2012 in Review

Better late than never. It was therapeutic to do this last year, so I thought I’d continue the practice. Overall it was a good year of achievements but more importantly of realizations and growth:

A wonderful breakup: Last year ended on a terrible note when I had to finally break ties with my Shelter producers. It was inevitable, it was an unhealthy relationship from the start. My spidey-senses tingled from day one that something wasn’t right about us working together but I didn’t heed my gut’s warnings. How do you listen to your feelings in a brand new situation? I needed words, I need someone either to articulate what I was feeling or better yet to give me their own logic, based on their own decades of experience. So instead of relying on myself to make the decision to move forward with these strangers, I allowed wiser souls to make it for me. That probably should have been my first cue that shit was going to hit the fan in a terrible way.

When I finally got the advice I so desperately needed to hear, that I couldn’t ignore because it resonated with my entire being, I realized how much valuable time I had wasted by not paying more attention to my senses in the first place. But it’s not only lost time. Over the course of working with my ‘exes’, my confidence as a writer and director was stripped to bone, to the point I felt I knew nothing and was capable of nothing – not the best place to be in as a filmmaker. 

I’ve learned very late in life how impressionable I am, the drastic effect ‘enabling’ and ‘paralyzing’ partners can have on me – how I can scale mountains with one and feel like utter crap after talking to the other. So much rides on the people I stand next to. I wish I had thicker armor, but at this point I think I’m too old to change – and I think we’d all prefer to be with collaborators that inspire us rather than ones that makes us shrink. This has somehow been the theme of all of my successes: there was always someone there, a partner, a teacher, a coach next to me that helped me see what could be, what I could do, and that is why I ultimately grew.

But despite this nuclear implosion, I don’t regret it – in these past few months I’ve regained my mojo plus some extra. I have a newfound optimism in the project and in myself to rise to the occasion. I see more clearly the things and experiences I’ve forgotten to leverage. I’ve met new potential partners while reconnecting with old mentors from my past. I am ready to start again. 

Learned to juggle: Over the summer, as Shelter progress waned, I began to consider starting something new. Up until then, I had resisted the idea of working on multiple projects simultaneously. Part of my fears were physiologically based – could my tiny brain handle working on more than one story at a time. But I also had met way too many walking clichés during my internship in Los Angeles, to many writers/directors talking the talk, hustling, ‘working on several things’, and not really getting anywhere and I didn’t want to end up like that. I do believe there’s power in focusing instead of casting the net too wide.

So I’m not sure how it happened, maybe I had too much time on my hands, but I ended up starting three new projects last year: two shorts and a feature-length film. All three projects have met varying degrees of success in their early stages of development: one short was nominated for the Bosch Coproduction Prize while the other I’m currently prepping for in Cairo. The feature project was shortlisted for the Biennale College Cinema Fund (cosponsored by Gucci). The irony is that all three stories were old ideas I abandoned years ago and were simply collecting dust in my drawer. I’m still figuring out how to move forward on each, while acknowledging some might have more traction than others. But I’m sure each seedling will grow at its own pace.

What’s great about a young story is what it forces you to learn, forces you to become in order to author it – so far I’ve been photographing again, attended circus school to learn how to stiltwalk, translating Arabic materials, studying the intricacies of time travel . . . I’m excited to see where all this leads to.

Became more physically aware: I started taking yoga last spring at Lexington’s HealthWorx with a great teacher, Rosemary Pearson-Rosenthal. I remember coming in on the first day, after a heavy session of kettlebell swings and macho-man deadlifts, wanting to ‘cooldown’. But it was only after a few sessions that I could see yoga could offer me something more than a new way to stretch. It wasn’t a series of mumbo-jumbo chants or impossible poses like I had thought – it was a retreat, a chance to move the body without ‘working’ or trying to prove something. And so I became addicted and I’m still a fiend.

It was these retreats from the real-world that taught me how to better handle the real-world – that taught me how to juggle multiple things and decisions without allowing them to overwhelm me. It’s hard to put into words what yoga does, as it depends so much on the teacher and the student – all I can say is give it a try for a bit and see for yourself its side-effects. 

