Archive for September, 2011

September 25th 2011; week 146 of post-production

Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Filmwise: I am thrilled to announce that our festival screening master is 99 percent complete. Our colour-grader Mouthanna has been going for days on end with little sleep, in order to complete the grade. I am collecting the festival screener early this week.

The post-production proper began 32 months ago with an early morning to late night session ingesting the rushes into the edit suite, and it has reached its preliminary conclusion on Saturday with almost 12 hours of watching, amending and rendering the grade of the whole movie.

As Mouthanna was showing me the first reel, I noticed an issue with the audio for a short off-camera segment that I had not noticed before. Thankfully, not only was our sound designer JD gracious with my interrupting his weekend with a call out of the blue, but he kindly agreed to quickly sprinkle some of his magic on the culprit segment and send through the new audio file – all within an hour. Brilliant.

On top of all the hard work that Mouthanna has been putting into the grade of our film, his wife most generously cooked us the most delicious chicken and rice meal I’ve had for a very long time.

Put simply; I am an immeasurably fortunate man to be blessed with the friendship and support of such wonderful people.

As I was walking to the night bus from Mouthanna’s home, I felt as if I was as intoxicated and floating in air as some of the inebriated young men and women pouring out of night clubs on to the local high street.

The making of this dream, the before, during and after the shoot, has been only possible through the dedication, patience and support of every member of the Mesocafé family.

The post-production has a few more stages in store for us – creating the final master with deliverables for potential distributors, is among the stages that still remain.

The festival screener will be ready for our World Premiere at Raindance next Sunday.

Peace and love,

Ja‘far

Mesocafé Trailer

September 18th 2011; week 145 of post-production (1 week to completion)

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Filmwise: three out of five reels have been colour-graded. I have completed onlining all five reels. We aim to complete a festival screening master within the next ten days, in time for our world premiere at the Raindance Film Festival.

JD our sound designer has completed the sound mix. The film looks and sounds beautiful.

I need to edit the titles that Daniel kindly created for us at the end of 2009; new members have joined the Mesocafé family since.

I am not sure how the three of us who have been working on the film in the past few weeks – JD, Mouthanna et moi – have managed to do so much within such a condensed period of time. Both Mouthanna and I have our full-time jobs, and JD has been juggling a couple of features with almost identical submission deadlines.

With the news of the selection  of our film in competition at Raindance, and the rapid turnaround of the audio and the picture mastering, the last few weeks have been quite cathartic.

Indeed, I have been exposed to a totally new experience and sensation – one that reminds me of an interview with Seymour Cassel in which he reminisces about working with John Cassavetes. He recalls how Cassavetes and he would drop by at a theatre in which their indie feature was screening to check for the number of tickets sold.  Yes, I have been checking the cinema website for the number of booked seats :- )

There was a premature sense of euphoria earlier in the week when the cinema website had the “Sold Out” sign for our film. After a chat with the festival management, it transpired that the cinema had sold out those tickets that are initially allocated to members of the public. The festival has kindly released more seats for our film. So, if you haven’t booked your place, please do. It would be lovely to celebrate our dream together. Link to box office.

Peace and love,

Ja’far

September 12th 2011; week 144 of post-production (2 weeks to completion)

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Fimwise: We have been selected for the competition section at the Raindance Film Festival.
19RaindanceFilmFest_poster_PortraitFor followers of this blog, you may recall my exuberance on receiving a certain email early in July. I was under strict instructions not to share the news until September 6th, when Raindance announced their lineup for their 19th edition.

On Tuesday, I was busy all morning with the online of our film, replacing low resolution shots with high definition clips from the newly ingested rushes. On my third visit to the Raindance website, the lineup was finally uploaded.

It took me a couple of seconds to realise that not only is our film in the official selection, but it is also in competition. According to What Culture website, over 3,000 films were submitted to the festival this year. Out of those, 94 features and 137 shorts were selected. We are among the 21  feature films in competition.

End of rainbow stuff; truly.

Our World Premiere will take place at 12 noon on Sunday October 2nd, at the screening base of Raindace – the Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly.

It would be lovely to celebrate this dream with all the wonderful people who have followed the travails of Mesocafé and its budding director.

Tickets can be acquired through this link to the cinema website.

Next week, will give a more detailed update on the film post.

Peace and love,

Ja’far

September 4th 2011; week 143 of post-production (3 weeks to completion)

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Filmwise: a productive week. The issues with the recapture of three tapes of rushes, mentioned last week, have been fixed.
Spent the first few days of the week importing and trimming music tracks for the film. The score that Natalie Holt so lovingly wrote and recorded for us needs a bit of adjusting to fit into the changed parts of the edit.

In terms of the music that the characters hear at the café, our film has been blessed with the generosity of sayyid Saad. After several meetings over the past two years, we recently agreed a list of songs that we could use in the film. I am humbled by the quality, the attention to detail, and the dedication of this gentleman to gifting us recordings of these gems from Iraqi musical heritage.

On Friday, our sound designer JD made the journey to my place of work in the City, in order to collect the music files I’d created for reels 1 and 2. Earlier tonight, I completed reels 4 and 5; one to go.

On the picture front: I am pleased to announce that I have managed to complete the onlining of the first reel. The process involves changing every single shot in the film, which had been captured at a small file size quality, with the newly re-captured high quality image.

The difference between the old low-resolution picture and the new high-definition picture is staggering.

Over the course of the coming week, I will hand the onlined locked-picture to Mouthanna so he can make what will need to be huge strides in the colour-grade stage.

So much to do, and so little time.

Trailer: The link below is for the offline version, edited and graded by Mouthanna al-Sayegh. A fully fledged-online edition, in all its high definition glory, will be uploaded soon. I hope you like it.

Mesocafé Trailer – offline

A good week.

Peace and love,

Ja’far

Cannes 2007 – before Mesocafé

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Having postponed the shoot of our feature film from June 2007 to a pencilled in date of December 2008, I headed to Cannes with a view of raising awareness and creating interest in our project  in order to have the contacts for distributing the film once it is completed. My experience in the independent film and TV sector in the UK and  abroad had taught me that the more industry people know about a project before it is made the more chance the project would have of being viewed once it is completed by those very  people and thus its prospects for distributions would be markedly improved.

Arrival:

My Cannes experience has been most enjoyable, illuminating and exciting; almost like watching Catherine Deneuve on a big screen for the first time!

I arrived a couple of days before the festival and began to explore the seaside resort as it was busily preparing herself for the film clans of the world to descend upon her beaches, her boulevards and cafes. I bumped into a couple of Cannois who were preparing to abandon town in advance of the deluge. On the whole, however, the locals were extremely courteous and friendly and I even managed to hitch a ride with a couple young men to the centre de la ville  from the out of town place at which I was staying .

The Film Marche:

Simple or easy are not words that spring to mind when an independent filmmaker is trying to make his mark in a place where whole nations’ film industries are craw barred into what would amount to no more than a small back-lot in a major studio.

After some serious homework and revision work on the yellow-pages-sized film market guide, I located the production companies and distributors that are most likely to be interested in a project such as ours.

The illusive meetings:

To find a few minutes in the busy schedule of the  these companies’ executives as they try to meet other independent filmmakers, attend screenings, and more often than not work on marketing films they brought to the market … is a Herculean task, to say the least.

I managed to meet a couple of interested producers and distributors not so much by appointment but by chance while waiting for a screening or someone to turn up to a prearranged meeting.

Back in London

Aside from the great documentary with which I returned about the experience of a micro-budget filmmaker at Cannes, I also have in the side-pockets of my worn-out rucksack business cards and contact details of many potential distributors for our feature film. I have already begun establishing contact and am in the process of sending out detailed synopses and treatments for the project.

The plan ahead:

I am determined to go ahead with the shoot of the film in December 2008, as the reception of the project has been most encouraging and I think once the film is made to the best of our combined passion and talent, not only will it be a great film, but one that is also very likely to win distribution deals across many territories.

