the scenes that take place at the cafe, I am very fortunate to have been introduced to an inspiring person who I hope will allow us to film at her premises. She is being very generous indeed.

Next week, I am back at work whereI have three more seven-day shifts, before taking a five-week break to concentrate on making the film.

Due to popular demand, here’s the tree.

Tree- 24-9-08

See you next week.

Ja’far

September 17th- 9 weeks to the shoot

Hello friends,
Why is it, one wonders, wearing the teenager’s hat, that whenever there is a great deal to do time flashes by, and slows to a majestic pace when…— ah for a happy medium…

As you can tell, I am labouring under the too-little-time syndrome of urban life. That said, the preparations for the super 16mm feature film, Mesocafe, are moving at a good pace. I am working my way through the suggestions and recommendations of actors for the older Iraqi characters in the film and will be holding a final audition in the first half of October. I am also working my way through assembling the production team, with the production designer thankfully already onboard.

Having worked on the script for the greater part of the year, I am taking time off from the final rewrites and editing. Will go back for a final read through just before the auditions.

Location..location: I am still scouting for locations that would allow us the longest possible uninterrupted shooting schedule: we are shooting a feature film in a three-week period. Therefore, the fewer changes in location the better.

Catering: I am looking at the best way to provide the cast and crew with healthy and hearty meals during the shoot. As things stand at the moment, I am thinking Lebanese. Talking to a couple of restaurant chains.

There is also the matter of vehicles to be used by two of the characters in the film. The first will be a People Carrier and the second a Mini. While filming inside the former won’t be trying, trying to fit a cameraman, a soundman, moi, and the two characters on a day excursion, may prove to be quite an intimate experience for all concerned. May leave the Mini-sequence to the end of the shoot:-)

Films I watched this week: “Uzak/Distant” and “Climates” by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. There is something magical about long-takes shot in a wide-locked-framing. The magic rests largely in being able to pull off such a static camera work without distancing the audience from the narrative. Obviously, the key is what happens inside the frame.

Last night, I went to see “Hedda” at the Gate Theatre, Notting Hill. This adaptation from the work of Ibsen was mesmerising.

Until next week.
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

September 10th- 10 weeks to the shoot

Another week at the office: meetings, spreadsheet, and endless paperwork and emails.

As far as the preparations for the feature film go, I’ve been busy working on the script. While the film is still on paper there is a great deal that can be achieved to further develop the narrative, characters and scenes.

A casting call has just gone out via Spotlight for the older Male Iraqi characters.

At the moment, I am talking to a few potential sponsors for the production. With its emphasis on bridging the gaps of misunderstanding and misconception between certain parts of Arab and Middle Eastern culture and that of some aspects of the Western world, Mesocafe- I think- is an ideal project for sponsorship.

Over the next few weeks, the cast and crew teams need to be fully formed. Locations will also need to be booked. So much to do, and the more fun it is that there is so little time for it:-)

After attending a performance of the “8th Day” (directed by sit Ahlam Arab) at the Cockpit Theatre last week, someone alerted me to “Anna and Rose: Weapons of Mass Seduction” directed by and starring Noor Khamou. Loved the colours, rich reds that evoked Andalusia [al-Andalus] and Moorish history that provide a backdrop to a genre straddling story of love, loss and murder. Simply a joy to watch.

Was very pleased to be allowed to take a couple of snaps- without flash!

Later this week I am heading to attend a performance of “Miles to Babylon” by Ann Harson at the Pacific Playhouse. I am fortunate to know a member of the cast.

Hope to see you all next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

September 2nd- 11 weeks to the shoot

The preparations for our feature film, the S16mm feature Mesocafe, are moving at a good pace.

I spent the first three days of the week going through the script- I am working my way towards locking the script for the shoot.

Over the past few days, I’ve been donning my “photographer” hat, capturing images from “al-Yawm al-Thamin/ The 8th Day” a play rich with allegory directed by sit Ahlam Arab, a female Iraqi director whose work I have been following as part of a work-in-progress documentary.

I felt privileged to be allowed backstage during the show, following with fascination the play through the rapid movements and the stolen moments of backstage banter between the actors as they waited for their scenes.

There is something carefree and romantic about the director and her ensemble of mostly first-time actors as they go about performing before a mixed audience of Londoners- from the Middle Eastern and the wider community.

At the end of the show, there I was with camera and tripod insisting that the physically drained actors pause for their compatriot in the realm of dreamers. Not only did they oblige, but there was a 30+ group comprising of actors and their relatives and friends who assembled outside the theatre- kept hoping against hope that the shots would come out ok.