Figure drawing: As I became more aware of my body and mind through yoga, I simultaneously began studying the external human form more closely. I finally confronted one of my major weaknesses as an artist by taking a short figure drawing class that I wrote about previously and following up with weekly open sessions at the nearby University of Kentucky Art Institute.

Experiments in home improvement: That need to observe and work with my hands oddly enough led to a series of home improvement projects. Odd because I’m not really a ‘DIY’ kind of person; I used to be one of those guys you see in the lumbar department searching for a lightbulb. Well, no more.

It all began when my mom bought an old army radio desk to repurpose into a TV stand. Despite its sad condition, it was clear there was a thing of beauty underneath all those gobs of army-grade paint and battle rust.  So I decided I would take it apart, bolt by bolt, strip it, buff it, sand it and repaint it with a little Moroccan flair.

Surprised by the results, I began to see the world around me as a series of potential DIY projects. The local Home Depot became my mecca. I got on a first name basis with some of the employees. Even started helping other customers with their own projects, including that poor shmuck in the lumbar department searching for a lightbulb. I finished some simple jobs around the house, caulking this, painting that. I became confident in my own two hands. There is something oddly empowering and addictive about physical work, fixing something, making it right again.

So . . . despite how eclectic last year’s activities were, there are thin threads connecting them, and lessons I’d like to hold on to this year: the importance of listening to one’s own gut and body despite inexperience, embracing challenges, investing time in the strange pursuits that makes us happy and of course continuing to learn.

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My ‘Bosch Stiftung Film Prize Nominee Forum’ Experience

I just came back from Berlin where I attended a film forum organized by the Robert Bosch Foundation. Organized for nominated projects competing for their 2013 Arab-German co-production film grants. 

I first found out about the Bosch Foundation and their generous funding opportunities this past summer in Amman where I attended a short-film project market hosted by the Royal Film Commission of Jordan meant to help Arab writer/directors partner up with German producers. After some pitch training and meetings, I decided to join forces with an ambitious producer, Jessica Landt from Beleza Film, and apply to the co-production grant together with our short fiction project The Stork.

We were shortlisted and invited to the Nominee Forum with nine other teams, each working on either short fiction or documentary projects, also made up of Arab and German filmmakers. It was an intense few days of training rounded out with good food and conversations. I think we all left more prepared to officially pitch our projects in February to the jury during the 2013 Berlinale.

Since I found it so useful, I thought I’d summarize my highlights:

Pitch training with Cathy de Haan: I first met Cathy in the Amman project market, where she introduced us to the art of pitching, but here she had more time to expand on her advice. She reminded us of the essentials: to keep things clear, consistent and concise – reflected in everything from how we use our voices, our bodies and the design of our visual material. We’ve got to relax, to enjoy the process, because we’ll never have this opportunity again to speak to this particular audience about this specific film. We tend to get so wound up with our presentations and ourselves that we forget about our audience; who we’re actually pitching to and who has ultimate power. What do they know about the project already?, what do they want to hear and how/why will they be moved by your project? Even if they’re critical of the pitch in the end, we should be appreciative and answer their concerns seriously, as their questions and feedback is proof they actually took the time to hear our pitch.

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A Space of One’s Own, Part 1

After the Binger Lab, I felt drained. Tired of working on the same project, in the same way, with the incessant opinions of others. I needed a break and a chance to listen to my own wisdom. I needed not only private time, but more importantly private space.

So when I came back to the States I decided to rent a studio for a short creative sabbatical. I found an amazing space that used to be the basement of an old YMCA in downtown Lexington. Despite the cost, I decided to rent it, turning this obscenely large room into my own writer’s office and painting studio.

As a filmmaker, I was able to rationalize the expense and rekindled interest in art making as a skill that would prove useful in pre-visualization and preparing a lookbook for “Shelter“.

It was kind of like an office where I could pace, think, and stretch out my other projects. Where I could leave my tools out in the open, sprawled out all over the tables and floors for the next day’s work. And create an ‘assembly-line’ like atmosphere for the stuff I needed to get done and a laboratory for my curiosities.

It was a place where I could be reckless and fail.

I’ve spoken before about the importance of prototyping and quickly making our ideas into something physical, something we can touch and see. Because of this experience, I’m even more adamant that all creative types need such nooks to tinker in.