A Cannes diary:

May 15th

It’s the day before the festival and the coastal resort is bracing itself for the deluge from without. Everywhere you look preparations are afoot; from the red carpet being draped on the famous steps to le Palais, to tents and marquees being erected sur la Croisette, down right to the traffic being redirected especially for the anticipated horde of “A” list celebrities and their motorcades.

With mainly commercial cinema occupying every conceivable wall, roadside billboard, going as far as obscuring the beautiful early 20th century façade of the Carlton Hotel with giant posters for the latest Hollywood blockbuster, my first feelings of Cannes are best summed up by the locals I met on crossing la Croissette, M. et Mme Biguet, who are seriously considering leaving town for the duration of the festival.

But fear not; I shall persevere and do my utmost to peel away the swathes of superficiality to get as near as possible to the true spirit of Cannes the festival celebrating the love of cinema and those who make it the magic that connects audiences in Buenos Aires to those in London, in New York, Cairo and Mumbai.

Oh, and to be able to say in many years to come that I had a drink at the Carlton, I somehow managed to blag my way  past the security guards and found myself snapping away at the Bar.

Located in the cavernous underground of the Palais de festival, the accreditation office feels like an immigration terminal at an international airport; not only do you have the differently coloured kiosks, those for the pre-registered, and those making a last ditch attempt to be included in the cadre, but also you have people from every possible corner of the world talking in tens of languages and sharing their stories of past festivals to Cannes virgins comme moi!

The fact that my application was not promptly turned down  has given me cause for hope. I am to find out demain matin!

May 16th

9AM

The day began with a slight setback; I haven’t been granted accreditation at the festival. So I will have to spend the rest of my time as an outsider in more ways than one trying to get in or get a glimpse from of some of the films taking place.

Updated at 15:00

In Cannes, the Mediterranean sun can be a centigrade or two unwelcome during the lunch hour with all the restaurants in the vicinity of Palais de Festivals charging astronomical prices for le déjeuner sample, so I  found myself seeking the shade of the back streets a few blocks away from the marquees on the beach reserved for those with…you guessed right, a badge and an invitation. I came across this kebab place;  the total ease and carefree ambience created so effortlessly by the owner, the seats in the shade and the price would produce a montage of good food worthy of the great Vertov himself.

As I sat down waiting for my Kebab Poulet avec frites et Coca, I noticed other filmmakers and festival goers, and yes- a couple of festival rejects like yours truly, enjoying these Turkish delights a few minutes’ walk from the glitz and flashing cameras of the red carpet.

I think I may have found an oasis to recuperate from the embrace of this Mediterranean sun without needing a badge…

May 17th

With no badge or planned walks on the red carpet on my-oh-so-busy-schedule,


I think I can afford to invest some time in enjoying the view from our apartment in Cannes La Bocca, about a ten minute bus ride from Hotel du Ville.

Fortified, I headed to la Croisette and spent a few hours walking around taking in the atmosphere. I couldn’t help noticing the dreams and hope dancing in the eyes of most people going past the doors of the Palais; dreams of being part of a film, hope of catching a glimpse of a star on the red carpet, or even being handed gold-dust-premier tickets, a state of mind that  is reflected in the colourful carnival of smiles, ease of being and carefree feeling to this large crowd congregating in a small space.

Early in the evening I found myself heading towards the kebab shop of yesterday afternoon.

The mix of customers and the variety of their reasons for being in Cannes at this particular time in the spring have all made me itch for my little dv camera…

I wonder if the owner and his wife would allow me to film here…

Meanwhile,

May 18th

Saad Hindawy, a dear friend and an up and coming young Egyptian feature film director, arrived this morning.

With him leading the way, I found myself back at the festival registration office where we headed directly to the pre-registered half of the arrivals-hall-like- row of desks. There was no need for him to blag or schmooze his way into extracting that elusive badge.

The situation became surreal when I was allowed to enter the Palais du Film by virtue of the professional looking mic attached to my cheap DV camera. I kept looking behind my shoulder in case someone notices this illegal entrant into the sacrosanct inner walls of the dream palace. The tour with Saad was exhilarating, for I was torn between capturing with my wandering eyes as many moments of the exceptional setting enveloping me and looking into the LCD monitor of the camera filming the impromptu tour of the building.

By the time we left the building, I think one or two of the security guards, who only yesterday had used with me  the well rehearsed phrase, san-badge-san-access, were beginning to recognize me and would’ve manoeuvred me out of the building, if it weren’t for that professional looking mic!

Updated 22:00

Manger, mes amis, manger!

I headed to the place the owner and I agreed to call Istanbul Sur La Croisette.With the inevitable fatigue and mounting stress of the owner and his family members as they work almost round the clock catering for festival goers, I am beginning to find it increasingly challenging to spend time filming at the kebab shop; I don’t wish to get in the way of their work during a particularly profitable and short period in the Cannes city calendar.

May 19th

I am beginning to enjoy my status as the san badge filmmaker of la Croisette! The security guards, the hotel porters and even cinemagoers waiting in line for those elusive tickets, they all seem to have heard of the Man with the petite camera trying without success to enter the Palais or get into a film screening.

Ok, so not famous enough for a TV interview!

My spirits have not waned and I managed to find a way of watching a film on a big screen in Cannes and during the festival too!

With the stars above us, la Croisette in the back, the gentle murmur of the sea waves as they caress the sandy beach beneath the screen, and the French subtitles sharing the frame with Jane Campion’s The Piano, what more could one ask for experiencing Cannes during the festival?

Those with a badge and those with a lack in the invitations and accreditations department are treated with the same cordial and charming welcome reserved for invitees on the red carpet. Vive le Cinema!

May 20th

The relentless quest for that elusive badge and the chance to watch a film at the Palais has taken me into the confidence of fellow san-badge sufferers. Hanging around the many exits of the Palais and inflicting one’s lack of tickets on badge holders appears to be a highly respected strategy for gaining entry.

The advice came from no other than a cineaste who managed to watch 25 films during the 2006 edition by following the method of zooming in to badge holders for tickets.

Perhaps, something to look into tomorrow. Meanwhile, my search for an idea for a documentary about my journey in Cannes and its festival continues afoot.

May 21st

Rumour has it that the powers that be at the festival have been known to grant three-day temporary passes to san-badgees comme moi in return for a nominal fee. A British filmmaker making a documentary here suggested that I try my luck at the office for temporary passes, and that I should have to hand every possible proof and evidence of my worthiness of being granted a pass on such exceptional conditions.

I am not sure if I should go in there today; I’d like the day to pass with as few rejections as possible, particularly since I am beginning to get intimate with my San-Badge-Sur-La Croisette fame!

May 22nd

Having tried a colourful array of routes into the Palais du Cinema, I thought I’d go for a final throw of the dice and apply for that temporary badge I heard about during a stolen moment from filming and chasing film tickets and invitations.

After putting this budding filmmaker in his place with questions designed to put you ever so effortlessly on the back foot- Do you have many credits on IMDB etc., and watching the reflection on the young official’s face of the one or two mentions that googling me would bring up on his screen, he looked up and…

Happiness is a badge sur al croisette..

May 23rd

Life with a badge in Cannes is framed with a mise-en-scene of oui, bienvenue, monsieur, the cool colours of the Palais du festival and the smiling faces greeting you in every corner offering you help and almost daring you to come up with a festival screening or film market related question for which they have no answer.

I managed to talk to a couple of production companies that would most certainly be interest

This first day with the badge flew by as I tried to get used to the screening rooms with names like Bazin and le 60em, not to mention the market and what seems like whole nations’ film industries fitted into a few corridors of booths and kiosks.

Someone gave me a great word of advice: ‘study the guide for the Marche du film for the production companies and distributors that would be interested in your project, then do your best to arrange for meetings with anyone from this group, or at least get a contact for future correspondence.”

I think I will spend some time this evening in the confines of the 500 page marche du film guide book.

May 24th

Armed with my list of production companies and distributors likely to be interested in my project, I headed into la Croisette and was welcomed with that effortless charm of the Cannois into the confidence of the le Palais where I headed to the different booths and kiosks of the relevant companies marked on a helpful map of the Marche.