In my ongoing search for actors for the older Iraqi characters in the film, I am fortunate to have the help of a well-known journalist with connections in the Middle Eastern community.

Later today, I will start the process of forming a single-purpose limited company for the feature film.

Films I watched this week: “Leon Morin, Pretre” (Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, France 1961)
And Shane Medow’s “Somers Town” .

See you next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

August 28th- 12 weeks to the shoot

The preparations for the S16mm feature film shoot, Mesocafe, are moving at a good pace.

I have just completed seven nights on the night shift at the office-based company I’ve been working for for the past seven and a half years. There is something instructive and socialising about working in the confined work environment of an office. It’s a mode of work where one is not necessarily taxing himself physically, although one does suffer from the need to hammer the keyboard that is normally used- nay, raided with what seem like rocks, renches and a North Sea oil rig- by the two finger-typing colleague. Being in this environment, for what feels the greater part of one’s daily life, does test one’s ability to communicate, stay sane and coherent in the face of the flood of emails, interminable supply of forms and meetings that go for what feels like an eternity. I sometimes wonder whether all artists, be they writers, directors or actors, should all go through the daily grind of being in an office environment for days on end and for many many months- that way, they may get a feel for the pressures and daily travails that face a huge proporotion of their potential audience- readers, cinema and theatre goers.

I remember watching David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glenn Ross”: faced with the chaos, interrogation and accusatory looks from the police and the boss that come as a result of the theft of the highly prized contact details from the real estate agents in which he works, a down-and-out middle-aged character simply shouts, “god, I hate my job”… pure gold… the line connects with the many overalapping, contradictory, momentary and ubiquotous emotions, thoughts and feelings that are clenched into the feeling one gets the moment of facing the office on a Monday morning.

Films I watched this week: Elegy: having spent the past eight years working on a thesis on the adaptation of the novel to the screen, and being a fan of Philip Roth, Dennis Hopper and Ben Kingsly, there were many reasons to opt for Elegy (Directed by Isabel Coixet, 2008) . I had to break the rule and watch the adaptation before reading the book- a Philip Roth novel at that too… The result, however, was brilliant and am glad I watched the movie on a big screen, rather than wait to read the novel before watching the film- on DVD.

There is something about the manner in which a woman films another that is multi-layered- how a female filmmaker captures the sexuality of another woman on camera is a very interesting point of debate- the Laura Mulvey now famous position that classic Hollywood cinema subjects woman to the criss-crossing gaze of the filmmaker, the male co-stars and the audience; one wonders how well this position would stand before the test of a film directed by a woman. There are some who would go as far as contending that the cinema apparatus itself is patriarchal and therefore the sexuality of the person behind the camera is irrelevant.

All that said, I felt Isable Coixet treated the physical attributes of her star, Penelope Cruz, in a manner that didn’t really detract from the star’s physical appeal, while at same time the camera seemed to be kindly, not predatory and encouraging the audience to connect with the the inner energy of the character.
Simply brilliant.

Later this week, I will meet more creative people with a view to agreeing the final list of our HoDs, Heads of Department.

Will fill you in next week.

Salam and peace,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

August 21st- 13 weeks to the shoot

Yet again, the week has flown by. In between meeting friends, attending a couple of film-related meetings and writing and responding to a few emails, the time has simply evaporated.

In terms of casting, I am still receiving several letters and emails per a day expressing interest in taking part in the project- all very encouraging and greatly appreciated. A well known British actor of Arab origin wrote to me thanking me for sending him the script; he described it as “full of charm and excitement”- a great compliment coming from someone with his experience spanning over four decades in the film and TV industries of Britain, the continent and across the pond. Later this week, I will be meeting a few actors during an Iraqi and Middle Eastern cultural event in London.

Later this week, I will attend a filmmaking workshop and hopefully meet with a DoP to discuss the potential for collaborating on Mesocafe.

I spent the greater part of the past week off work editing film footage of a play staged in London last June. The mini-DV tapes of the play have been glancing at me accusingly everytime I go past my desk- everyone in the 20+ cast keeps asking me about the play and when it’s going to be ready for viewing on DVD. The delay has been due to other commitments- work, thesis, Mesocafe script re-writes and pre-production work. Now that I have finally carved out the time to work on editing the footage of the play, I regret not having started much earlier; so enjoyable and stresss-free is the process of putting together an edited version of an already established linear structure. I expect to have a final cut to show the cast and the director by the end of next week.

