Thursday, December 08, 2005

Last Day of Class with Kiarostami

We hope from the bottom of our hearts that these great vibrations will continue in New York in April for the Tribeca Film Festival.

Ali Essafi: I wanted to say for the Moroccan students who are here, we are not used to the image as figurative.

As directors, what image can we make that comes from this culture, which does not have a long history of images? The image, or the figurative, is a notion that has remained foreign to us who are from the Arab-Muslim culture. It has only been a century, since colonization, that we have been confronted with the image through photographs and paintings. If a filmmaker like me wants to go back in time to understand his relation with images, there is nothing to attach to. When the cinema of Kiarostami appeared, it was a big thing for us. It is like the little Persian scenes with painted backgrounds and figurines, both realistic and imagined. I think that your work gives us this reference that helps us think about what images we could work with and present.

Kiarostami: Let me just say one thing too. I am very happy to have spent this week with all of you. I'm not just saying that. It doesn't really matter that if when I criticized the films we said it was good or bad. What's important now is this energy that is in you to create films. That's why I don't say that this meeting is our final meeting, because I don't think that this energy will come to an end so soon. Thus wherever I am, I am waiting for your films. I hope to make a small package out of them and the only way I can do that is with your help. Thus, I hope you accept that we watch these films and not criticize them or say anything. If anyone wants to know the effect of their film, I suggest they stand over there and watch the immediate reaction. That's it, thank you.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Our Last Dinner

And then we danced. Sydney and Ruomi tore up the dance floor (Kim too, though not pictured here.)

We walked home, hoping the walk would last forever

Karima and Simona

Nadia (who worked tirelessly for us at the foundation!), Jalil and Sydney

Ahmad Kiarostami looks pensive in front of an impressive zellij

Couscous! Simo shows George and Kim that the real Moroccan way to eat Couscous is to pick it up in the palm of your hand, and all the better if it's steaming hot. They seem to be getting it.

Here are Nour-Eddine and Maria at dinner. After the photo Maria said, "Wow, when I laugh, I really laugh." As it should be!

Youssef and Chris

Salima presides

thanks all the filmmakers for being open and sharing every aspect of themselves. He says, not only did he learn from them, but they
were easy to work with because lack of ego.

Alana, Layla and a large tagine

Peter makes a speech; Lenina raises her glass for a toast.

Diana and Layla have non-alcoholic fruit drinks.

Sydney Meeks with husband Shandon Fowler and a steady flame.

Film-goers at the open-air screenings in the Jemaa el Fna Square

A student prepares to take notes while Kiarostami speaks and Bahrani waits to translate.

Seifollah's footage was the only hint outsiders got into the inner workings of the workshop (aside from this blog of course.)

Monday, December 05, 2005

Peter Scarlet, Executive Director at TFF, On the Origins of the Program

SS: How did the idea for the program come about?

PS: The program started when my wife Nazzy and I were in Marrakech last December for the festival. (She’s a correspondent with Voice of America, covering politics and culture, and also serves as Tribeca Film Festival Program Advisor for films from the Middle East.) At the time, we felt rather frustrated that there was only a single Moroccan film being shown in competition, while a small retrospective of Moroccan films was being shown, unsubtitled either in French or English, and only in a cinema away from the festival center. There also didn’t seem to be many Moroccan filmmakers in attendance at the screenings. Geoffrey Gilmore, an old friend who is the director of Sundance Film Festival was also one of the only other americans attending and it was clear he was being frustrated by the same things. While there, we met moroccan director Hakim Belabbes who was back for the festival though he lives in Chicago, and Khalil Benkirane, whom I knewas the director of the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco while I was still living there and running the San Francisco International Film Festival.