Only in Cannes would one experience attempting to deliver a well-practiced sharp and crisp pitch for a film while being constantly interrupted by people entering the booth and addressing your host in a language different to yours and that of the meeting, all done with such grace that it’s hard to get offended at the intrusion.

A good day, all in all.

Weeks 1-10 of post-production (Dec. 2008 – Feb. 2009)

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

February 15th 2009; week 10 of post-production

Not much to report on the film.
For the past week I have been waist-deep in admin duties at the office.

In order to deliver the logged sound files for the non-synched takes, I met our editor Schuman briefly at Liverpool Street station on Wednesday evening. He’d had a long day at the studio, whereas I was just getting ready for my long night at the office. 24-hour London.

I am editing the footage of the concert Kate and I filmed a couple of weeks ago.

A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]

Daniel at wrap party

Daniel Nussbaumer: Production Designer

I think when Paul Hills recommended Daniel, it didn’t take me long to remember reading his name and seeing his photo in Paul’s blog chronicling the making of “Do Elephants Pray?”
With only 16 weeks to go before the shoot, I was both glad and relieved to meet Daniel. In the pre-production blog, I entered the following on July 30th 2008:

“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.”

The distance separating this “stranger” to a “habibi” wasn’t so much crossed as leapt and flown over at Concorde speed. One of the innumerable occasions during pre-production and the shoot in which I was left laughing like an infant thanks to Daniel’s cutting sense of humour was when an attractive young lady working at a cafe in which we held production meetings offered me a drink on the house- on account of my being this budding-unknown filmmaker. Relating to Daniel and co my gratitude for the sweet gesture, Daniel said lightheartedly: “A free drink, but no number”:-)

The weeks went by, and before we knew it, only a week was left before the shoot. And Crisis… The location for the cafe in which we were supposed to film cafe scenes fell through.

The cafe, which we found at such short notice thanks to Arij and Kawa, would require Daniel to invest his design and planning skills in its transformation from the French-unhurried-Notting-Hill-pace to something with the vavavoom that would work in harmony with the feisty character of Zaynab, the owner of “Mesocafe”. The colour scheme Daniel designed for the set helped throw into relief those props -”nicknacks”- that made the place a touching reflection of Zaynab’s accumulated memories and encounters with visitors from her place of birth.

He assembled a six-member strong multi-lingual art department, of whom I only met Hala Marji before the shoot; she had gotten in touch initially with me before joining Daniel’s posse. All part of the colours of the rainbow that blessed Mesocafe.

Danke.

And finally, I can not allow myself to end this without quoting Daniel once more: “And always remember: ‘You know when you’ve been habibi’d.’”

Films I’ve watched this week:
“He’s Just Not That Into You!” (Dir. Ken Kwapis, USA/Germany 2009): being an absolute sucker for rom-coms I simply couldn’t resist… only managed to find a seat at my local cinema on the third attempt. Great fun.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (Dir. Woody Allen, USA/Spain 2008)- sizzling performances all round. Woody Allen back to his great form.

Until next week.
Ja’far

February 8th 2009; week 9 of post-production

I have seen the light- refracted through a 2.35:1 frame;-)

In the time-honoured editing technique of feature films, Schuman and I spent the first three days creating a “Jim Jarmusch” edit- i.e. assembled all the master-shots of the the scenes in the timeline. This would allow us to “see” what we have; find out if there is a viable movie, a story, character journeys that follow a plausible trajectory and arc in terms of performance beats etc. and – he said, chewing his nails- continuity!

The great news: we seem to have ticked all the above boxes. Schuman pointed out a couple of potential issues in editing together certain parts of the cafe scenes. I am certain, he will work his magic.

Remember the decision to divide the cafe into zones- counter where Zaynab holds court; Masud, Tawfiq, Peter and Hisham’s table; Yusif’s table; Bisan’s table; the door and the exterior of the cafe- well, in addition to the strain this put on performance of the talent, it also created a huge demand on continuity in terms of movement, costume, make-up etc. etc- well, mise-en-scene. I remember Alex, our 2nd AD, jesting that we may end up with a character starting in one zone in the cafe wearing blue and walking into the next zone wearing red:-)

Obviously, the cafe scenes were far too long for each to be shot chronologically, and the decision to divide the cafe into zones was ultimately mine. I thank my stars that I was blessed with such a brilliant crew – and cast- who were able to make workable a very complicated schedule.

A big thank you to continuity, Amelie; costume, Valentina and Jade; and make up, Tina, with some help from Dominique, who – along with the rest of the crew- achieved the spectacular feat of making certain that the more than 12 characters who appear at the cafe had continuity in appearance and movement between tables, the counter and cafe exterior.

Throughout the shoot, it was difficult to find the time in the already crowded schedule for the cutaways that are the bread and butter of editors. In retrospect, I think the decision to focus on capturing scenes, as opposed to diverting valuable time for filming close-ups of items at the cafe and Tariq’s kitchen, was wise. These close-ups can be achieved with a minimum crew and without the need for location, or indeed for the talent to be present.

For the latter part of the week I have been busy going through the audio files that Axle saved for me on DVDs. Some of the rushes are not synched.

Schuman will continue assembling the master shots over the coming week; hopefully, we’ll have a full- very rough- assembly by the end of week 10 of post-production.

Thursday: coffee with John Batten, our stills photographer.
Friday: the pictures with Zain al-Janabi, the second youngest member of the Mesocafe family; the youngest was Layth who plays Yusif in childhood.
Zain chose the movie, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (Dir. David- “Fight Club/Se7en”- Fincher) and the cinema- the Electric Cinema on the Portobello Road.

The film- a prodigious feat for the director and a worthy showcase for the five years he’s reputed to have spent on its making. Would’ve been really interesting to see the film made without the use of so much CGI- would it have been possible?

The cinema- wow! With its armchair sized seats, with a side-table for each member of the audience- I’ll have you know-, not to mention the sense of occasion one felt in the numbered seats, an usher directing patrons to their armchairs, the theatrical lighting of the auditorium- spotlights on details of the original interior design of the Grade II listed building, in addition to the 2-seater sofas at the back of the theater- perfect for breaking the ice on a first date, it felt like we were at the Galaxy convention and any minute now Queen Padme would make her grand entrance and launch into a speech beseeching us to fight the dark side… great fun.

Until next week.
Ja’far

February 1st 2009; week 8 of pot-production
Stop Press: Mesocafe has made it to the National Press. More later.

Not much to report on the film front; looking forward to start viewing the footage with Schuman on Tuesday. Should have three solid days of going through the digitized super 16mm footage.

In preparation for the edit, I have been going through the rushes and creating a simple spreadsheet that lists the tape, the scene, the slate and take plus a brief description and my opinion as to whether it is a good or not so good a take. The fact that it is a spreadsheet means it will be easy to sort the document by scene or slate and thus locate among the 19 HDCam SR tapes of the rushes exactly where the different slates that make up a scene are saved.

On Wednesday, I met our executive producer Paul Hills for a quick drink in Soho. We hadn’t spoken since the night after the shoot when I called Paul before his five-week South American Odyssey. Paul is seeing his feature film, Do Elephants Pray?, through its final post-production stages. I can’t wait to see it.

Friday afternoon: in Tottenham Court Road searching for a good deal on an external hard drive. Went to the place where Arij, our production manager, had bought the mini-dv tapes for the “making of” documentary of our film. For more than a month, I’ve had the logo of the shop staring at me from their carrier bag on my desk.

As I was pondering my options- brave the rush hour on the tube, or walk towards the West End and use my membership with a certain cinema chain to watch a movie- I received a text from Daniel. Like me, he felt like going to the pictures.

We met in Chelsea. Went for a quick Italian meal before watching “Milk”. Daniel had Linguine; I couldn’t resist the cite of the wood fired oven- pizza for me, please.

On Saturday, I spent the day watching the rushes and compiling the notes.

Sunday morning: quick coffee before heading to Sloane Square where Kate Higgs- our first camera assistant- et moi were to film a fund-raising evening concert for Gaza.
Needed to take a taxi to transport the camera kit.
Got chatting, as one always does with London taxi drivers.