Books I am reading: “Shuqqat al-Hurriyyah/ Liberty Apartment” by the Saudi novelist Ghazi al-Qusaybi. Not sure if there is an English language translation of this novel which takes the reader through the social, political and amorous orientations of a group of Arab students in the Cairo of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The book was made into a television series a few years back and is in the process of being adapted to the screen.

Films I have watched this week: “3 Days of the Condor” (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1975), starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. A great Russian dolls story. I also watched “The Unbelievable Truth” (dir. Hal Hartley, 1989); the director’s debut feature and made with a micro-budget of $75,000. The film sports great edgy dialogue, not dissimilar to Richard Linklater’s style of writing.

See you next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid,

Writer/Producer/Director “Mesocafe”

August 13th- 14 weeks to go

I am having one of my serene-nothing-can-possibly-hamper-my-joy-of-living-this-very-moment days; a blessing from the gods, I feel- though a couple of friends have described it as “sickeningly optimistic” and complained that “you’re not allowed to feel like that without the aid of some illegal substance” :- )

I am listening to Carlos Gardel singing to “Buenos Aires” in his deep intimate voice from the 1930s. I have before me the poetry of the great Sufi al-Hallaj, and am lost between the melody of one and the passion of the other…”I do not cease swimming in the seas of love, rising with the wave, then descending; now the wave sustains me, and then I sink beneath it; love bears me away where there is no longer any shore.” (Diwan al-Hallaj, M. 34)

Being in this “sickeningly optimistic” state of mind is particularly helpful in view of the tedious paper-work involved in pre-production. Thanks to the contact given me by the British director I met at Cannes earlier this year, I am readying myself for setting up a production company- my second. The first I set up in the 1990s to oversee the production of a couple of TV pilots for Arabic satellite TV stations. Hopefully, this time round I will not be snowed under with the endless paperwork that is said to be responsible for a high percentage of small businesses that go under in the first two years of operation.

Yesterday, Monday, I went location scouting with a dear friend who I hope will play the role of Tawfiq in the film, after going through the auditions. We visited a cafe in a side-street close to the city. The owner was incredibly helpful and generous with her time and agreed to allow us to film in the space. The location would be ideal for filming, as not only is it in a secluded street, and thus good for sound recording, but is spacious enough to allow for its use as two or three different locations. Brilliant. I will visit the place once more with the production designer after his return to London in September.

On the cast front, I have received tens of applications for the recently announced roles of “Richard Field” and “Robert North”, the political analyst and TV journalist respectively. Hopefully, I will receive more applications from actors interested in playing the roles of

Dr Ziyad [male, 50+, Arab/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, political leader, fluent in English]

Saleem [male, 50+, Arab/Middle Eastern/Mediterranean, wealthy Iraqi expatriate, fluent in English]

Later this week I will visit the rehearsal of a play by an Iraqi female director one of whose other plays I filmed last summer.

Films I’ve watched this week: “The Conformist”, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci in 1970, before making “Last Tango in Paris”. Simply an essay in style; can’t recommend it highly enough. I have also watched “Salamah fi Khayr/ Salamah is Fine”, made in 1937 by the great Egyptian director Niyazi Mustafa, and representing through its cast the cosmopolitan nature of Egyptian artistic life at the turn of the 20th century, including actors from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities that the late Yusif Chahine so fondly portrayed in his films depicting the period.

Until next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid,

Writer/Producer/Director “Mesocafe”

August 7th- 15 weeks to go

Apologies for delay with this week’s update; hectic week at work.

On the film front, actors from Arab, Middle Eastern and European backgrounds have been in touch regarding the aforementioned casting call in PCR. I have contacted a couple of actors who I think would be wonderful for the advertised roles.

Last night, attended a panel discussion on filmmaking which was quite informative and enjoyable in equal measure. After attending film workshops and courses over many years, starting from scripting to working with actors to shooting on film and video to producing, one has become quite accustomed to the interesting mix of people who attend such courses: there are those who may have a decent amount of experience in certain departments and processes of the filmmaking workflow, like myself, and who are keen to learn and improve their knowledge, and there are those who are very experienced and see these events as a way of meeting other filmmakers; there is also the group that is taking the very first steps in filmmaking. The mix is fun to be a part of.

The young man who I think will play the role of Tawfiq in the film- obviously, provided an agreement is reached- is proving himself to be a potentially integral member of the production team, working with me behind and before the camera. He is helping me with locations.

