Berlinale 2017 highlight

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I was lucky enough to catch Yance Ford’s gripping documentary, Strong Island, during a brief visit to the Berlin Film Festival last weekend. The film is about his brother, William, who was killed twenty years ago but whose white murderer was never brought to trial, let alone to justice. There was a great review of it in The Guardian last month, which stresses its personal provocation and timeliness for a US ‘in the midst of a deep and unresolved crisis over racial politics’.  For me, what distinguishes this film is the emotional and aesthetic vulnerability with which Ford recounts the oldest tale of US history – and of US cinema’s mortal economies – the dead-already-ness of black lives. And it is a vulnerability made all the richer, and appropriately complex, through the director’s pronounced state of self-exposure throughout the film. Centre frame, tearful, sharing the hardest of memories and most difficult of truths, this black trans filmmaker (dis)owns his story with an ethical responsibility rarely seen.

Film Project done!

 

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After 3 eventful weeks, my time with the Sharek participants has come to an end. The last sessions were a particular challenge: very, and I mean very, few students had actually done any filming, so the plan (to focus on editing their material) had, as usual, to bend a bit. Yet again, there were new students in each group, and in one workshop I didn’t even have a marker for the whiteboard. Oh, and still, I had no filmmaker to help. Zaina, above, a fabulous final year Birzeit Radio Broadcasting student, provided some excellent assistance at two of the workshops however.

By this point, of course, I was seeing all these less as obstacles and more as ‘interesting constraints that promote more inventive teaching’.  Hmm.

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The question now is – will any films come out of this?  All participants had a week after their last workshop to submit the films to Amin. The best one from each group would then compete for a spot at the film festival in September.  Watch this space…

Nablus revisited

I really like Nablus and the group of students there.  They like selfies. They really like selfies. They don’t stand out in particular in this passion from the other groups, but they are more inventive. This was the first chair-enabled group selfie of the day.

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Half of the group today were new to the workshops and no-one had done any homework. Wifi kept going in and out. And Amin forgot the cable for the projector, so when it came to watching the very helpful BBC Academy clip about ‘Filming on your smartphone’, 20 students had to crowd around a laptop.

 

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Despite the obstacles, the 4 groups of 5 students decided on their story and started to map out how it might all happen. Storyboarding wasn’t nearly as enthusiastically engaged with as it was in the Al-Quds workshop, but it did the trick. They’ve now got a week to start production.

 

Deep ends

Week 2 started with the news that the filmmaker, who was to be working alongside me  to help the participants start translating their stories into films was, again, unavailable. Luckily, I’d spent Monday prepping (perhaps with this eventuality in mind ; ) and was feeling pretty confident by the time the Al Quds students were due at Sharek. Of course, this was soon revealed as only one of the challenges for the day. It turns out that many of the students who attended last week couldn’t come, couldn’t come until later, had exams, had to work, had to attend a CV workshop (run by Sharek in the same building, at the same time, go figure). And then there were the new students who couldn’t make the last session and couldn’t stay for all of this one.  Oh, and the fact that only one group of the 6 had actually decided what their story was.

Saying all that, it was actually a great day. The morning was spent going through the major tips for pre-production.

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Then the fun began. I got everyone drawing storyboards for their story, and if they didn’t have one (as they claimed) they could do it for any story. The important thing was to start translating what was just an idea in their heads into a visual narrative.

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One of the women had spoken of the story she wanted to tell but that she had no clue as to how to start thinking of it as a film.

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This exercise proved game changing for everyone. The room was abuzz with activity, the students were animated and seemed to suddenly find their stories, and I actually began to believe that this was all possible.

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Film and offence

Much of the discussion this first week – to set up the filmmaking for the rest of the project – has focused on what makes a film good and what makes it ‘not so good’. This is, for sure, a question of its quality (narrative, aesthetic, production etc) but, more than this, of its power to connect or disconnect with spectators via its ‘truth’, ideology, its relationship to stereotypes, its capacity to demean, to offend. Such issues lie at the heart of spectatorship theory and cultural studies and more, and I’ve been teaching and writing about them for quite a while now. As suspected (indeed aimed for) they take on richer meaning in the University classroom in the West Bank.