Cab driver: Noticing my camera kit, “So, you’re a photographer?”
Moi: “A filmmaker- a budding filmmaker!”
Cab driver: “What sort of things do you make?”
Moi: “Well, recently we shot a feature film… a love story of sorts set in London.”
Cab driver: “Love Story? That is an old film from the 1970s.”
Moi: “Yes, Great fun.”
Cab driver: “Well, for its time, yes. But what is your film?”
Moi: “A story set among the Middle Eastern community of London.”
Cab driver: “Why the Middle Eastern community in particular?”
Moi: “When writing a story or making a film, I feel one needs to know the subject so well that one would add something.”
Can driver: “You’re Middle Eastern?”
Moi: “I was born in Iraq..”
Cab driver: “Ana Masri!- I am Egyptian!”

Sayyid Muhammad- a London Taxi driver from Egypt

What a small world! It turns out that sayyid Muhammad is one of fewer than a dozen of taxi drivers in London who are from the Arab world.
Sayyid Muhammad: “It takes patience and hardwork to become a London taxi-driver. I spent 15 months of full-time apprenticeship in order to pass the ‘Knowledge Test’ of the streets of London; others spend up to three years- they do it over weekends or part-time.”
Sayyid Muhammad was happy for me to take this photo for the blog:- )

Concert Rehearsal - 1-2-09

The filming of the concert at the Holy Trinity Church went remarkably well. Not only did Kate’s suggestion that we get a couple of radio microphones prove to be most prudent, but the helpful sound engineer, Ollie, kindly allowed us to take a feed direct from his expertly set-up mixer and collection of mics into our camera. Brilliant.
I am looking forward to editing the footage.

concert 1-2-09

A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]
John Batten: Production Stills Photographer

Balancing myself on two plastic buckets on the curb/sidewalk at the edge of Trafalgar Square in March 2008, I noticed in my viewfinder a gentleman enter the frame and begin to snap away.

That is how I met John. He documented the madness of my filming technique-swaying under the weight of the camera standing on top of said plastic buckets, with the ferocious London traffic passing only a feet or so behind me; a gust of wind could’ve easily… On the plus side, John would’ve captured that moment too:-)

John kindly offered to take on the role of stills photographer for the production. I didn’t have the opportunity to get in touch until we were well into the shoot. I emailed him at a quarter to one in the morning of Monday the 1st of December. Fortunately for me and for the film, John read the email and responded within a few minutes. The next morning, he was on set to capture our last moments at the cafe in Westbourne Grove before we moved on to other locations.

Films I’ve watched this week:

At the cinema: “Milk” and “Rachel Getting Married”

I thoroughly enjoyed “Milk” (Dir. Gus Van Sant, USA 2008) – a tour de force for Sean Penn. Brilliant production design and cinematography- vivid 1970s colours and sets. Gus Van Sant is brilliant in dramatizing the day-to-day, as well as understating the extraordinary.

“Rachel Getting Married” (Dir. Jonathan Demme, USA 2008): Truly one of those little gems of movies that in their storytelling technique, in their depiction of events, in their ensemble nature remind us all of one of the most basic reasons why we go to the cinema: stories…stories.
Somehow, the choice of HD CineAlta and other HD formats seemed to work well with the filming style and storytelling choices made by the genre hopping Jonathan Demme – his oeuvre includes “Married to the Mob” (1988) and “Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

On DVD:
El Topo (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, Mexico, 1970) Having heard of the rumoured plans for a David Lynch and Jodorowsky collaboration, thought it an opportune moment to watch once more the Chilean director’s better known work. This by no means his most experimental or “controversial” work; that honour would go- in my opinion- to “Fando y Lis / Fando and Lis” (Mexico, 1968)- one of the actors later committed suicide and another became anorexic and accused the director of being a vampire who had sucked her blood…
Jodorowsky revels in his unashamed infatuation with all things surreal. I love the scene in “Fando y Lis” when a piano that is burnt and shattered with a blow refuses to “die” and comes back to life- Jodorowsky paying homage to the famous Lumire brothers shot of a crumbling and falling brick wall re-building itself and standing back upright.

videoshop closing down Jan 2009

Talking of DVDs, I am saddened by the closure of yet another DVD shop in my part of town. Of the 12 videoshops in which I’ve been a member over the past two decades, seven have shut down, three in the last three years.
Part of the reason for the failure of so many videoshops to survive is the advent of internet-based videostores. The ability to create a list of films you’d like to watch and having them sent to you by post is simply too

alluring. There is a ritual about going to the videoshop- browsing through the latest offerings, walking down memory lane by the “Romantic Comedy” section…

Wonder if anyone out there has started a “Save Our Videoshops” campaign!

Finally, Mesocafe has been mentioned in the press- in the same sentence as “The Green Zone” and “The Kite Runner” no less:-) Final paragraph: http://www.praguepost.com/night-and-day/390-atypical-terrorism.html
OK, so it’s not the UK national press- but that is even more of a plus- we’re going global baby:-)

January 25th 2009; week 7 of post-production

A lesson in the labyrinthine world of formats and bit-rates of new digital technology has been learnt. Remember last week when I outlined my only achievement for the whole of week 6 of post-production: booked an HDCam deck to digitize the telecined super 16mm rushes. Well, on Tuesday evening, I collected the deck from the rental facility off Goodge Street. The helpful technical adviser asked whether I would be OK with carrying the aluminium covered trunk containing the HDCam deck. I thought nothing of saying yes, only to realize a few feet into my journey back home that this is no throw-on-your-shoulder-and-forget-it’s there- affair. Heavy and awkward. Managed to hop on the bus and occupied the middle isle- had to keep a watchful eye from a distance after a couple had to share the space to fit their child buggy. Got off on High Street Kensington. Pondered the prospect of walking to the station or taking another bus for the remainder of the journey, and then the walk home. Decided it would be best to invest in a set of luggage wheels- you know, the trolley that comes with straps for holding a large suitcase.

Wednesday
6:30am: shower- no breakfast.
7:30 am: at Notting Hill Gate station, waiting for the Central Line train to Liverpool Street.
8:03am: bumping into morning commuters as I try to negotiate the HDCam deck strapped onto the luggage trolley in my right hand, while pulling with my left a suitcase containing 19 HDCam tapes of the telecined super 16mm rushes.
08:10am: walking through the refurbished Spitalfield market on the way to Brick Lane.
08:20: Arrive at the studio of Schuman Hoque, our editor.
08:30am: Schuman can’t get the tapes to play on the HDCam deck.

Schuman: “I hope it plays HDCam SR tapes”
Moi: “HDCam what?”
Schuman: “SR- it’s the format the lab has digitized the rushes on”
Moi: “Have they?”
Schuman: “It’s the highest HD resolution available in the market at the moment!”
Moi: “The lab have really done a wonderful job in creating the masters for the edit on this format, haven’t they?”
Schuman: “Oh, yes. Great work. One tiny snag!”
Moi: “Can’t play the tapes on this deck!”
Schuman: “Do you have the number of the rental facility?”
Moi: under my caffeine and sugar deprived breath, “please don’t tell me I have to haul the deck, trunk and trolley back to Goodge Street!”
Schuman: on phone to facility: “Yes! … how much?”
Moi: sinking feeling.
Schuman: “I’ll pass you on to Ja’far”.
Moi: “OK, hit me with it!”

The rental cost of the HDCam SR deck was almost three times that of the HDCam counterpart- who would’ve thought two letters would cost so much- frownie…

The great news was, in view of the large price-tag of the HDCam SR deck, [something in the region of 50,000], in comparison with the price of an HDCam sans SR- a mere 9,500, the rental facility kindly offered to both deliver and collect the unit. Phew.

Schuman and I spent the remainder of the day- literally- digitizing the over 11 hours of telecined super 16mm rushes. We left the studio just before midnight.

Thursday morning: back at Brick Lane to sign off the collection of the said deck. Met Schuman around 1pm in Putney to hand back the studio keys.