Next week I will be busy reviewing the footage of a play I filmed last summer. I filmed the production as part of the documentary footage I was capturing of the journey of an Iraqi stage director as she went about leading a cast of mostly first-time actors through the three-months of grueling rehearsals to the point of standing on stage facing an audience of hundreds. Simply brilliant. I hope to have the opportunity to carve out the time to edit the documentary next year, after completing all post-production and the completion of “Mesocafe”.

I am reading “Imperial Life in the Emerald City”, by the Washington Post correspondent in Iraq, Rajiv Chandrasekaran. A riveting read that weaves a narrative out of the disparate encounters and incidents the author experienced while stationed in Iraq at the very start of the 2003. The book is being adapted to the big screen, with Paul “The Bourne Ultimatum” Greengrass.

Until next week friends.

Salam and peace.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

July 30th – 16 weeks to go

Hello,
I have spent the week at work cocooned from the world of creativity by endless spreadsheets and on-going projects. I am, therefore, quite relieved to finally have the chance to catch up and say hello.
On the film front, I met a production designer on Sunday at the St Pancras terminal for Eurostar. He was on his way to Belgium and I was on my way back to bed, having had only a couple of hours of rest after finishing the night shift and needing at least a couple more before heading back to work. As ever, I found the meeting with someone working in the industry and who has read a part of the script quite instructive- it’s always helpful to know how people feel about the characters and the story one has created on paper. It’s almost like sharing a secret with a total stranger.
Thanks to the casting call in PCR and word of mouth, I am getting queries and submissions from talented and experienced actors from all sorts of backgrounds. I will be working through these queries and should be able to hold an audition for the yet-to-filled roles towards the end of August-early September.
I will try to get some admin work out of the way for the film; the British director I told you about last week suggested that I set-up a single-purpose production company for the film. Before meeting him, I was not sure if setting up a company would be the best route to follow as having been through the interminable paperwork when i did have a company to my name many years ago, i was somewhat reluctant to go through that whole process again. However, I am now convinced that this is the best course of action. I will get in touch with the accountant he suggested, and also try to set up a meeting with the DP he also suggested. I will contact the DP recommended to me by an American cinematographer I met at the start of 2008.
The venerable Egyptian and Arab director Youssef Chahine passed away this week, aged 82. Having grown up with his films, starting with “Bab al-Hadid/ Cairo Station” (1958), “Bayya’ al-Khawatim / The Ring Seller” (1965), “al-Ard/ The Land (1969), “al-Ikhtiyar/ The Choice” (1970), “al-Usfur / The Sparrow” (1973), “Awdat al-Ibn al-Dal/ Return of the Prodigal Son” (1976) and his trilogy, I couldn’t help the excitement that took me over whenever I would hear of the start or completion of a new film by him- though invariably one was disappointed with the result of his later work, with the exception of “al-Masir/ Destiny” (1997). Ill-health, the pressures of ever shrinking production schedules and a lack of good screenplays to work with led to additions to his filmography in the past ten years that do not live up to his earlier work. His work, nevertheless, represents not only a personal history, but a narrative among the many competing stories trying to encapsulate Egyptian, Arab and Middle Eastern culture over the ages.
Here is a segment from one of my favourite Chahine films, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1976)- this was one of my “love from the first frame” moments. The female role is played by the great Lebanese singer Majdah al-Rumi. Enjoy. Ja’far
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=813ZtCXrlpk

July 21st- 17 weeks to go
The week has not been particularly eventful- I’ve made a couple of potentially important contacts for the feature film. I am constantly on the lookout for locations for filming- high on my list of needed locations is the cafe where a great part of the film narrative will unfold. Budget limitations make it impractical to think of closing a cafe for business for the duration of the shoot in order to capture the cafe scenes. Filming on location is a particularly draining experience for all involved.

A casting call will go out this week for the yet-to-be-filled roles of older Arab and Middle Eastern characters in the film. The casting call:

Writer/Director Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid (has been working in independent film and TV since 1992; Programming Assistant at the Raindance Film Festival 2006; MA film; putting final touches to a PhD in film adaptations) is casting for more roles to take part in the highly visual self-funded Super 16MM feature entitled MESOCAFE, shooting in London in November-December [17th of November to 5th of December]. “With its Arab, Assyrian, Jewish and Kurdish heritage, the Middle Eastern community of London provides a focal point for Mesocafe, an English language feature film set in 2003.”

The dialogue of the film will be entirely in English.

Applications from “Mediterranean-looking” actors are also welcome.