They asked us if we would like to meet Moroccan filmmakers and we all replied, “Of course!” We met the next afternoon in our hotel with a group of about 30 young filmmakers. We were immediately impressed by their diversity, curiosity and eagerness to learn. The women, some of whom wore headscarves, were a lot more voluble than the men and asked more questions. Some students owned cameras and some didn't. We learned at that point that there is still no formal film school in Morocco. Though they had come in conjunction with the festival, the students’ complaint was that they were not getting into the screenings, which seemed strange to us because the screenings weren't full either. The notion of doing something to make both the filmmaking process and the films being shown at the Marrakech International Film Festival more accessible to these young people just evolved naturally after that.

SS: How did the program evolve from that trip? What were the challenges in making the idea a reality?

PS: We met with Faïçal Laraichi, one of the two vice chairmen of the film festival, who is also in charge of Moroccan television and an advisor to the Royal Family. A newcomer to the festival that year, he seemed sensitive to our comments and appeared willing to take steps to change what was going on. He was a huge supporter from the beginning and made things happen on the Moroccan side. He and Hakim both came to New York later in the winter and I introduced them to the team at Tribeca. They came back in April for the Tribeca Film Festival, and invited us to come to Morocco in June to pursue the idea further. So a few weeks later, we went back to Morocco, spending one amazing night at the Festival of Sacred Music in Fès, and then spending a week visiting institutions in Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakech. It turned out that though there is no actual film school, young people do succeed in studying film as part of media arts programs. We saw some student work that was encouraging. That's when we decided we were going to do a workshop. To have it during the Marrakech International Film Festival seemed like the best idea, though this didn't leave us much time to plan. It would allow the students to get see other films being screened at the festival (though it turned out that the classes were so intensive that this didn't happen as much as we would have liked), and would help draw the attention of people visiting the festival. My colleague, Madelyn Wils, director of our non-profit section, the Tribeca Film Institute, learned that the U.S. State Department had funding available for programs like this, and she was able to create a grant proposal that secured their support. Our Moroccan friends were able to muster very generous support for the equipment and space needs the program necessitated, as well as much of the travel costs involved.

SS: What do you see as the biggest victories? What were the rewards?

PS: The impetus as much as the reward was that in this troubled time, young Americans who know nothing about Morocco, or any place else in the Islamic world, and young Moroccans, many of whom answered our questions about where they learned what they knew about America by saying “CNN and Al-Jazeera,” were able to make direct contact, and the feedback they all gave shows that the contact was a valuable one. It was also unexpected that for a fledgling program like this we’d be able to attract the energies and talents not only of experienced filmmaker-teachers like Hakim Belabbes (who’d been part of the project from the outset), and Katherine and Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, Associate Professors at NYU and Hunter College here in NYC, but also of two of the world’s most admired filmmakers, Martin Scorsese and Abbas Kiarostami.

Since Scorsese had shot both “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Kundun” in Morocco, he already had important ties to the country. He was being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the festival, so he would already be there. When we approached him about taking part in the workshop by offering a master class, he readily accepted. Getting Abbas Kiarostami to participate was a bigger challenge because when we first spoke to him, he had no plans to attend the Marrakech International Film Festival and, in fact, had never been to Morocco. But we knew he was curious about the country, and that he’d been giving workshops in different countries all around the world for the past several years. He agreed to our invitation to come and give a master class – and then surprised us by declaring that his master classes usually run at least ten days, while we’d only imagined he might come by for an afternoon! He was in turn surprised when the MIFF decided to honor him as well.

Concretely, the rewards were enormous. Everyone was overwhelmed by the quality and extent of the equipment the Moroccans provided. The students – who included some of the young Moroccans we’d met last year - and one camera for every pair of students, which is a remarkable; in comparison, Abbas Kiarostami had just done a similar workshop in London where there was one camera for every twelve students. When we spoke with him after the conclusion of the workshop, he expressed tremendous enthusiasm about the work and the whole workshop, and declared that the films that these students had made were the best he had seen from any of his workshops.

SS: A little known fact in America, but one that is widely known and a point of pride among Moroccans, is that Morocco's sultan was the first to officially recognize the United States of America as a nation, way back in 1777. There is a long history between the two countries, and this program shows a desire to help create the future. What is the future of this program? What happens next?