I am thrilled that Schuman has come aboard. We met almost eight years ago, and four years ago he edited my short film- “Eyes Wide Open”- the exposed film for which had been patiently waiting in a 400 foot 16mm can for- wait for it, wait for it- more than five years. He brings to the project his experience as a filmmaker and editor for more than a decade.
A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]

Paul Hills: Executive Producer

Having followed his blog recounting the daily ongoings of the shoot for his indie feature “Do Elephants Pray?” and bumping into him at the Marche du Film at Cannes last year, I met Paul in July at a greasy spoon in Soho. In a gesture reminiscent of fabled Hollywood film deals penned on restaurant napkins, Paul took a white sheet from my notebook and wrote down the names of the crew that he felt he could recommend for Mesocafe. Four members of the Mesocafe family came aboard the project thanks to Paul’s recommendation and his assurances to them of the sanity- insert smiley- of this dreamer…
During pre-production, Paul guided me through many an aspect of the project. Three days before the shoot in November last year I called Paul to thank him for his huge support and belief in our project: “you know how you can reward me? make a great movie!”
Watch this space:-)

Films I’ve watched this week:

Stranger than Paradise

She's Gotta Have It

“Stranger Than Paradise” (Dir. Jim Jarmusch, USA, 1984)
“She’s Gotta to Have it” (Dir. Spike Lee, USA, 1986)
I’ve always had a weakness for debut features- especially those funded by their makers. There is a passion, an indefatigable belief and – in most instances- a selflessness that the makers of these debut projects exude. In the case of “Stranger Than Paradise”, it was Jarmusch’s second feature, but also with a small budget ($90,000, estimated). Both projects provide a thread that would lead to the stylistic choices that the two directors followed in their respective careers.

Quote of the week: “For an artist to stop creating is to die.” Yusif Shahin/ChahinSalam and love,

Ja’far

January 18th 2009; week 6 of post-production

God, post-production is not fun when there is nothing going on! What I have managed to achieve is book the HDcam deck for the middle of this week to digitise the telecined super 16mm footage of the film. We start editing on Wednesday. Really excited. In the meantime, I am to go through the continuity sheets to create some sort of a chart for the editor to work through the process of assembling into single folders/bins the different slates and takes for each scene. Shooting on film, the logistics of trying to fit into the 400ft 16mm magazine different takes of the same slate, or more than a slate, mean that one is forced to split the takes and slates between different magazines- for example, if filming a slate that would last three minutes, and the shot is captured over three takes, then the fourth take, if needed, would have to be captured on a new magazine. The remaining feet of film in the magazine may end up being used for a short slate later on in the day and which may not be part of the same scene. Working by camera film reels, the telecine at the lab would carry through the non-linear nature of the filming day into the digital media on which the super 16mm footage is telecined.

That said, the whole set of rituals that permeate shooting on film- from loading the magazines, to noting down the length in film feet of each take, the need to calculate how much unexposed film is still in the magazine and trying to figure out whether there is enough film for the next take, then changing of magazines, dropping exposed film at the end of the shoot to the lab, waiting for a day or two to view rushes [the excitement and anxiety], all are part of the magic that add that unquantifiable je ne sais pas quoi something that connects a small nano-budget project in London with blockbuster projects in Hollywood, musical extravaganzas in Mumbai and star-studded shoots in other parts of London. It’s celluloid darling…celluloid!

On Wednesday, I had coffee with Daniel Nussbuamer, our production designer. We hadn’t met since the wrap party and it was refreshing to chat without the ticking pre-production/shoot clock in the back of our heads. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

On Friday, I met two other heads of department: our costume designer, Jade Page, and our sound recordist, Axle Cheeng. The meeting with Jade was only the second occasion that we’d sat for coffee. It was an opportunity for me to learn more about Jade and also to thank her for producing such a brilliant wardrobe for a cast of more than a dozen characters at an incredibly low budget.

With only hours to spare before packing for her return trip to Malaysia, Axle kindly took the journey to central London for a quick coffee and to hand me the entire recorded audio from the shoot copied on DVDs. Axle is teaming up with Kate Higgs, our first camera assistant, to run a half marathon in the spring. Respect.

A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]
sayyid Kawa Rasul- Tawfiq
Kawa Rasul: “Tawfiq”

It was at that first rehearsal of “Demoqratiyya wa Nuss/ A Democracy and a Half” at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, April 2007, that I had my initial encounter with sayyid Kawa. I remember sit Ahlam Arab instructing the more than 15-strong cast of young men and women to “hide” so that the middle of the room appeared totally empty. Kawa and the others resorted to the curtains and drapes of the windows overlooking a pedestrianised square off Kings Street.

As the weeks and months passed, I became a regular at the rehearsals that were held at a closed-down restaurant in Westbourne Grove- “Baghdad Restaurant”, said the menu through a film of dust.

Many months later, I decided to shoot some pick-up shots in advance of the shoot proper for Mesocafe. Realizing that the camera kit would be available for an extra day, I thought of putting in the can a short film. For some reason- possibly work-related, I didn’t have the opportunity to spend any time whatsoever on pre-production. The night before the shoot…panic!! I only had one of two actors needed for the shoot. On hearing that the short film is loosely-based on my own experiences of working on what felt like an interminable PhD thesis, sit Ahlam asked whether I needed someone handsome to play my “doppelganger” in the film:-) Kawa’s name was the first she suggested.

During the shoot at a cafe in Earls Court, I was touched by Kawa’s malleability and his patience and camaraderie with my one man film crew- cameraman, clapper/loader, director, writer, producer. Looking at his interaction with the other actor during the mini-shoot, I was convinced that he would be the ideal candidate for the role of Tawfiq in Mesocafe.

As the 17th of November and the first day of the shoot loomed near, Kawa shone through both as a member of the the fledgling cast, but also a saviour for the production through his wonderful partnership with Arij al-Soltan, his head of department and wife, in finding at short notice the cafe in Westbourne Grove where we finally filmed the cafe scenes. A smiley and calming emoticon would best describe sayyid Kawa during the whole production. Thank you.

Films I’ve watched this week:
“Soy Cuba/ I am Cuba” (Dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, Soviet Union-Cuba 1964) : As someone who has lived and attended school for a number of years in countries ruled by totalitarian and one-party regimes, I can empathize with some of the criticism Cuban audiences held for “I am Cuba”. The film, those interviewed more than 30 years later said, was too rhetorical and didactic in its approach to Cuban history and the role of capitalism in perpetuating the poverty and weakness of the nation.

On the other hand, viewing the film from this political, geographical and historical distance arguably gives one the advantage of experiencing it for the work of art that at some level its Russian and Cuban makers wished it to be. Far from being melodramatic or preachy, the narrator’s voice is kindly, warm, and genuine in conveying what feels like a nation’s soliloquy, the voice of the land on which opposing discourses are at play. Finally, the artistry of the filmmakers, those tracking shots that glide through what seem like tenth floor office windows gently hovering over squares and streets below, and preceding by decades the famous tracking shots in “The Passenger” and “Boogie Nights”, not forgetting the mesmerizing qualities of the black and white cinematography by the great Sergei Urusevsky- sublime.

Until next week.

Peace and love.

Ja’far

January 11th 2009; week 5 of post-production

I recently read a posting on shooting people where a filmmaker made an impassioned plea for positivity and optimism among budding filmmakers. Hear, hear. Without getting into the details, I would like to share with the mesocafe family- cast, crew and wonderful supporters- that I have a good feeling about 2009.

Having only just come off seven solid nights of working at the office, I don’t really have much to report on the film front, other than we have a full set of the HDcam tapes of the super 16mm telecined rushes. There had been a single tape missing; the lab were most obliging and helpful in going back to the negative for a TK of the relevant camera reels.

With still a week or so to go before we start editing, I am going to busy myself over the next few days working on logging the footage for a feature documentary- Theatre of Exile. As mentioned earlier in the blog, the documentary follows the journey of sit Ahlam Arab, who plays “Zaynab” in Mesocafe, as she shepherds s a group of mostly first-time actors from the Iraqi community in London en route to staging a play in London.

