War stories

Two independent filmmakers discuss making films with digital cams in war-torn Lebanon.
Nadine of the Beirut Diaries from Mai Masri.
Nadine of the Beirut Diaries from Mai Masri.
These frames from The One Man Village show how the protagonist Semaan forgets his past and returns to live in his village, which was destroyed years a
These frames from The One Man Village show how the protagonist Semaan forgets his past and returns to live in his village, which was destroyed years a


Digital Studio talks to two independent filmmakers in Lebanon about making films with digital cams in a war-torn land.

Although Lebanon has constantly lived with the threat of a war ready to erupt at any time, this country has produced some of the most poignant and compelling films of the Arab world.

The dearth of local funding and commercial backing does not seem to have deterred independent filmmakers from picking up their cameras and going out to shoot.

In fact, with affordable entry-level HD cameras making film production a lot easier than in the past, a whole new generation of new filmmakers is emerging from this war-torn land.

Lebanese writer and director, Simon El Habre and Palestinian veteran filmmaker, Mai Masri, who lives in Beirut, have both taken the documentary route.

El Habre saw a story in his own village and decided to pursue it with a Sony HD 750R while Masri, egged by what the war did to the people around her, stepped out into the streets with her HDV camera.

El Habre will be working on his debut production The One Man Village this year while Masri, a seasoned filmmaker has more than 13 documentaries to her credit, some made with her filmmaker husband, Jean Khalil Chamoun.

The One Man Village is the story of El Habre's uncle, Semaan, who returned to his village, which was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war which raged from from 1975 to 1990. Semaan is the sole inhabitant of his village as the people who left it have never come back to live there again.

"After the war, our village, which is in the Mount of Lebanon, was completely destroyed and the Christians left for Beirut," explains El Habre.

"I was only six when we left the village. For my uncle, Semaan, the past is past. He wants to live his life in the present. He used to always dream of going back one day to his village and living on a farm. So he did that six years ago."

"Today, he lives alone in his village on his farm. No one else has ever wanted to come back and live there again. Many don't want to return because of the memories it brings with it. In this documentary, we observe my uncle's daily life at the village and also look at people who come and go from there. This documentary is meant to act as healing from the past."

El Habre reckons he will need at least a budget of US $400,000 to make a good quality documentary. For this documentary, he is using the Sony HD 750R with a Pro 35 adaptor and 35 mm cine lenses (Hi Speed Primes-Zeiss).

The filmmaker plans to blow this up for the big screen and will shoot it over a period of one year.

"I don't want to just make a documentary; I want to make a beautiful one. I have decided to shoot this over the duration over a year so that I get a bit of every season in. This is because the landscape here changes every season and you get beautiful shots while it also shows how Semaan works during different times of the year."

"People may argue that the HD 750R is a bit heavy for a documentary but it goes well with the concept of my film. I am not looking to get every single detail of his life. This camera will be on a tripod all the time; not shoulder mounted."


Recently, at the Dubai Film Connection, The One Man Village was one of the three award winning concepts that was awarded US $15,000 by the jury. Although US $15,000 is not much, El Habre believes that the funds will gradually trickle in for the film.

"We are applying to several funds. We have already done a few shoots and made a five-minute short from our rough cuts to help us when we pitch our project to financiers."

"The crew is currently working for free till we get some money in. Each season, we take the material and crew and go to Semaan's farm. We stay with him for few days and it is a great escape from the daily grind. However, we still have to pay for food and transportation."

El Habre is very methodical and believes he has a fool-proof plan with regards to editing cost effectively. After each shoot, he transfers the rushes to a DV Cam with a time code and edits it.

"When the shoot is fully done, I can use the same time code to do online editing; this will save me a lot of time as editing is a lot easier on DV than HD. I plan to use Flame or Inferno for online editing depending on which one will be available then," he says.

The team has already done a test shoot, down converted the rushes to a DV cam with the original timecode, edited it, done online editing and even blown up a bit of the final piece to check its quality on the big screen.

"We have gone through this process, identified our challenges and have worked out the workflow to ensure there are no hitches," explains El Habre.

In fact, this five-minute edit was shown at the Dubai Film Connection to give financiers a feel of the mood, how the film will be shot, the rhythm of the movie and so on.

The One Man Village, however, seems to be a well planned film.

"I thought of this two years ago. Then I met Jad Abi Khalil of Beirut DC and Irit Neidhart of Mec Film and since then, we have been working together on this as producers."

"We got selected for the Locarno open doors in Switzerland at the co-production market and then at the Dubai Film Connection. We started the actual filming for the documentary last month and we should be ready in a year's time," says El Habre.

On the other side of the spectrum is themore seasoned Masri, who has won more than 60 awards to date at international film festivals for her documentaries.

A victim of the Palestinian war, Masri's family moved to Beirut when she was very young and later studied film at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University.