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One of the groups at An-Najah National University in Nablus

The pleasure in Hollywood and aggravation at its racist depiction of arabs, was especially alive in our workshop in Nablus yesterday. A love of mainstream entertainment cohabits with distaste at its Islamophobia. Stuart Hall’s negotiated readings are commonplace here as everywhere. But discussing identity and offence is especially meaningful when an ostensibly white British woman (and this is the least complex way of describing myself) provokes debate about race, religion and morality/ethics with a room of Palestinian young men and young women of whom many are veiled. Morality, as laws of right and wrong from religion or from our society’s religion-based moral codes, was juxtaposed with notions of a shared ethics that reflects upon and responds to such laws and more, to distinguish a common set of human values. These are hot topics indeed – topical and perilous –  and I can’t wait to see how or if they influence the stories the participants might tell.

Managing offence is a fundamental part of negotiated readings. It is also, of course, a fundamental part of negotiated living. Shifting our awareness to the latter in film studies (and life ; ) might, I suspect, prove very fruitful.

 

The entire week 1 of MOOC in 2 hours!

 

Well, not quite. Obviously. All of Richard’s and my industry from last year – polishing each article and discussion point for the ‘Futurelearners’ out there – distilled into 2 provocative questions and various group activities. Or not. Obviously.  So each day’s schedule is proving to be a work in progress. Planning is improvised but (quasi) affective. Amin and I arrive and the adventure continues.

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Day two of the Tammyaz filmmaking workshops was spent with 25 students at the very impressive AAUJ, The Arab American University – Jenin. (Nablus is Saturday, I got it wrong.) Despite being told that there were no English speakers, there were actually more than on Tuesday. There were students doing Accounting, English and even Media, and they were a very lively, jokey, eager bunch: lots of discussion, laughter and…selfies.

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Homework was set – to actually do some of the online course; to start or continue practicing filming with a smart phone; to decide in their groups what story they want to tell.  When we meet again next week, their ideas are going to start to translate into a simple narrative. That’s the plan anyway.  And we know what I said about planning.

 

 

 

 

Palestinian Filmmaking Project Day 1

The question at the heart of the Screening Rights initiative, and that has become my mantra in various research n’ outreach settings, is: ‘What is the potential of film to affect personal, social and political change?  Here, in Ramallah, it takes on special meaning for me as the compulsory ‘located-ness’ of those asking the question and the burdens of those needing such change are particularly present and even poignant. I’ll say more on the latter especially as the weeks go on.

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Getting ready for the first workshop at Sharek in Ramallah

The filmmaking project that I am running here is in collaboration with Sharek Youth Forum (http://www.sharek.ps/). Sharek aims ‘to make young Palestinians aware of their vital role in Palestinian politics, foster a sense of community service and volunteerism, give them the skills to carry out this duty, and encourage them to help other young people take an active pride in Palestine’.  Sharek and Screening Rights would seem made for each other, and that is certainly what struck me during a first meeting with the organisation last summer.  The aim of the project we developed is for young Palestinians to learn how to create short films with their smart phones, short films that are critically aware and personally-socially-politically important. (Here, those 3 adverbs seem pretty hard to separate.) Four universities in the West Bank are taking part, and I’ll spend one day a week with each for the next 3 weeks. The best film from each University will compete for a place on the programme of the Screening Rights Film Festival in September. The winner will be decided by the participants in Sharek’s Tammyaz programme, of which this project is a part.

The filmmaking project was meant to be based on the MOOC that my colleague Richard Langley and I did with the BBC Academy this last year: ‘Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the web'(https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/digital-storytelling).  It’s running right now and is, or would be, a really useful tool for the students and for me. Trouble is, at least in the group from Al-Quds Public University who I spent day 1 with, no one had looked at it yet and the standard of English (and chattiness, while I’m at it) amongst those present really varied. So the day was an adventure for all of us. We explored what makes a good story and what makes a story good, that is… honest, ‘true’, not offensive, not twisting history etc. What I might, in other circumstances – or in our next session together – call ‘ethical’. (I would later talk this through with my arabic teacher to try to find a better way of expressing it.) We analysed examples from Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) to Omar  (Hany Abu-Assad, 2013). Dividing into groups, the students started to think about what simple story they wanted to tell, what skills they had amongst them to draw upon, and how they might avoid the pitfalls but harness the power of film.  All in a short short but smart (phone) film.  Not a tall order at all.

Thanks to Amin, who is helping with the workshops and providing much needed translation and who I’m meeting at 8am tomorrow to travel to the University in Nablus to do it all again with students there.