A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]

Nasri Sayegh

Nasri Sayegh: “Yusif”

“Speak to me in English, please”, I said in my first telephone conversation with Nasri almost two years ago. He’d gotten in touch after I’d contacted Elian Raheb, the artistic director of Ayyam Beirut al-Cinama’iyyah/ Beirut DC film festival asking for her help in the casting for Mesocafe. Having always thought of the film in the English language, as opposed to Arabic, and seeding in the transgressions between the two languages an element of harmony between the wider cultures which they both inhabit, I was keen to work with actors from the Middle East and the Mediterranean who spoke English fluently and yet were able to convey the melody and rhythm of spoken Arabic through their use of the language of Shakespeare. Realizing that Nasri lived in Paris, I was keen to avoid a strong French accent for this character who is supposed to have left Iraq only a week or so before the beginning of the film.

Marking his first visit to London, Nasri hopped off Eurostar and came straight to the auditions I held at the Cochrane Theatre in Holborn in April 2007. The management had allowed us the use of the auditorium and pathway between seats for the auditions. The actors would assemble upstairs in the coffee-shop overlooking Kingsway, fill the audition forms before heading downstairs to the stalls to read their sides to me and my little video camera.

While it took me some time during the audition before I could imagine Nasri’s features as the character of Yusif, I instantly took a liking to his voice, diction and the intensity he brought to the speech he read for me. He made the character of Yusif his own.

Over pizza and a fizzy drink afterwards in Russel Square, I couldn’t hold back the news and congratulated Nasri on winning the part. He was the only actor that I cast on the first day of auditions.

Despite Nasri being aboard the project for almost two years before the shoot, I think both him and I had our doubts as to whether the shoot would go ahead until the summer of 2008. We both had been through the emotional rollercoaster of planning for the shoot in meticulous detail, only for me to decide that I wasn’t ready- twice: in June and December 2007 respectively.
Having looked at the rushes over the past few weeks, I realize that both the decision to postpone the shoot and to cast Nasri were inspired.

During the shoot, I conveyed to Nasri my gratitude for the work he and other members of the cast and crew were investing into the project. His response that during the time on set he treated the project like any other professional commitment was quite mature and reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Houda Echouafni almost two years ago. During one of the only two meetings we had before the shoot, I’d related to her how touched and humbled I was by the number of experienced actors contacting me with a view to taking part in the project. Her response was truly illuminating: try to look at it from the point of view of these actors; they are getting involved in Mesocafe because it is good for them, for their careers and for their own artistic self-satisfaction. Truly an eye-opening revelation for this budding filmmaker and I thank both Houda and Nasri for it, though my gratitude to cast and crew has not and will not wane:-)

Films I’ve watched this week:
“Un Flic/ A Cop” (Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, France1972) in the same mould as “Le Samourai” (France 1967) and “Le Cercle Rouge” (France 1970), “Un Flic” embodies Melville’s penchant for style, for choreography of actors, camera and framing- a sublime mastery of mise-en-scene. There is a particularly moving scene when the steely eyes of the main character, played by Alan Delon, allow us a glimpse of the man behind the facade of the relentless Commissaire Edouard Coleman police investigator: a member of the gang that had robbed a bank in a holiday resort is finally traced to his respectable home. The gang member notices the police car stopping outside his window. He hears their footsteps on the stairs. He asks his wife to open the door while he walks into the bedroom and closes the door. Coleman enters and heads straight to the bedroom door. Beyond it we see with him what we’d suspected, that the gang member would turn his pistol on himself rather than face the ignominy of losing his loot and his respectable way of life. Instinctively, Coleman closes the door, allowing the man a moment of privacy before shooting himself. Once the shot is fired, Coleman runs in and gently helps the body of the gangster to rest on the marital bed.

Melville’s treatment of death and punishment can also be seen in what I believe to be his masterpiece, “Les Armee des Ombres/ Army in the Shadows” (France 1969) which chronicles the choices made by members of the French resistance during German occupation in the Second World War. There is a particularly captivating scene in the back of a car where two leaders of the resistance inform a young man that they have found irrevocable proof of his collaboration with the Germans. As the car drives around empty streets, the terror in the young man’s eyes sitting next to them conveys his total helplessness as the car travels towards the location for his execution.

Quote of the week: During the 60th Cannes Film festival in 2007 I remember chatting with a couple of young men outside a kebab shop- “Istanbul sur la Croisette”, the owner called it; the discussion related to the differences between men and women. Someone pointed to what he felt was the double standards of those women who insisted that looks were not as important to them when thinking of romance and love, and that personality was far more important. “When a woman sees a man in a bar or in the street, what else is attracting her to him other than his looks; his personality is hardly visible during this first encounter.” One of the locals, a young man whose name I can not remember, came back with a most insightful as well as romantic response one could imagine: “in any encounter with a man or woman”, he said, “one doesn’t only notice the looks, but feels the energy that each person has and which is felt to varying degrees by others. This energy is as important in the friendships and love choices we make as the physical attributes of the people concerned.” How beautiful is that, I ask you:-)

January 4th 2009; week 4 of post-production

It’s been years since I celebrated New Year’s Eve at a party; I tend to spend it with friends over a meal or staying home and watching loads of DVDs. This year I was invited to Arij and Kawa’s home:. a truly auspicious beginning to the new year.

On new year’s day, I attended a special Che Day screening of Steven Soderbergh’s take on the life of the great Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary. The experience of watching the two parts of the film consecutively brought back memories of the days when buying ice cream during the “intermission” was part of the pleasure of going to the cinema.
Not sure if the film brought me any closer to Che Guevara the man, as opposed to the symbol…the icon.

On Friday, I was in Brick Lane to visit the studio of a filmmaking friend whom I’d first met almost eight years ago working the night shift in media monitoring. Relating to him the experience of shooting Mesocafe and how on an occasion or two during filming I’d wished if we could’ve had more time, an extra week or two perhaps, he made a brilliant observation- one that hadn’t occurred to me before: having an abundance of time doesn’t make for better decisions on set or for a better film- the compromises that one makes on set as a result of time, and other constraints- add something [good or bad] to the project. Certainly a case of looking at the same mountain from a different angle. Brilliant.

In the evening Arij and Kawa dropped off the remainder of the paperwork and miscellaneous items from the production department, the most valuable amongst them being the three mini DV tapes of behind the scenes footage from the shoot. Regardless of whether there is enough in these three tapes, plus the one still in the camera, for a “making of” documentary, I am so glad that we have “documented” moments of the Mesocafe family at work.

On Saturday, met a fellow budding filmmaker for a quick chat over coffee. I am continually surprised by how young some of these talented people are.

In the evening, watched “The Reader” (Dir. Stephen Daldry, USA 2008). As the woman sitting a couple of seats away said at the end of the screening, “very brave”.

I hope to be able to start editing by the end of the month.

A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]

Houda at officeHouda Echouafni: “Suad”
Houda and I were put in touch by one of the organisers of the Arab Cinema weekend at Bafta in March 2007.
In the 21 months separating the first email contact and the first day of the shoot we only had two meetings- in June 2007 and October 2008. Houda was one of a very small group of people who kept the faith, despite the delays and lack of a concrte shooting date for the greater part of 2007 and 2008.

In the second meeting we both laughed when we realized that we only live a few streets away from one another.

During the shoot, Houda was a joy to work with- positive and exuding good and creative energy.

Quote of the week: “There was a rare occasion when we had a script with which the studio was happy, the financiers were pleased, the distributors and everyone was keen to get involved. The problem was we only had enough in the script for the first few minutes of the film.” Jean-Luc Godard
December 28th 2008; week 3 of post-production

Having viewed half of the rushes last week, I was looking forward to the bank holidays over Christmas to enjoy watching the remainder.
I can report that this budding feature-director is, to quote Roberto Benigni on winning a Bafta for “Life is Beautiful”, “Really, I’m full of joy like a water melon, there’s something that explodes. I cannot restrain this joy.” Truly.

