Pre-production: A week before the shoot (November 2008)

November 16th 2008; a day to the shoot

For tonight, I will let the images speak…

Kentish town readings 16-11-08 groupThe second group reading session we’ve held thus far for the cast. Would have loved to hold more of these sessions to allow the actors to become even more familiar with the characters and the story, but also to allow me the added pleasure of their company. I was having such a great time watching them work through the text that I kept forgetting that I am supposed to direct the readings too…From right to left:

Kawa Rasul, in the role of Tawfiq. Nasri Sayegh, in the role of Yusif. Sayyid Ghanim al-Soltan. Daphne Alexander, in the role of Bisan. Sara Amory, a member of the group of young ladies that regularly frequent the cafe. Tina, our makeup artist.

Sayyid Aziz al-Na’ib, in the role of Hussayn. Sit Ahlam Arab, in the role of Zaynab. Sayyid Faisal.

Mazin Imad, in the role of “Mazin”. Sit Sajidah Amory, in the role of Khadeejah. Zain al-Janabi, in the role of Masud.

Will post the crew’s group photo tomorrow.

A new chapter in the Mesocafe journey is soon to commence. May the goddess of celluloid dreams continue to grace us with her smile.

Peace and Salam.

Ja’far

November 15th; two days to the shoot

There is a morning ritual I’ve sorely missed over the past couple of weeks- fresh pot of coffee, my favourite CD from the great Lebanese signer Fayruz playing in the background, and a white page on the screen challenging me to create and tell stories. I actually sat down and wrote the outline of a scene for our next film— more on that later.

I enjoyed the hour of creativity, despite the price it would later cost me- needed to rush around like mad to get five copies of a couple of scenes from the cafe for the cast to read as a group- this would be the first time they would meet and read the text as a family.

The place I had in mind for making photocopies at a reasonable price turned out to be the only photo-copy/print shop outside the City that closes for the whole weekend.

Copies in hand, I was on the train to where the readings would take place. Received a call from the same lady who had found me the purse yesterday- she’d found another purse made by prisoners in Iraq. Instead of getting off at the readings stop, I continued on to my station. The purse I was after, for which I had searched for months and months, asked friends on visits to Beirut and Damascus to search for without success, this purse turned out to belong to a lady who runs a laundrette with her son in my very own high street- I’d been passing the place for well over eight years without even thinking that there would be day in which fate, kismet, luck, goddess of celluloid, would lead me to an essential prop for our movie. I may even have received calls from friends in Syrian and Lebanon searching for the purse while passing this very shop…. On entering the launderette, the lady greeted me with such warmth and generosity that I wished if social etiquette would allow me to hug a person seconds after meeting them for the first time. She took out the purse from her handbag- emptied it of banknotes and change and handed it to me. The purse had the weathered appearance and texture of a well-cherished personal item- like the purse of the film, it seemed to have a history, a journey and a life that started from, possibly, a prison cell in Saddam’s Iraq to a busy high street in London. May both ladies- the one who found me yesterday’s purse after a community-wide search campaign and who also directed me to today’s beautiful purse, and also the gentle and kindly owner of today’s purse- may they both be blessed, for they are allowing me to incorporate an essential prop in the film without compromise. Alif shukur.

Had the opportunity to read the the cafe scenes with the actors. Kawa, after yesterday’s Odyssey across London collecting the film kit with Arij, made it in the last hour – he had spent the greater part of the afternoon with Nasri Sayegh, having met up with him at Jade Page’s place for costume fittings.

Jade has been doing a marvellous job, contacting over a dozen actors, arranging for fittings, sourcing all manner of attire for the different characters- all done without any real support from me. Brilliant.

Finally, had the opportunity to spend some time with Nasri. We walked to a nice pub in the area, filled him in on all the latest re- cast and crew, and heard his own thoughts and feelings about the character of Yusif. I am thrilled that Nasri “gets” the character, the inner voice, and the catharsis inherent in the script’s use of the inner voice.

Called the author and columnist who has agreed to play the role of Dawood al-Suhayli, the elderly Iraqi Jewish character in the film. He is available for the shoot. Over the moon I am.