Masri's documentaries put a face to the often-desensitised horrors of war, taking us beyond the muted news stories to look at people who have courageously survived it.

The constant displacement of people, the tragedies of little children and the untold stories of Lebanese war victims have compelled this mother of two to pick up her Sony HDV and shoot.

Her most recent documentary, 33 Days, was aired on Al Jazeera Documentary channel this year. 33 Days received a Special Tribute at Al-Kassaba Film Festival in Palestine.


Filmed during the Israeli war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006, 33 Days follows the real-life stories of four people: a theatre director working with displaced children who took shelter in a theatre after their homes were destroyed and creating a play called Laughing Under the Bombs; a frontline journalist for an underground TV station, an aid worker coordinating emergency relief efforts for displaced people, and a news-desk director trying to cope with her new-born baby.

Masri has become a popular figure at international film festivals and her screenings are often packed to full house. Her previous documentary, Beirut Diaries, literally reached the Biennale des Cinemas Arabes, IMA Paris in 2006 three hours before its screening.

"Beirut was under siege then and I literally got this film sent on the last boat that was being evacuated to France. I did not want to miss this opportunity to show the world what was happening here and it won the first prize there," says Misri.

Through the story of a young woman from Beirut, Beirut Diaries explores the role of young people in the critical transformations underway in Lebanon in the period extending from the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri to the massive Israeli offensive of July 2006.

Through the turbulent experience of Nadine and her young friends, their dreams and disillusions, the film looks at the crucial questions facing Lebanon at a critical point in its history.

Beirut Diaries also received a Special Tribute at Ismailia Film Festival In Egypt 2006 and won the first prize for Best Documentary at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards In Australia 2007.

"These are all human interest stories not seen on TV or mainstream news," explains Masri. "Most of these stories were taking place around my home and I had to do something so I took my Sony HDV and went out to shoot."

Masri lauds the entry-level HD cameras in the market. "In the past, we used 16mm cameras but now we find digital cameras to be a lot easier to shoot documentaries. The HDV produces good quality plus you can handle it and be mobile at the same time."

"This is critical for my shoots as I often work alone with no additional crew."

Masri says lack of funding has never stopped her from making films.

"Most of my films are self funded. After I made 33 Days, for instance, Al Jazeera covered the funds. It was a film that had to be made irrespective of whether someone funded it or not. Sometimes, we get the funds; sometimes we don't."

Masri gives us an idea of how budgets are planned.

"Low budget documentaries are in the vicinity of US $10,000 while medium budgets can range anywhere from US $30,000- $60,000. I have worked with all kinds of budgets and all kinds of cameras from the entry level to the high end but they have never stopped me from going out there and making a film."

"For fiction, we always go with 35mm and it costs a lot more. In fact, I am now working on the script of a fiction film," she says.


Masri faces a different set of challenges from El Habre. Her documentaries have often been shot during the times of conflict. "My challenges mostly have to do with decisions on going out while a war is on."

"I am the mother of two small children and have a responsibility towards them. But then you look at the the people around you and you forget the danger."

Masri recalls a surreal moment when she was out in one of the Southern suburbs filming. "On one occasion, I saw a few chickens that had managed to escape from their cage where they may have been kept for slaughter."

"All the people were inside and some were urging me to come inside because the planes above were shooting anything that moved. I survived that one," she says.

In most of Masri's documentaries, the protagonists are often women or children although she insists it was not meant to be that way.

"These are often the most vulnerable in society. Perhaps, as a woman, I am able to identify with women. Children are a different story altogether. I enjoy working with them because of their honesty and spontaneity and the unpredictability of their responses to different situations."

"Their spontaneity links with the creativity in my work and through them, I relive my own childhood."

Being a female filmmaker, however, has not posed any difficulties for Masri, she says. "Somehow, the camera transcends all issues of gender and it inspires respect in the people we are filming. People forget about gender and it becomes a sharing of experience and storytelling."

Masri and El Habre both exclaim at the paradox of how more films are being made in Lebanon despite the paucity of funds.

"I guess in a war-torn land, there are more stories to tell that are out of the ordinary."

"This land is bursting with stories of how ordinary people have behaved in extraordinary ways and dealt with the war," explains El Habre.

"In a war situation, people also feel the need to express themselves to feel alive, and they often do it through a medium that they are familiar with."

"During the 15 years of war here, some filmmakers never stopped making films; musicians never stopped making music and painters never stopped painting. It's probably what gives them the ability to survive a war."

Today, as Lebanon stands at the brink of another war, the film industry in this country has only got stronger unlike Iraq, where cinema saw a complete shutdown.

Already last year, four feature films emerged from Lebanon and that is a lot more than many other countries in the Arab world where there is no war and no paucity of funds but also, not much cutting edge talent.

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