PS: Bringing the Moroccan students to the Tribeca Film Festival is the other part of this. And at least four of their finished short films will be shown as part of the festival. Seifollah Samadian, Kiarostami’s cameraman and close collaborator ever since they made “ABC Africa” together in 2001, worked hard all during the workshop, shooting footage for a documentary he’s making about Kiarostami’s workshops, which we hope he’ll finish in time for us to premiere it at the next Tribeca Film Festival in April, along with the films that the students made during the workshop. By the way, at Kiarostami’s suggestion, they all made films with a single theme – in his first session, he showed the films made by students at a workshop he’d recently given in London that all used elevators as their setting. While they were discussing what theme would be appropriate for them, a student’s cell phone rang unexpectedly, and everybody immediately recognized that as a kind of “divine suggestion,” so they all made films revolving around the many ways in which cell phones are changing our lives.

Like all worthwhile film festivals, we conceive of the Tribeca Film Festival as a kind of international meeting point, so for us to send an offshoot into the world is a natural extension and addition to the program. It struck me as completely natural that we would find a home in Morocco, especially after we saw the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca during our visit in June. Completed in 1993, the mosque stands on the Atlantic Ocean, literally suspended over it on pilings, at the westernmost point in North Africa. It is the second largest mosque in the world after the one in Mecca, and its minaret, we were told, was designed to be precisely the same height as the torch of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. As we stood there it seemed evident that a cultural bridge from our country to Morocco was a natural development: the Moroccans had already manifested their yearning for it.

SS: What was your reaction when you saw the results of the program—the films the students made?

I won't say anything about the films that were made. I want to give people a chance to see them at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival. But I will say that I’m someone who is often disappointed by the kind of work people are making as a result of the so-called digital revolution, but this time I was thrilled by the results.

Madelyn Wils, CEO of Tribeca Film Institute, on the Inspiration for the Program

I wanted to start a cultural exchange with a country in the Muslim world, and I talked to Peter Scarlet because he has ties through film in those parts of the world. We needed a place where there was already an infrastructure in order to realistically get funding, and Morocco came to mind. Peter told me about his trip and introduced me to Faical Laraichi and Hakim Belabbes.

Faical is a very passionate man who really believed that this program could happen. With him there was this synergy that made it easy to come to grips with the demands, and through the planning, to keep in the mind’s eye the importance of the cultural exchange.

Muslim-American relationships are very strange. We have a one-sided view and I’m willing to bet that not many people in our country can distinguish the difference between an Iraqi and an Iranian, for instance. And I knew there are probably caricatures in the Muslim world about Americans. It was important to break down barriers and recognize that we have common interests. Filmmaking, because it can be intensely personal, is a great way to go about doing this.

The first thing I noticed when I got there, was that a few days after the classes began I realized I could no longer tell the difference between the Moroccan and the American students. They were all mixing and I felt good that we had chosen the right group for this adventure. After we met the Moroccan students while we were in Morocco, we realized the importance of picking the right students here - students who would be open and mindful of other cultures and views with the idea of humanity always in mind.

The other thing was that I thoroughly enjoyed the actual content of the courses that I sat in on. It was fun to watch the film clips in a different way with the guidance of the teachers and it was fun to be in a classroom again. Also, it is important to note that the Moroccan students were learning in an entirely new way compared to what they were used to, just in terms of the methodology of teaching cinema. And when Kiarostami came, the American students (and all the students) had to get used to his way of teaching as well.

NOTES ON EDITING from a class with Hakim Belabbes


A beat is a shift in emotional tone that occurs in the scene and equally reflects in the audience. If there is just a small change in a scene, the audience shifts in relation to the story or image just a little. Bill Viola’s “Hatsu Yume” is a good work to look at when trying to identify where beats are. The film seems to have one fluid beat, your impression is changed slowly and constantly by the piece, but there are moments, naturally occurring sometimes within the organism of the shot that create these slight shifts.

