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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