Ziyad: (m, a 50+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a politician. Days on set: 7

Saleem: (m, a 50+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a wealthy expatriate. Days on set: 1

Hushyar (m, 50+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a political leader. Days on set: 1

Dawood: (m, 60+ Iraqi or Middle Eastern/Mediterranean), in the role of a Jewish-Iraqi expatriate. Days on set 2

Full expenses, and a DVD copy of the film will be provided; profit share. Please send recent photographs and CV to Mesocafe, unit 223, 4 Montpelier Street, London SW7 1EE , or email: mesocafe*AT*gmail.com
Ends.

Last week, I had promised to share with you my latest love from “the first frame”, but I am afraid I will have to make you wait till next week.

Books I am reading: “Yawmiyyat Film”/ A Film Diary” by Hashim al-Nahhas: This is an Arabic language book that pre-dates the production blog, detailing the daily progress of the making of the feature film adaptation of “al-Qahirah al-Jadidah”/”New Cairo” by Naguib Mahfuz in 1966. The film was directed by Salah Abu Sayf and stands as a testiment to the auteur status of the director known in the Arab world as the father of Egyptian Realism.

Last night, I watched “Waitress”, the film starring and directed by Adrienne Shelly. A wonderful story that acquires its universality from its focus on the minutia and the day-to-day in the life of a waitress who invests her emotions, anger, love, hate and depression into the elaborate pies she cooks in-between serving her eclectic clientele in a small diner somewhere in America. Simply brilliant. The film is that bit more touching in view of the murder of its star and director shortly after its completion.

See you all next week.
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

July 16th- 18 weeks to go
I am in love, again…
From an early age, I have been unrepentant in my belief that one can fall in love from the first sight, first eye-contact… first frame. More about my latest love affair later…

The preparations for the feature film, Mesocafe, stepped up a notch or two earlier this week through what I think will be a pivotal meeting in pushing forward the production.

Many months ago, I began to follow with interest the blog of a filmmaker as he recounted on daily basis the heartache, stress, euphoria and all the contradictory currents that permeate a film production. As luck would have it, I happened to recognise him walking out of the Film Marche at Cannes 2008 and went up to him and said hello. He was incredibly courteous and receptive to yet another budding filmmaker asking him for advice on his/her project. We met up in London earlier this week and he patiently and generously set aside two whole hours of his very busy schedule to share with me his experiences and to guide me through what I am recognising to be a Herculean undertaking of shooting a feature on film, with high production values, and with a budget that barely covers the bill for Arnie’s cigars on a Hollywood shoot. This filmmaker’s kindness and generosity reminded me of the American cinematographer who dedicated a significant part of his day off during the pre-production for a mega-budget film shoot to share with me his experiences and to answer my innumerable questions.

I am also moving forward with filling the yet-to-be filled roles of the older generation of Iraqi/Middle Eastern characters in the film. It is very likely now that European and Mediterranean actors will be taking on these roles, in the absence of suitable actors from within the Arab and Middle Eastern community in London.

Back to my love affair from the first frame…
I recall the first such feeling when I was barely out of primary school when I was allowed to stay up to watch the Arabic-subtitled Stanley Kubrick film, “Paths of Glory”. The scene that first instilled in me what I would later understand to be love from the first frame was when a ruthless bar-owner pushes a young German girl into the stage and asks her to sing to a room-full of French soldiers on a short break from the war with Germany (1914-1918). Her fear and youth trickle through her trembling voice singing in German to these French warriors. The simplicity of the song, the vulnerability of the girl and sheer absurdity of the situation compels these young men to search through those darkened corners of their memories for days of working the land and toiling at the factories, gliding through endless hours at the local cafe and day-dreaming of the evening date with the girl from across town; the days before war, before the sounds of shell-fire and artillery had arrested in these young faces an immovable belief in a sunny and bright tomorrow. The flooding memories burst into song as the soldiers attempt to assure the trembling girl through their tearful humming of that which unites them all with the dream in her song, above and beyond that which had forced this innocent and powerless girl to sing before a roomful of soldiers just back from fighting her countrymen.

I couldn’t put into words for the benefit of my younger brother what had changed in me/ what had moved through the act of watching this great piece of world cinema. I am barely managing now, after more than a quarter of a century.