Met with Mahmoud at the said fast-food joint. Managed to go through a couple of small scenes- shot lists are coming together.

A brisk walk back home… We are making a fate/kismet/luck-kissed movie:-)

Ja’far

November 14th; three days to the shoot

A quick shave and shower- no time for coffee; my star, Nasri Sayegh, is arriving to London all the way from Beirut, and I have yet to find him a place to stay.

Went through the hotels and bed and breakfast establishment that I’ve passed by for many years now without giving calling in a thought- this morning I went into quite a few of these, seeking that “deal”. Found a good, clean and safe place for Nasri’s stay in London.

Rush back home- wolfing down muesli, and working against the clock to clear the film stock, lights, camera and sound kits. Once the deals are in place I would be able to get back to the insurance broker with a total value for the rented equipment. As if 5pm on a Friday evening was not too close a deadline already, I was all too aware of the arrival time of Nasri from the airport- needed to complete these tasks in time to meet him at the station, and get the opportunity to sit and talk with one of the very few people who have kept faith in the project since I held my first auditions for Mesocafe more than 18 months ago. I so looked forward to having a meal with him at the end of the day, hear his latest, his new life in Lebanon, having moved there from Paris only a few weeks ago, and also to share with him the latest of our project.

Received a call from a wonderful lady from the community who had taken it up on herself to find that elusive purse which forms a keystone in the structure of the narrative.

Standing by the entrance of the tube station, she asked me to close my eyes and wait until she carefully unfolded the wrapping around the purse- it was lovely, something clearly eastern about it. Noticing my rapid loss of the ability to form coherent sentences, she rummaged through her handbag and gave me a couple of colourful sweets- hadn’t eaten since said musli.

Managed to complete the order for the film stock before 3pm, in order to qualify for free delivery.

Nasri arrived at the station while I was calculating the total value of the hired equipment and getting ready to call the insurance company. Took the added figures with me and walked with Nasri to his hotel. Whilst waiting for the room to be ready, Nasri and I had what would turn out to be our only chance of the day to actually talk and try to catch up.

Resting my notes on a BT exchange box at a street corner, I made certain that the insurance company had all the information they required to issue the policy today. the gentleman at the other end of the line explained gently how accustomed he and his colleagues have become to filmmakers leaving insurance to the very minute when the hire company needs to see actual evidence of insurance.

Meanwhile, Arij and Kawa, were driving through London collecting the sound equipment from Richmond, and then heading towards Middlesex for the lighting kit. I felt for the lovely couple, as they were trying to find their way through the London traffic aboard a Transit Van we had rented earlier in the day. I didn’t get the chance to talk with Arij and Kawa after their Odyssey across London. I hope they have managed to get back home in time for some well deserved rest.

Spoke with Jade, our costume designer, re-the clothes of Nasri Sayegh. She has arranged to meet him tomorrow.

Daniel is working round the clock to get all the props for the cafe scene completed and ready for Monday. Hala, a member of his team working from Beirut on the project, sent through proofs for book covers, adverts and posters for the cafe. Great work.

Finally, had the opportunity of meeting in person an actress I’ve had in mind for the film for a while now. Glad the meeting went well, though I fear my sugar deficiency began to show towards the end of the meeting.

Held that long awaited meeting with Alessio: the meeting when the DP asks the director specific questions about shot lists, framing and shooting style. We had discussed these issues on different occasions in the past, but to actually get to talk about specific locations and scenes was great.

Mahmoud and I have finally found a place for our late-night meetings that would not swallow all of the budget for our pre-production expenses- a fast food joint close to where I live.

We spent the time looking through the contacts spreadsheet, trying, with some success, to fill all the missing contact details for the cast and crew.

Mahmoud needs this information for the call sheets.

Chatted, briefly, with Paul Hills over the telephone. I thanked him for his support and belief in the project- “you know how you can reward me? make a great movie!”