This nook is ideally a space of any size where you can turn your creative brain inside out and jot down your raw ideas and ambitions into something physical.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting you have to go rent out some grand space for your own creative endeavors. In fact, in Part 2 of this post I’ll propose how we can carve out our own creative nooks in our homes to fulfill a similar purpose. My point here is I believe we need something, anything, even a corner of a room, that takes a physical footprint in our lives if we’re serious about our ambitions.

A place that can evolve organically as a project grows and matures. Where you can plop your butt down for a little bit everyday, have your tools nearby and push your projects forward bit by bit.

If you haven’t already, I’d like you to give some serious thought about how to give your ambitions a physical space. It can be something as simple as a dedicated corkboard over your computer. Ask yourself how you can use atmospheric elements like playlists, framed art, lighting, to get yourself in the mood immediately when you sit down to work.

Ideally, this space will not only remind you of your ambitions, but also act as a ballast in those moments when you doubt yourself and your genius.

We’ll explore all of this further in Part 2. In the meantime, here are some examples of private spaces to inspire you writers and artists out there.

2011 in Review

2012 getting closer. Before I make any resolutions, let me first reminisce on this year’s accomplishments and what I’m most proud of:

  • Completed my ‘100 poems in a 100 days‘ project. This was a great teacher of the value of ‘just doing it’ and how our potential creative output is actually a lot greater than we think. And of course there were other insights along the way.
  • Blogged about my Binger Lab experience with Shelter. Those posts became a separate kind of laboratory where I could tinker with ideas I had for the script and how to direct the film.
  • Helped out as a Kickstarter Consultant with funding campaigns for two short films (‘Lunch Date‘, ‘Plato’s Reality Machine‘).  This taught me a great deal about how one can raise funds and might be useful for 2012 if I decide to kickstarter a project of my own.
  • Got back into taking pictures and drawing on a more regular basis. Even rented a studio for a few weeks to paint.
  • Abandoned Facebook and shifted over to Tumblr as my main social media site. A few months ago I found Facebook to be a distracting burden instead of a creative tool, so now I’m using Tumblr as a scrapyard of ideas, both taken from others and original ones, to use later. This shift has forced me to stay in touch with friends more directly, by email and phone.
  • Used MyLanguageExchange.com to start chatting with natives in Egyptian Arabic. This has been quite a workout, as we’re not speaking within the confines of a lesson or class, but rather talking freeform about anything and everything. But I’ve made more progress in the last three months than I have in the last five years; and I’ve reached a higher fluency than ever before. With all the recent events in Egypt we’ve had plenty to talk about.
  • Started treating regular fitness like an adventure, experimented with working outdoors and different tools like iPhone apps, running, kettlebells, etc. For the past few months I’ve been using a great little app called BodyFate. It lets you train with the equipment you have handy, and the workout comes at you in an unpredictable manner as if you’re working with a shuffled deck of exercises. My training now is goalless, it’s just about putting in the time on a regular basis and eating sensibly. Ironically, because I’ve ditched the ‘workout plans’ and fitness gurus, I’m in better shape now than ever before.
  • Bought a Kindle and started reading more often and everywhere. While a digital book can never replace a physical one, the pros do outweigh the cons. I’m able to travel with my entire library and revisit my books and highlights very quickly. It’s also easier for me to draw connections between the different books I’ve read on a particular subject or across disciplines.
  • Last but not least, I got to witness my younger brother get married. It was a beautiful, humbling experience and reminded me of what truly is important in this life.

The irony is that none of these accomplishments came out of a set of resolutions I wrote for myself at the beginning of 2011 – they were simply the result of me following my curiosity and needs as the year went by. Maybe ‘going with the flow’, and simply embracing your questions and interests, pursuing the things you want to be doing more of, is a more useful tool for realizing a resolution than the resolution itself?

I’m excited to see what I achieve with this same, goalless approach for 2012, as I get closer to my 35th birthday.

Back to Work

My bags are packed. I’m going back to the Middle East to continue research on Shelter.

I’ll be visiting Beirut to explore the Romani and Armenian communities more.

And to Halabja in Northern Iraq.

I’ve been messing around with different cameras & sound recorders the past few weeks to find a lean and dependable combo for taking photographs, videos and interviews – hopefully I’ll be able to share some of my findings with you on this blog.

Wish me luck –