Here’s another short paper I recently wrote for my Cinema Studies class. It’s my attempt to find a filmmaking aesthetic and production model that is appropriate for the Middle East at this time – especially for new filmmakers like myself.
It still needs a little work, especially towards the end where I need to suggest concrete steps we can take as filmmakers – tell me what you think and give me any advice on how I can make it stronger:
Neo Middle-Eastern Cinema:
Filmmaking Trends and Possibilities
There’s a new crop of emerging Arab filmmakers who have taken it upon themselves to produce films in opposition to the Middle-Eastern stereotypes Hollywood has produced in the last several decades. While this is a worthy cause, the region and its people are in need of films for their own consumption. We need a cinema that acts as a mirror for the audience, a place of reflection and discussion of one’s culture, history and people. Yet is there a current model for a type of filmmaking that would satisfy these needs? As mentioned in a recent New York Times article , there has been a recent revival of neo-realistic films, especially in the US, that derive their strength from their intimate portraits of characters living on the periphery of society. This new generation of filmmakers remind us that the ‘small’ can be large, and the ugliness in the world can be divine.
Such films can be used as a model for feature productions in the region because of their financial as well as artistic approaches. Let us take one of the films in the aforementioned article, Lance Hammer’s Ballast, as an example and study it from an aesthetic and production perspective. The drama is set in the Mississippi delta, where one man’s suicide affects three people’s lives. Hammer worked with several non-actors from that region to not only rehearse but to also collaborate together on producing authentic and local dialogue. The cinematographer’s handheld work and reliance on available light in real locations is reminiscent of the neo-realists like Bresson. Not only do these choices suit the story and lend a documentary aesthetic to the film, they considerably lower the crew size and budget. Hammer’s involvement with the film went beyond just writing and directing it though, he was also one of the producers and spent nearly two years editing the film on his desktop computer.
The film garnered the Best Director and Best Cinematography awards at Sundance, a place where distribution deals are thought to be lucrative and plentiful. But after deciding several offers were unfair and would leave him with little control over the marketing of the film, Hammer choose to distribute the film himself, again from his desktop computer. So in a sense, he choose to be an active participant in every stage of the film’s life-cycle – from the story conception to the way it would be ultimately consumed by an audience. While this may seem unorthodox and amateurish relative to the studio-system’s division of labor where collaboration is not only revered but necessary, this jack-of-all-trades approach is what we will need to practice if we plan on working outside of the studio production and distribution system in this region.
Currently, the Middle East seems to produce films for two extremes: the local commercial market (e.g. studio genre films) and the foreign market (e.g. art-house films). The point is not to try to abolish this reality, for we can learn something from both approaches in order to introduce a new type of storytelling and filmmaking. In the coming years we will have to increase production of films that blend qualities of both models: professionally made and distributed films of cultural merit for the local audience. Part of our success will depend on our willingness to look at other regions and filmmakers who are experimenting and benefiting from methods compatible with our own stories, landscape and characters.