A quiet walk back home- we are making a great movie:-)

Ja’far

November 13th; four days to the shoot
Morning coffee at the cafe in Notting Hill where we will be filming the cafe scenes.
Alessio, our DP, Daniel, our production designer, and I simply aired our points of concern and questions regarding the shoot to Arij, our production coordinator, who in turn chatted with the lovely cafe owner. All’s well. We’re getting a Green Room in the basement of the cafe to store our gear. Brilliant.
Daniel is coping as well as anyone could possibly cope with the long list of Arabic and English language books, posters, ads, newspaper cuttings etc., in addition to sourcing Arabic and Iraqi props for the cafe.
Daniel and Arij went on a scouting mission for props and food for the cafe scenes- think they headed to Edgware Road.
Came back to my office/bedsit and sorted out the sort of Admin that Paul Hills, our executive producer, keeps reminding me I should not be doing. Paul is correctly suggesting that I should have a line-producer to take care of making deals for the camera kit, lighting, sound gear, van hire and film stock; i don’t have a line-producer and it’s too late to bring anyone aboard. Note to self, “in the next film, get yourself a line-producer months before the shoot:-)”
Attended a reading at the Royal Court Theatre on Sloan Square, starring Houda Echouafni, who is Suad in our film. Houda had actually translated the text from Arabic, Morocco, to English. It left me in tears. Simply sublime.
After the show, I got the opportunity of catching up with Houda whom I hadn’t met for a few weeks, since our stolen hour or so of discussions regarding the character and its background.
It was a pleasure to make the acquittance of Raad Rawi and Badria Timimi.
Spent an hour chatting with Mahmoud at a fast-food outlet in Notting Hill- we’re finding it difficult to find a place that opens late and that doesn’t eat into our pre-production budget:-)
Took a walk back home— we are making our feature film:-)

Ja’far

November 12th; five days to the shoot

As someone who’s worked the night shift for well over seven years, I am particularly partial to sleeping at night- infinitely more nourishing for the body and mind than sleeping during the day. The thoughts and anxiety re-cafe, however, kept me awake until the early hours.

In the morning, met up with Kawa and Arij, the wonderful couple from my neck of the woods who are sharing the space before and behind the camera- Kawa plays the role of Tawfiq and Arij is our production coordinator. We headed to a cafe in Notting Hill whose owner Arij and Kawa had approached yesterday. The cafe owner was living proof of the camaraderie that exists between Londoners from different backgrounds- she allowed us to film for seven whole nights at her special cafe in return for a nominal fee.

Our walk after the cafe felt more like gliding through the streets and squares of West London.

On arriving back to my bedsit/office, I found the good news that the camera hire company has agreed to provide us with the greater part of our wishlist for a nominal fee. Wonderful.

Called my favourite film stock supplier and she sent me the best 16mm stock quote I’ve ever received. More than a year ago, this young lady had helped me film a segment in my work-in-progress documentary, Theatre of Exile, on 16mm by providing me with a couple of cans of film without charge. By being able to finally purchase the whole stock for the feature from her, it felt her trust and nurturing of the friendship and loyalty of this filmmaker had not gone to waste.

The sound gear is proving to be an issue at the moment; the quote we’ve received thus far will eat well into a sixth of the budget. Need to look at other options, whilst making certain that we get the best sound recording equipment we can afford- I have been through the wrist slitting experience of having great film footage with poor audio.

A couple of crew members have joined the Mesocafe family. Will make formal announcement as soon as film runs through camera.

We had a mini-drama this evening when I called the dear friend who had asked a couple relatives on a short visit to Syria to find us the handmade purse used by Bisan. The purse is a central prop that makes appearances at crucial points in the narrative. To my shock, the friend informed me that the relatives had not been able to find this particular type of purse among the shops and markets frequented and run by the Iraqi community in Damascus. While thanking my good friend for his efforts and for those of his relatives, a realization began to dawn on me that we would not be able film two major scenes in the film without the purse- one would need to think of a way of framing Bisan and Yusif without the purse and then cut to a CU of the purse once it’s found in the future.

However, this would create continuity and aesthetic issues that I really am not keen on negotiating.

