Archive for the ‘Mesocafé pre-production’ Category

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.

Pre-production: April 2007 – June 2008

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

June 26th 2008
This must be the first summer in my adult life that I’m not working on some thesis, dissertation or outstanding essays for university- maybe the second, as the first must have been back when I took a gap year after completing my A Levels. The time I have off work is spent mostly focusing on the final draft of the screenplay forMesocafe. It’s a rewarding feeling spending time with characters that I would like to think are quite mature and are yearning to make the journey from page to screen. I am also editing the short film we shot in the middle of March, though this is moving at a slow pace due to work and focus on planning for the feature. The project is on track for a November – December shoot. Will start those bi-weekly updates/newsletter very soon.

Peace and salam,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

June 5th 2008
Having jumped off the plane from Cannes almost straight to work last Sunday, I am just about beginning to clear the backlog of emails and replies that any old hand in visiting La Croisette would say is a priority on the to-do-list after returning from the calendar’s biggest film festival and market. In the little time off work I have, I am dividing myself between finishing off the corrections and amendments my examiners asked me to complete on the thesis, working on the script and also editing a short film I shot a couple of months ago. With the absence of any deadline zooming in, editing can be quite therapeutic. I am back to work on Monday, but should have the bi-weekly newsletter up and running by the middle of the month. Hopefully, I should be able to make the recall auditions for the first week of August. Best wishes and salams to you all.

Ja’far

May 26th 2008
The Cannes experience this year was far more subdued, although I did experience dancing with that monster that usually goes by the name, the Cannes Party. Managed to get an invite to the wrap party for the short film corner. At first, it appeared as if one was going to spend the night talking into a glass of stale Coke. However, things took a turn for the exciting on the 15 minute queue to the—wait for it—wait for it— the gents:-) For, like most things in Cannes, little thought was given to the, shall we call them, the practicalities of letting loose a group of thirsty filmmakers onto a free bar: the restroom consisted of the grand total of only 4 cubicles for both sexes. During the interminable wait, conversation between the filmmakers was as great and as helpful a networking experience as the “meet a producer” blind-date party organised a few days ago at the short film corner.

In terms of meeting producers and distributors for our feature film,Mesocafe, I can report that the hectic pace of the festival and the market didn’t really allow for a productive meeting with potential producers or distributors. I was fortunate, however, to have a brief and really insightful chat with the boss of a Hong Kong production company who helped make my expectations for Mesocafe that bit more realistic and realizable. He suggested that by making sure that budget is at a minimum and that one is not overburdened by financial debt by the end of the production, one is more likely to be able to agree a distribution deal, as producers and distributors the world over would be more willing to risk a small sum acquiring an independent project that may or may not deliver any financial returns.

The post-shoot plan he recommended was that one would create a list of the top ten film festivals in which one hopes to screen the film; send it to the first choice, if not accepted, then to the second choice, and so forth, until you run out of first choices, in which case you create a new list. If the film is accepted in a film festival in one’s top list, then one would build upon the acceptance by approaching a film sales agent or distribution company that is attending the festival and taking part in the film market. A film accepted at that particular festival is more likely to draw buyers and distributors, as the festival’s publicity machine would have already been in full flow in the run-up to the festival screening, and so buyers the world over would have read about the official selection. If a film is not accepted at one of one’s top choice film festivals, then obviously other festivals and film and cultural events would need to be explored.

I am so grateful that this experienced film producer granted me those few minutes of his precious time; I was even more grateful for his time when he informed me that renting the medium sized booth in the film market cost him 26,000 euros for the two weeks of the festival. There is also the considerable expense of hiring screening slots in the film market for the films he’s marketing, in addition to hotel, travel, food and telephone bills. The fact that he spent some time with me was yet another proof that despite the cut-throat business side of film, there remains the camaraderie and support between filmmakers the world over.

From the middle of June, I will start a bi-weekly newsletter updating you all on the progress of the pre-production for the film. The shoot is scheduled for the last two weeks of November and first five days of December.