I was so worried that we may have missed something due to the intensity of the shoot, the evolving schedule and unforeseen last-minute location changes. I was particularly concerned over the footage we shot aboard the two cars- driven by the characters of Hussayn and Bisan respectively. With our script supervisor, Amelie, unable to find space aboard the cars (Axle was forced to record the sound from the boot of one of the two cars), it was left to me to both direct the actors and make certain the relevant bits of the the script were filmed in their entirety.
Very pleased and relieved that all’s well and we have the whole film in the can. Naturally, during the edit one may agree with the editor that some pick up shots are needed, but I don’t feel these are going to be essential or major endeavours.

Arij has provided me with the accounts for the final budget for the production department- brilliant work.

In the coming week, I will continue to review the footage and start working through Amelie’s continuity sheets to start highlighting the better takes for the editor.

Harold Pinter, one of my heroes, has passed away. Will spend some time re-visiting and discovering more of his work- what better tribute!

A member of the Mesocafe family [will go by date of joining family]

sit Ahlam Arab

Sit* Ahlam Arab: “Zaynab”
In the late 1990s, I happened to be part of the audience at the presentation of a monodrama at the Kufa Gallery in Westbourne Grove. The woman on stage was Labwa Majid, and the director was her mother- sit Ahlam Arab.
I remember enjoying the show and staying back for the Q&A session with the director. Relating to the audience the challenges she’d faced in putting this wonderful show together, one could feel the tenacity and warmth of this artist as she opened the UK chapter in a career that began in Baghdad of the 1970s.

Years passed and I would see sit Ahlam in community and cultural events; we were finally introduced a couple of years ago at an art exhibition in Islington. At the time, I was planning to shoot the film in June 2007 and was hoping sit Ahlam would introduce me to actors from the community for what I had begun to realize was a very long list of speaking parts in the film.

Days later someone suggested I visit a studio at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, where sit Ahlam was working with a group of mostly first-time actors rehearsing a play written by sit Hamidah al-Arabi.

Watching her work, the professionalism she’d instilled into the cast made up of different age groups and social backgrounds, I regretted not having my camera to hand to capture the moment.

As part of the work in progress, Theatre of Exile [in post-production], I spent the next few months filming sit Ahlam as she guided the group through the grueling rehearsals schedule, thoroughly enjoying the mentoring I was receiving through watching her work with actors. For someone not involved in the production, it is rare to be party to the intimate process of character and story development during rehearsals.

It was humbling and moving how quickly and without a moment’s hesitation sit Ahlam agreed to become part – the matriarch- of the Mesocafe family. Having played a central role during the casting for the film, sit Ahlam’s support and belief in the project were a great source of confidence for this first-time director. It was to sit Ahlam that I turned on the one night during the shoot when I almost drowned in the merciless ocean of self-doubt and uncertainty over my ability to complete shooting the film within the short schedule.sit Ahlam Arab at Meso shoot night

Who knows, the experience of shooting the film with sit Ahlam may find its way into the final version of Theatre of Exile.
Watch this space:-)

*The closest translation to the expression “sit“- as in sit Ahlam- is “Dona” in Portuguese.

Films I’ve watched this week:
Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” (USA, 2008): Angelina Jolie reminded me of Catherine Deneuve’s performance in “Repulsion” (Dir. Roman Polanski, 1965) with the way she drew you into the character’s inner turmoil through those big eyes.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse/The Eclipse” (Italy, 1962)- the final part in the trilogy that includes the masterpiece “L’Avventura/The Adventure” (Italy, 1960) and “La Notte/The Night” (Italy, 1961), the film follows the story thread that began in “L’Avventura” with the two characters succumbing to the love they have for one another, through to the ups and downs of the relationship in “La Notte” and finally, the moment of separation in “L’Eclisse”.
After the usual route into Antonioni’s galaxy- i.e. “Blow Up” (UK, USA, Italy 1966)- I discovered my own little rock when I watched “The Passenger” (Italy, Spain, France 1975) as part of a film course. A must see for all budding filmmakers, comme moi.
For the new year, may all our dreams come true- staggered and in installments so we enjoy every one and each of them.

Quote of the week: “And also, I would like to thank my parents: they gave me the biggest gift…poverty”. Roberto Benigni

Peace and salam.
Ja’far

December 21st 2008; week 2 of post-production

One of the great advantages of living in London is the huge choice of international cuisine that warms cold wind swept high streets from -that ubiquitous British institution- the Indian curry house to Thai food, to Italian Delis to Lebanese cafes to one or two Iraqi eateries- one is simply lost for choice. On meeting our production manager, Arij al-Soltan, and the rest of the production department- i.e. Kawa Rasul, who is also her husband, for a meal on Monday, I was glad that they’d already opted for a safe option- an Iranian restaurant in Westboune Grove.

It was a joy to spend what felt like half an hour, but was in fact close to three hours, with this lovely couple chatting, reminiscing about the shoot and simply catching up as three friends would after being away for a couple of months- for during preproduction and the shoot, we hardly had the chance to sit and talk at leisure, so busy were we all.

Walking with them to their car, we passed the cafe that morphed into “Mesocafe” during the shoot- I think for years to come I will have a soft spot for the place.

Arij is still wading through the paperwork of the project. The figure she mentioned as the total amount spent in her department wasn’t beyond my post-shoot expectations; it was about two and half times as high as I had originally budgeted for. During the shoot, I realized that I’d been optimistic in my forecast of the shoot budget for transport, expenses, catering, location fees, car and van rentals, fuel, insurance etc. etc. etc. Armed with her experience as a director and producer of documentary films, Arij has done a brilliant job in keeping the costs to a minimum; I later found out the lengths to which Arij, and Kawa, had gone to keep catering costs to a reasonable level- striking deals with an Iraqi catering factory in the outskirts of London to provide the cast and crew delicious food similar to the dishes the character of Zaynab serves the regulars at Mesocafe, and even drafting in members of her immediate family to make us those delicious lamb burgers that we had while filming the office scenes . Simply wonderful.

On Wednesday morning, I had the chance to take an audit of the telecine tapes we have for the rushes; realized that a couple of tapes were missing. I emailed the lab. Think their absence is due to issues we’d had with the flash cards on which sound files were copied for the lab- they decided to provide us two days’ worth of rushes simply on DVD without their tape masters. Spoke with the lab on Friday morning and all appears to be well; two of the tapes are ready for collection and a third may need to be produced from a new telecine of the relevant film rolls.

Having created a viewing list of the rushes, I began with camera roll 1 from the first night of the shoot: the scenes at the Mesocafe counter. My first AD, Mahmoud, had come up with the shooting plan for the cafe scenes where the place was divided by table and location; all that takes place at a particular section of the cafe would be grouped into a single schedule. The counter is the cafe owner’s throne where she holds court. Sit Ahlam Arab is simply sublime as Zaynab the cafe owner conducting transactions over the telephone, serving food, giving marriage advice to the regulars, while keeping an eye on the new comer to the cafe, Yusif. It was on this first night of the shoot that we filmed the scene with sit Sajidah Amory, the wonderful lady who’d started a community-wide search campaign for that elusive purse- see the full story in pre-production. I think the camera likes her:-)

Rather than watch the whole footage in one week, I think I would like to extend the joy of the experience by leaving a few tapes for next week.

On Wednesday, had pizza and coke with Kawa and Mazin Imad, the ‘oud player and singer despite whose best attempts we’d failed to deliver a decent rendition of the old song at the wrap party. During the shoot, Mazin was one of those faces from whom I sought the positive and happy energy I desperately needed when the going was not so good. He would visit the film set, just to say hello and make sure all was well.
We chatted about the sound track for the film and the sort of music that would work with the story. I asked Mazin for advice regarding the issue of copyright on old Iraqi songs.