Over the weekend, while attending a film screening at Bafta, I think I had a similar moment…

All will be revealed next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

July 9th- 19 weeks to go
I won’t allow the weather to spoil my sense of quiet joy and relief; I have just finished the final draft of the screenplay for Mesocafe, the feature film I am shooting in November this year. The personal nature of some of the elements woven into the fabric of the narrative has made the process of writing the script, one draft after another, quite draining. The more I read the story and live through the streets of London with the characters, the more quietly confident I become of the decision I made all those years ago to start working on this feature.

The story began to evolve in my head back in 2003, and it took me another three years before I could carve-out the time to invest in developing an outline and a treatment for the film. I spent the whole of 2006 churning one treatment after another, before finally getting to the point when I felt I could start working on actually fleshing-out the screenplay.

Due to the amount of time I’d spent working on developing the story and characters, when I finally completed the first draft in February 2007 I felt I was ready to start pre-production and began to seriously look at a June 2007 shoot. A chance encounter with a film critic and the questions he asked me about the extent of preparations for the shoot made me re-evaluate the shoot dates. The six-month delay expanded to 18 months, as I needed to complete the PhD film thesis that had not been completed on schedule.

The postponement of the shoot has proven to be a blessing in disguise as one has been able to spend a lot more time on developing the story and the characters than the usual time-line of self-financed independent feature films: the fact that one doesn’t need to green-light the project from a whole tribe of accountants and production executives means the project is usually in production the moment the script is written and the micro-budget is in the bank. So I feel quite fortunate that I’ve been forced into this delay, although there have been times over the past two years when I’ve been tempted to simply abandon my PhD thesis, give up my office job and start shooting the film. The temptation is ubiquitous- and now that the script has gone through the final re-write, I think I may yet give in- except the thesis is done and the job…well, the cast and crew will need to be fed during the shoot- best keep the regular pay-cheque for the moment:-)

Films I’ve watched this week:
“The Spanish Prisoner”
Moonlighting: directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, who played the role of the uncle in Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promise”.

Books I am reading:
Still reading Diana Abu-Jaber’s “The Language of Baklava”

See you next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

July 1st 2008 – 20 weeks to go

Hello,
I have spent the week at work cocooned from the world of creativity by endless spreadsheets and on-going projects. I am, therefore, quite relieved to finally have the chance to catch up and say hello.
On the film front, I met a production designer on Sunday at the St Pancras terminal for Eurostar. He was on his way to Belgium and I was on my way back to bed, having had only a couple of hours of rest after finishing the night shift and needing at least a couple more before heading back to work. As ever, I found the meeting with someone working in the industry and who has read a part of the script quite instructive- it’s always helpful to know how people feel about the characters and the story one has created on paper. It’s almost like sharing a secret with a total stranger.
Thanks to the casting call in PCR and word of mouth, I am getting queries and submissions from talented and experienced actors from all sorts of backgrounds. I will be working through these queries and should be able to hold an audition for the yet-to-filled roles towards the end of August-early September.
I will try to get some admin work out of the way for the film; the British director I told you about last week suggested that I set-up a single-purpose production company for the film. Before meeting him, I was not sure if setting up a company would be the best route to follow as having been through the interminable paperwork when i did have a company to my name many years ago, i was somewhat reluctant to go through that whole process again. However, I am now convinced that this is the best course of action. I will get in touch with the accountant he suggested, and also try to set up a meeting with the DP he also suggested. I will contact the DP recommended to me by an American cinematographer I met at the start of 2008.
The venerable Egyptian and Arab director Youssef Chahine passed away this week, aged 82. Having grown up with his films, starting with “Bab al-Hadid/ Cairo Station” (1958), “Bayya’ al-Khawatim / The Ring Seller” (1965), “al-Ard/ The Land (1969), “al-Ikhtiyar/ The Choice” (1970), “al-Usfur / The Sparrow” (1973), “Awdat al-Ibn al-Dal/ Return of the Prodigal Son” (1976) and his trilogy, I couldn’t help the excitement that took me over whenever I would hear of the start or completion of a new film by him- though invariably one was disappointed with the result of his later work, with the exception of “al-Masir/ Destiny” (1997). Ill-health, the pressures of ever shrinking production schedules and a lack of good screenplays to work with led to additions to his filmography in the past ten years that do not live up to his earlier work. His work, nevertheless, represents not only a personal history, but a narrative among the many competing stories trying to encapsulate Egyptian, Arab and Middle Eastern culture over the ages.
Here is a segment from one of my favourite Chahine films, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1976)- this was one of my “love from the first frame” moments. The female role is played by the great Lebanese singer Majdah al-Rumi. Enjoy. Ja’far
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=813ZtCXrlpk

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