Made a few calls to friends from the community and before an hour had passed I received a call back from sit Sajidah who had started a “search campaign” for the purse. A friend of hers had rummaged through her belongings and found a hand made purse- made by a prisoner in Iraq in the pre-2003 era.

I was almost in tears when sit Sajidah brought the good news over the telephone.

Spent a couple of hours with Mahmoud, our 1st AD, at a Moroccan cafe in Queensway, sipping sweet mint tea and going through the shot list for the cafe scenes.

Instead of taking the tube back home, I took a long walk, reflecting on how immeasurably fortunate one is to be surrounded by such dedication from the nascent mesocafe family and also from the community. To think that one’s dream of so many years is actually a reality- we are making a feature film…end of rainbow:-)

Good night.
Ja’far

November 11th; six days to the shoot

Monday morning: a two and a half hour meeting with Mahmoud Chour, the 1st AD, going through the script, and working on a shot list for the cafe scenes- all 40 pages of them:-)

Trying to make another meeting in the City straight afterwards meant continuing without food until I got to the meeting, drenched in what felt like a monsoon downpour. Alessio Valori, our DP, was such a gentleman continuing to work on his laptop, finalizing the camera and lighting wishlist, while I literally swallowed a huge sandwich.

My three and a half year old Windows laptop is beginning to show its age- in comparison with the ease with which Alessio and Mahmoud move around MacBooks in backpack, with my laptop in the rucksack it feels like labouring under the weight of a north sea oil rig.

The purpose of the meeting with Alessio was to hook up with Mahmoud and Daniel Nussbaumer, our production designer, to finally allow them to look at the cafe in which we’ve been planning to film the cafe scenes in depth and look at the way it will be dressed and lit. Mahmoud and I would finally get the opportunity to plot the shoot- assign numbers to tables and plan the shooting days accordingly.

On arriving at the location, Daniel related to me the cafe owner’s displeasure at our arrival at 3.30 as opposed to before 3.30. Apparently, she had asked our contact with her to make certain that we arrived there before this hour, so that we would have a chance to chat with her. A genuine misunderstanding, which we all appreciated and decided to build on the positive and use the time we finally had been allotted at the location to do the pre-production work we’ve been desperately seeking to achieve for well over two weeks now.

Out of the blue, our contact with the cafe owner forwarded me a text message from her in which she complained of our presence at the cafe longer than the one hour she had stipulated- I mean, on what planet does this woman live; does she not realise that in order to film at a location, time is needed to measure the space for props, for lighting, check it for health and safety, plan the shoot according to the geography of the furniture etc. etc. etc. We’d been waiting on her for two weeks to get this opportunity. If she was a total stranger to filmmaking then I would, possibly, have understood her total lack of empathy for the stress and pressure that a production team negotiates during the final week of pre-production. The really disappointing point about her is she has dealt with filmmakers in the past and told me several times that all will be well and that we will be able to film at the location out of hours.

On seeing her text message, I called my contact and said that I do not wish to be associated with this cafe or its owner any longer.

I felt grateful to the goddess of celluloid for brining things to a head with this cafe owner at this stage, rather than have the denouement pounce on us a few more days into the week or even during the shoot itself.

The positive I took out of the experience is the realisation that we can film all the cafe scenes at night; I contacted sit Ahlam Arab, who will play Zaynab (the cafe owner in the film), and she kindly put me in touch with members of her theatre company who in turn took me on a tour of cafes in the Marble Arch area. Sayyid Abu Nawras was brilliant, carving out well over three hours of his time, taking me around cafes and introducing me as a promising filmmaker who needs the community’s support. I was touched by the kindness and generosity of the majority of these business people who offered us their premises for filming after 23:00. This leaves us with an option that we can always fall back on.

Tuesday morning: spent the day on emails, phonecalls, text messages and a few letters.

On receiving confirmation of audition availability from a couple of actors for later today, I called Arij al-Soltan, our production coordinator, to see if she can arrange for a location for the auditions.