Salam and peace,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

May 23rd 2008
Hello from Cannes,
This will have to be a short update, as I am running late for a screening of the Palestinian Film Milh Hatha al-Bahr / The Salt of this Sea, by the up and coming female Palestinian filmmaker Annemarie Jacir. I’ve watched one of her first short films back in 2001, and am that bit more excited about attending the screening of her debut feature.

This year’s visit to Cannes is less hectic, as I am simply taking in the atmosphere and enjoying the privileges the badge offers- I do miss- however- my special status in last year’s festival as the badgeless filmmaker…

I am using the time between screenings to attend as many workshops to learn more about the business side of filmmaking and also to reconnect with filmmakers and producers I met during the last two festivals.

After my return to London, I will start a monthly newsletter providing regular updates on the progress of pre-production all the way up to the scheduled shooting dates of November 19th to December 5th.

Salut and salam friends,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

April 26th 2008
Greetings,
I have sat my phd viva and all is well. Aside from some alterations to the bibliography and bits of rewrite here and there, the examiners were happy with the thesis. Phew:-)

You can all hold back the Dr. title until after we make the movie:-)

I am off to Cannes for a third time, though I won’t have the chance to stay as long as last year. Will hopefully catch a film or two.

The preparations for the feature film are going very well. I am working on the script and, once the thesis is out of the way once and for all, I will start pre-production proper.

The shoot is scheduled for the second half of November this year.

Peace and Salam,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

March 17th 2008
“Film has rolled through the camera”
Hello friends,
After many months of waiting, planning, delaying and replanning and dreaming, Mesocafe has finally been touched by the magic of cinema.

On Saturday morning, we filmed a short sequence at Trafalgar Square to be cut into the final edit of the film.

Members of the fledgling crew and actors took on the challenge of a handheld S16mm shoot in a public space with grace and touching camaraderie, despite the gruelling schedule.

Stills from Saturday’s shoot will be uploaded on the site soon.

March 7th 2008
Hello all,
“I’m in heaven…I’m in heaven” is the melody that goes with my sense of walking on air… After over seven years of research, with huge doses of anxiety and depression, I have finally submitted my PhD thesis. I couldn’t resist filming the moment I handed the two copies of the phone-book sized volume of the dissertation.

I will celebrate once I pass the final exam sometime in June.

After a short intermission, my work shall resume on the film, the editing of a couple of documentaries and the filming of a couple of scenes forMesocafe early late next week.

Hugs and many many kisses,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

26/2/08
Sabah ilward wa il-ibtisamah/May your morning be graced with flowers and smiles…
Thought of updating you, good friends, on the project’s latest:
The script is coming along nicely, and I am planning a mini-shoot next month to capture some footage that would cut nicely into the feature.
Last night, I attended a screening at the London Film School of The Silences of the Palace, with a Q&A session afterwards with the Tunisian director Moufida al-Tlatli. The film was really moving and so were the director’s reminiscences of her mother who inspired the story.

I can’t recommend the film enough.
Salams and kisses,
Ja’far

January 8th 2008
Some great news on the film script front: it is evolving and maturing beyond my expectations. I am working on a new draft, and in the long run this delay in the production will serve us very well indeed.

At the moment, in between work and completing my phd thesis, I am working on the assembly and editing of Theatre of Exile.

Will keep you posted.

May 2008 grace us and our loved ones with love, peace and happiness.

Ja’far

November 22nd 2007
Having postponed the shoot of Mesocafefrom December 2007 to the autumn of 2008, I am able to spend more time on further developing the script and on preproduction.

I am also finishing off the PhD thesis that has been at times an unwelcome companion for the best part of the last decade of my life.

I am already beginning to sense the weight shifting off.

Once the thesis is put to bed, early December- I hope, the film script and preproduction will have my undivided attention.