I’m interested in how you wrote the scenes in your screenwriting exercise, because I think, maybe, instinctively, you were working according to beats? Think about how you wrote them and what the guidelines were. A lot of times I think I write what is not essential, I write until I figure out what is. I ask myself what triggered a certain image or word in order to find what is essential.

Student : Justement, j’avais pas cette notion de “Beats,” battement ou rythme...I didn't have this notion of beats or rhythm. I used to work in a structured way, but in this case I worked with a much more instinctive method. I can feel the strong points in my script, but I can't feel the structure as well.

Mick: I would say that the rhythm already exists in a scene as it is written and the job of the editor is to find that rhythm and bring it out.

Hakim: I would say that the beat happens earlier than that, even where there is no editing, there is a rhythm and beat in the writing, and these will help you find the structure. Everything is based on the writing. Even people like Kiarostami, who only write a page or two before they start shooting, have to put something down on paper first.

Subtleties of Editing

A film should have a notion of DNA; as in the body, whether it’s a finger cell, or a liver cell, it has a layout for the entire body, a plan for the entire organism.

You see it a lot; there is a problem with a shot and an editor thinks he can just put in a cut-away. Sometimes people cut to hands or lamps in the room, just to cut back. They’re so afraid of the jump cut; they think they have to make it smooth. Why not go to the lamp?
Because you’re disrupting anything I’m feeling at that point!

Visualize this scene in "Sideways" with one moment standing out. The shooting is utilitarian, medium close-up, medium close-up, medium close-up, medium close-up, then close-up, and another close-up. Then the director does something so subtle, he moves in on Miles. It’s something so imperceptible, and it’s asking, “What are you going to do Miles?” Then, directly following, there is the sudden contact of the hand. This moment breaks the utilitarian pattern and it stands out. It creates a subconscious emotional effect.

No one can teach you how to edit, anything, ever. The one thing that no one can teach you, and that all of you will find in your own rhythm, is the rhythm of editing.

Layla Triqui: L'Avant Dernier Jour du Programme (The Second to Last Day)

Aujourd'hui, Vendredi 18 Novembre 2005, presque tout notre groupe est parti en excursion à L'ourika. Quant à moi , j'ai préféré rester dans ma chambre pour terminer le montage de ma nouvelle idée de court métrage sur le thème "Téléphone mobile" que j'ai passé la nuit à tourner. Tout en travaillant devant l'écran de mon ordinateur, je ne peux m'empêcher de penser à ces 12 jours vécus sans avoir un petit pincement au coeur.
Ce workshop qui va déja prendre fin ce soir a été pour moi un cumul de moments tellement riches et intenses. En compagnie de David et Alana, notre collaboration a été un échange permanent et nous avons pris beaucoup de plaisir à travailler ensemble. Quant aux autres candidats qu'ils soients américains ou marocains, tous ont apporté leur sensibilité respective; ce qui m'a enrichi humainement et artistiquement. Les moments forts de ce workshop auront été sans conteste la rencontre avec les deux géants du Cinéma, Mr Martin Scorcese et Mr Abbas Kiarostami: un rêve devenu réalité; tant d'images qui resteront marquées à jamais dans ma mémoire.
Sans oublier toute cette merveilleuse équipe d'instructeurs et d'organisateurs américains et marocains qui a été constamment à notre écoute nous accompagnant chacun dans son processus individuel et a tout mis en oeuvre pour que ce premier workshop du genre soit une réussite. Je leur en suis sincèrement reconnaissante.
Demain les au revoirs seront durs, mais je nourris l'espoir que nous puissions nous retrouver tous ensemble encore une fois à New York et approffondir ce que nous avons entamer à Marrakech. Mais si ce n'était pas le cas; alors un grand merci à chacun de vous; d'avoir faits de cette expérience une aventure unique !!