Miraculously, for a nominal fee Arij found this superb meeting room in Notting Hill Gate, above a bar going through refurbishment. Alif shukur to Arij.
A read through 11-11-08Holding the auditions in such a swanky place got me worried- didn’t want the auditioning actors to be under any illusions about our nano-budget.

The auditions went well and we were able to fit in a quick read through for Kawa Khudur Rasul, in the role of Tawfiq [the young refugee who can't bring his wife over due to his lack of a well-paid job to provide proof of a regular income to the authorities], Zain al-Janabi, in the role of Masud, the British born member of the community, and Mazin Imad, in the role of “Mazin”, the political analyst.

Before heading to sit Ahlam’s home, I sampled the most sumptuous of kebab sandwiches at Cafe Diana on Notting Hill Gate. The place is an Iraqi shrine for- wait for it…wait for it- princess Diana…

Spent a couple of hours at sit Ahlam’s flat, chatting about all things non-film related; a good way to unwind.

Tomorrow, I need to talk with the camera, lighting and sound kit hire companies, speak with film stock providers and fit in a visit to a couple of cafes that Kawa and Arij have found for the shoot.

We live in hope.

Good night.
Ja’far

November 10th; one week to the shoot

Hello all,
This will need to be short; need to catch up with some sleep before the arrival of another full day.
The week began with a visit to a home in Knightsbridge where we have been kindly and most generously allowed to film the big dinner party scene in the film. I loved the Andalusian inspired interior design.
I spent Wednesday walking around Richmond, Hammersmith, the Edgware Road, Marble Arch and Old Street scouting for locations for the shoot with Alessio. As I was saying to Alessio, it was such a great feeling walking around these parts of London during off-peak hours- something that one hardly ever gets to do- the pace is simply majestic in comparison with the rat-chase of the rush hour.
Daniel, Alessio and I got together at a Lebanese cafe on the Edgware Road. Daniel and I didn’t get the opportunity to sit outside a particularly Moorish looking cafe to sample their shishah- we couldn’t sit on a table for four, and the table they offered us would’ve meant sitting so close to the chatter of the two lovers sharing the sofa-like alfresco seats that one might as well have sat in the lap of the two.
Thursday, I was busy fielding queries from actors and casting agents regarding the auditions that I was holding on Friday. The quality and quantity of interest was genuinely humbling.
Friday, spent the whole day auditioning at a tiny theatre in Barons Court- the stamp-sized space seemed like an ode to London’s theatre tradition that even such a small space is booked for months on end by indy productions from an amazing array of genres.
Saturday, spent the morning with Mahmoud Chour, our 1st AD, at a cafe in Notting Hill Gate going through the scenes by one making certain scene breakdowns are all in order. In the evening, I joined sit Ahlam Arab, who will play Zaynab-the cafe owner, at an event for the youth of the community. Being the director and producer who never ceases to be either, I couldn’t help but notice a young lady who I thought would be brilliant for the role of one of the cafe female regulars. Sit Ahlam kindly did the honours and introduced me as this “promising filmmaker”. The young lady in question shook hands with me and, with a most captivating of smiles, said, “hello uncle”. It took me a while to get back into the director/producer mould, let me tell you:-) I am glad that she will be with us in the cafe. As it turned out, I knew her mother and she in turn has also kindly agreed to appear in the film.
Sunday, another four hour meeting with Mahmoud, going through the scene break-down and beginning to plot the shooting schedule for the cafe scenes. Mahmoud is simply brilliant; at 23, he already is a genius of an AD and I can’t imagine the next two years going by without him making his feature film debut. A pleasure to work with him, as it is to work with Daniel, our production designer; Alessio, our DP; Arij, our production coordinator and everyone else in the project- I am privileged to be part of the Mesocafe family with you.
Just before coming back home tonight, I spent a couple of hours at sit Ahlam’s home. We auditioned a few actors from her theatre group. The majority were simply brilliant and I offered roles to a couple of people on the spot.
I am still casting for the role of Saleem and Hushyar in the film. Will be holding meetings over the next few days.
Will start updating on daily basis from Tuesday evening.
Salam,
Ja’far

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