I thank all of you friends for your support and belief in our project.

hugs and kisses

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 26th 2007

While busy enjoying the London Film Festival- without a badge:-), I had the good fortune of winning a small competition to have one’s review of a film taking part in the festival published on the LFF website. A minor triumph, but all the more sweet for it.
I hope you enjoy reading it. The film,Caramel, is to be released in the UK early 2008.


May 14th 2007

Can I make it to Cannes?
Spent all of last night working on the portrait shots of the cast of “Dimoqratiyyah wa Nuss/A Democracy and a Half”- the play directed by sit Ahlam Arab. I have been following the rehearsals of this group of mostly first-time actors under the guidance and mentoring of sit Ahlam for a few weeks now.
They hold their opening night later this week; the photos are needed for the programme. Sit Ahlam hasn’t insisted on the portraits and I am sure she would have a fit if she knew that I’ve spent the whole night working on them. I enjoy taking portraits and photos in general; there is something of a trust between the photographer and the subject. By delivering the portraits, I feel I am rewarding the trust.

Have been planning to be at Cannes for the festival for a long time now. Would like to meet potential distributors before I shoot “Mesocafe”. Would like to experience life as an indie filmmaker before I make the film, in case I can learn from the festival experience of any pitfalls inhabited by budding filmmakers comme moi.

7am: still many portraits to go through.
8am: still working on the portraits.
9am: Done. I like the striking quality of the lighting. Hope sit Ahlam and the cast like them.
9:09am: Not sure if I can make it to City airport by 10:15.
09:20am: “It’s the other side of London mate; you can’t make it in 50 minutes!”- wise words from the London Underground official at my local station.
09:30am: Standing in my local high street with my suitcase and sunglasses pondering the options.
10am: At a travel agent.
10:30am: booked a one-way flight to Nice. Will have to think of the return journey later.
16:00: aboard a British Airways flight to Nice.
21:00: Nice Airport. Missed the last bus direct to Cannes.
21:30: on the bus to Nice.
22:00: Waiting outside Nice train station for a coach to take this group of mostly Cannes virgins to festival town. Did I mention that there is a train drivers’ strike?
00:00: Arrive at Cannes.
00:10: God, it feels like an uninhabited village- I feel like a cowboy arriving to a ghost town. Someone assures me that life is throbbing only a few hundred yards away near the beach.
00:20: walking to La Bocca.
00:50: my right foot is hurting. think these summer shoes are not designed for walking long distances under the weight of a rucksack containing an iron-age-oil-rig-weighing laptop and with a suitcase in tow. Oh, still walking to la Bocca.
01:20: Arrived in La Bocca.
01:30: Found the apartment block.
01:40: Not sure if I am supposed to enter this tunnel of darkness created by the unlit alley leading to the building.
01:50: Enveloped in darkness.
01:52: opened the building door. Let there be light!
01:55: Where’s my flat? No numbers, letters, names on the apartment doors. It’s 2am; I may get into trouble if I insert the keys into the wrong door.
02:00: Post-boxes: are they positioned on the wall in a geography resembling the order of the apartments on the floor? Let’s risk it.
02:10: In apartment.
Hurrah:-)
02:20: I am starving… If this town knows what’s good for it, it better offer me one massive-gigantic-mother-of-all meals for breakfast:-)

A Cannes Diary

April 27th 2007
Auditions..Auditions
Cochrane Theatre- 27-4-2007The management of the Cochrane Theatre, Holborn, kindly allowed us the use of the auditorium during the day. Actors would assemble upstairs in the cafe overlooking Kingsway, fill the forms with information on their availability, the role they are auditioning for, their contact details, and- not my doing this, I assure you- their shirt, trouser and shoe sizes!
They would then head down to the stalls where I would be waiting with my little camcorder.
The readings went quite well- a couple of disappointments- actors whom you thought “looked” the part, but were unable to deliver the performance or reveal signs of a potential for the role. There were also some revelations- a couple of the actors really stood out.

The quality of some of the actors, their experience, was beyond my expectations. Chatting after the reading with one such actor, I thanked him for taking the time for the audition, and broached the question as to why someone of his calibre would consider working on such an indie project with a budding filmmaker like me. “You’re shooting on film; means you’re more serious- you’re investing more than a filmmaker shooting on digital…”.