On our way out from the Italian Pizzeria in Westbourne Grove, I stopped the posse and pointed to the desserts fridge- “Cannoli”, I shouted:-)

On Saturday, I headed to St John’s Wood to renew a ritual I’d missed for a few months now; to spend time with two very close friends. One has many friends in London, and after the shoot I can say I have many more dear friends in London and around the world, but there are two close friends who have witnessed and accompanied the journey of this celluloid dreamer. One is sayyid Wajdi, a poet I first met back in 1991. Our friendship blossomed during what has now become a legendary walk in 1992 across the West End of London in which we may have chatted every single person we came across- to what end, neither of us can still figure out. Great fun, and neither of us ended the night with a black eye:-)
On these walks, sayyid Wajdi would recite from his evolving repertoire of poetry on love and politics. He reminded me of another great friend, a childhood friend [sayyid Ahmad] who back in 1985 would read out aloud -to the surprise of passers-by in the West End- from classic pre-Islamic Arabic poetry.
The second, sayyid Layth- a most gentle and kindly man if there ever were one. I’d met Layth in the mid 1990s when I was still unsure as to the direction in life one would lead. He was the only person who knew, back at the end of 1998, that I would be taking my first 16mm film production course at the Lux centre in Hoxton Square. I had told Layth due to his encyclopedic film and literary knowledge- not only is he the sort of person who would be good at a pub quiz, but is incredibly well-read- he spoke of the Arabic translation of the famous Truffaut book on Hitchcock before I knew of such a book.
Both sayyid Wajdi and sayyid Layth have been hearing about my various film projects since I first came up with the idea for making an Arabic language version of Top Gear in 1999. They both were the first to watch the rough edit of a “Two Hour Delay”, a 16mm B/W short I made in the summer of 2000 and which later took part in a small film festival in the Gulf, and they’ve been a great source of information in my research during the writing of the Mesocafe screenplay.

A member of the Mesocafé family [will go by date of joining family]

Alessio Valori at al-Saqi bookshop

Alessio Valori: Director of Photography
Taking advantage of the privilege of being a programming assistant at the 2006 Raindance Film Festival, I had opted to watch yet another movie on my festival pass. IL SEGRETO DI RAHIL/ Rahil’s Secret (Directed by Cinzia Bomoll, Italy, 2006) was about an Iraqi teenage girl roaming the streets of Rome on her own. Alessio was the DP, and I managed to circumnavigate the members of the audience who had surrounded him, one of them trying to impress upon Alessio his pleasure with the film, despite his annoyance with the English subtitles.

In the first week of January 2007, we met for coffee at a small cafe at the famous Foyles bookshop in Tottenham Court Road. At the time, the intention was to shoot the film at the end of 2007; the conversation was, therefore, about the future and how it would be possible to shoot the script within such a short shooting schedule.

A couple of months later, I had this brainwave that saw me bring the shoot date forward to June 2007. Alessio played along, meeting me for a location recce at a cafe in Earls Court where I thought we would be filming. He kept the faith through two postponements- from June to December 2007 and then to the actual shoot of November-December this year.

In his capacity as DP, a head of department, Alessio was instrumental in allowing me to bring my vision to the screen. Having arrived on the first night of the shoot to the decision to discard the shot list Mahmoud and I prepared during the final week of pre-production, I felt safe and totally at ease in seeking Alessio’s advice regarding blocking and movement of characters within the frame.

At the wrap party, Alessio finally shared with me the secret behind the length of his beard- he generally starts the shoot with a clean/recent shave- the length of the beard at the end of the shoot reflects the number of weeks he’d been filming. At the wrap party, he thought his beard had grown to a still manageable size- we could do with another week:-)

Films I’ve watched this week:
Ridley Scott’s “Body of Lies” (USA, 2008). A brilliant endeavour to break free from the “Reel Bad Arabs” school of Hollywood films.
Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (Israel, 2008). Simply the best film I’ve seen this year. Back in May I had failed to get a ticket for the screening at Cannes; very pleased to get to see it- the venue, the refurbished Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate, was a bonus.
John Schlesinger’s “Yanks” (UK, USA, W Germany, 1979). It’s always rewarding to trace in the film language, the cinematic flourishes of a great director, echoes of his earlier work. Being a great fan of “Terminus” (UK, 1961), “Billy Liar” (UK, 1963), in addition of course to his better known works, “Midnight Cowboy” and “Marathon Man”, it was a joy to watch the great master show glimpses of his documentary filmmaking past in “Yanks”. It was a great bonus to see Andy Lucas, [credited as Andy Pantelidou], almost thirty years before gracing the Mesocafe family with his participation.

Quote of the week: “And always remember: ‘You know when you’ve been habibi’d.’” Daniel Nussbaumer

December 14th 2008; Week 1

The wrap party:

Effortlessly elegant, Daphne shared with us the legendary Greek hospitality: she invited the cast and crew, all 30 of us, to her home.

It was simply magical- Nasri finally let his hair down and allowed the admiration of the female members of cast and crew to wash over him- think he is still wiping the lipstick:-)

It was so nice to finally get the opportunity to talk at leisure with people- Daphne, Houda et moi reclined over the sofa and talked with abandon, then had the chance to talk with Kate, Amelie and Alice [pronounced "Alicheh"- in Italian] in the kitchen. A couple of people suggested that I say a few words- having started the shoot with a heart-to-heart at the caf the night before the shoot.

“Like your first kiss, your first date and your first love letter, you only make one first-feature; this first long-metrage journey, I imagine, will stay with me for years to come. It will, [it has at some level], help mould me into the experienced director that I -hopefully- will become. As I have said in the blog during the shoot, I was the only person on set who could afford to sit down and watch everyone else go about their creative roles; I feel I had the opportunity to learn more than anyone else during the shoot.

“So in the years to come, if I start making some really bad movies, you all will be blamed for inflicting yet another mediocre director on the world!”

I then sang for the cast and crew- Kawa, Zein, Husham, Arij and I sang the classic Iraqi song, “Foug il-Nakhal FougFoug il-Nakhal Foug/ Over the palm trees.. did I see your beautiful cheeks or was it the moon”, inspired by hearing the song performed by Rivers of Babylon- a band made up mainly of members of the Iraqi Jewish diaspora. Despite the brave efforts of Mazin Imad, a professional vocalist and Oud player, to shore up the performance, I don’t think there is any danger of us being asked to sing again- ever.

The party lasted until the very early hours.

On the drive home, Kawa, Alex, Valentina, Amelie et moi dropped Nasri at his hotel. After more than twenty months since first meeting him at the auditions back in April 2007, I shook Nasri’s hand and thanked him for keeping the faith in the project through two postponements and many many rewrites.

As ever, Kawa was the last man out- dropping me home.

When I finally woke up on Monday, around midday, it was strange not finding yet another call-sheet. The two page document had become the freesheet of the project- the map everyone goes by during the day- Alessio and camera department checking whether a scene is day or night; Jade and Valentina, which story day; actors, which scene; Daniel and art department, dressing the location; moieverything.

After answering a few emails, I headed to my local cinema to watch a film, any film. Hadn’t been to the cinema for more than three weeks.

After the pictures, I found myself wandering into a caf in Chelsea in which I’d only been once previously- it was a first datein 1992 or 1993 the date went well, but for some reason, I’d never gone back to the caf. Carrot cake and a large latte supplemented the first pages of “Arabian Jazz”, the novel by Dian Abu Jaber, that the lovely manager of al-Saqi bookshop had reserved for me.

With some time still left before starting the night shift at the office, I took a long walk through the West End to the City.

Getting back to work was strange, to say the least. Was pleased to see friends and colleagues after a five-week sojourn. I have a bit of catching up; so much has happened during my absence.

On Thursday evening, I met Amelie over coffee. She handed me a folder with all the continuity sheets and script breakdown for the film. Brilliant. Amelie is busy preparing for a project with Alice, and hopefully a budgeted feature film. Go girl:-)

I haven’t had the opportunity to meet the editor this week.

I am determined to make some sort of a start in the post-production journey this week. I think I will spend the week reviewing all the rushes, aided by Amelie’s file. Next week off work, I will digitize the footage as an offline and create the folders/bins that the editor will need to start the magic. The fact that we already have synced rushes helps greatly.

A tip for first time-feature directors: the night before the shoot, make sure you have an adequate supply of – wait for itwait for it- fresh and clean underwear and socks; it will add to your confidence during those moments when you have to get close and whisper your notes to the actors:-)

Peace,

Ja’far