All in all a very good day. One bit of advice- when scheduling auditions back-to-back do spare a thought for your well-being: Unable to take not even a two-minute break from the proceedings, one didn’t have the chance to answer the all-important call of nature- not even once for the duration of eight hours of auditions:-(
April 20th 2007
I am getting a very good response for the casting call I placed in PCR and Casting Call Pro. I am using my gmail calender facility to organise the auditions timetable- 15 minute slots. Don’t think I’ll have much of a break- need to audition around 20 actors…

November 2007: How did this script come about?

December 2005: I am hunched over my laptop at my friend’s home overhearing my dearest friends sayyid Wajdi and sayyid Layth debate whether it would be best to heat the Bamya (Okra) stew to go with the rice, or live on the edge and try those frozen Kubbahs/ground lamb, pine nuts, cracked wheat, olive oil and spices. Long after the said Kubbahs were thawed, fried and devoured – they were delicious, I was still working on what would become the first of ten-pages- plus treatments that form the basis for the film. I was so excited by what felt like an inspiration, a daydream hurriedly typed into the word processor, that I couldn’t wait to get back home to look up my notes and begin the next draft of the treatment. I braved the December frost and walked home from St John’s Wood to my part of town – some 90 minutes away.

May 2006: I am sitting in the front garden of a simple pension in Nice. I am supposed to be here to enjoy the Cannes film festival, taking place only twenty minutes away by train. Yet, I am spending the greater part of the day working on the thesis for which I need to do yet another rewrite before submitting it to my supervisor by the end of May. When I booked the trip, I thought I would have successfully completed this round of rewrites well before the arrival of May.

On the one day that I manage to peel myself away from the laptop, I head to Cannes. It happens to be the evening on which Oliver Stone and some of the cast of Platoon (Dir. Oliver Stone, 1986) are climbing the red-carpet for a special 20th anniversary screening at the festival.
After attempting a few B/W snaps on my manual SLR, I find myself a bench in the garden just behind the Palais du Festival and start jotting away yet another update to the ten-page treatment of that night in December.

November 2006: Geneva: Have always wanted to visit, especially since my dearest friend, the closet anyone can get to being the childhood friend of this immigrant, had regaled me with his stories of visiting the city as an apprentice at one of the better known watch-manufacturers.
In between visiting the Museums and marveling at how expensive food and drink are here, I begin the first outline for Mesocafe. I am negotiating the birth of the actual narrative structure.

Before I head back to London, I send my childhood friend a postcard: “this trip was inspired by you, sayyid Ahmad.”

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

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week friends,

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 24th- fewer than 4 weeks to the shoot

Marahib ya asdiqa’i/Greetings friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you all for your support.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 16th- 5 weeks to the shoot

Hello All,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thanks,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid,

October 10th- 6 weeks to the shoot

Salam and peace friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week,

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

October 3rd- 7 weeks to the shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week, friends,
Ja’far

September 25th- 8 weeks to the shoot

Marahib friends,

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

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

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

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

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

Due to popular demand, here’s the tree.

Tree- 24-9-08

See you next week.

Ja’far

September 17th- 9 weeks to the shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week.
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

September 10th- 10 weeks to the shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope to see you all next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

September 2nd- 11 weeks to the shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

August 28th- 12 weeks to the shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will fill you in next week.

Salam and peace,
Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

August 21st- 13 weeks to the shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid,

Writer/Producer/Director “Mesocafe”

August 13th- 14 weeks to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid,

Writer/Producer/Director “Mesocafe”

August 7th- 15 weeks to go

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next week friends.

Salam and peace.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

July 30th – 16 weeks to go

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

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

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

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

The dialogue of the film will be entirely in English.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All will be revealed next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you next week.

Ja’far ‘Abd al-Hamid

July 1st 2008 – 20 weeks to go

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

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

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

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