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Sat 9 Jan 2010 04:00 AM

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A tale from Beirut

Vijaya Cherian goes behind the scenes of a documentary shoot in Beirut.

A tale from Beirut
Filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour looks out of the balcony with the DoP behind him.
A tale from Beirut
The team preferred to shoot in natural light to ensure less reliance on electricity in Beirut, where power outages are common.
A tale from Beirut
Mahmoud Kaabour with his all-woman team at the filming of Teta, Alf Marra.

Vijaya Cherian goes behind the scenes of a documentary shoot in Beirut

Independent filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour recently embarked on an experimental journey with the production of a documentary on his 83-year-old grandmother, a feisty old Lebanese woman, who has outlived all her neighbours in the old neighborhood of Hamad in Beirut.

The documentary, titled Teta, Alf Marra (Grandmother, a 1000 Times) revolves around Hajje Kaabour, who has lived a long and rich life but is now lonely. She rarely leaves her house anymore and often reminisces about the times she spent with her famous violinist husband, Mahmoud Kaabour (Sr.), who passed away 20 years ago.

Filmmaker Kaabour is no newcomer to documentaries. Four years ago, the Lebanese filmmaker made headlines when he produced a documentary entitled Being Osama, a look at how life changed for some Arabs with the name of Osama in Canada post 9/11.

Since then, he has worked on several corporate videos and TVCs, and presently runs Veritas Films, a production house based in twofour54, Abu Dhabi.

Teta, Alf Marra, however, is a more personal journey that makes its filming a lot more challenging, says Kaabour.

“Teta chronicles my grandmother in the minutest details of her everyday life in a flat, where generations have come and gone. We film her hanging her laundry, making a sheesha, and gossiping with other veiled ladies across balconies,” explains Kaabour.

“On a superficial level, she seems to be physically captive in a flat of ancient architecture, outside Beirut’s present. But in the course of our interviews with her, we gradually unravel a much larger world filled with unique routines and memories that invoke loved ones all around her,” he adds.

As the old lady tells the stories of her husband, Mahmoud Kaabour (Sr.) and his travels to Palestine and Egypt to perform with divas like Umm Koulthoum and Sabah, she also simultaneously shares stories of her grandson, Mahmoud Kaabour (the filmmaker). She talks of his upbringing in the local neighbourhood and his love for cinema that compelled him to move to Canada, where he lived for seven years, before returning to the UAE, where he was raised. The stories of the two men intertwine and at some point, grandfather and grandson merge into a single “Mahmoud” and are accompanied by poetic visuals of the latter playing the former in parts of the B-roll: posing in his room, playing his violin, and sometimes, wearing his old hat.

Grandma Kaabour also breaks the illusions of cinema throughout the film, according to the filmmaker.

“She often talks directly to the camera woman about her beautiful face and stops in between interviews to ask for retakes. While her stories alone recreate an entire city that is now no more, her unabashed Beiruti character often pulls the attention back to herself,” he says.Grandmother Kaabour is filmed haggling over the price of potatoes with street vendors from her balcony and lifting up her purchase with a basket and a rope. She also has enough clout to get the owner of the aluminum welding store below her house to shut down for an hour whenever she feels like a nap.

What makes the production of this documentary unique is that it is not time bound. As a result, the filmmaker feels there is greater liberty and flexibility to experiment with the documentary genre.

However, dealing with a conservative Arab lady also brought with it several challenges. On the one hand, an all-woman team was required to undertake the shoot.

“On a typical shoot for this film, we have had three people – an all woman crew comprising a lighting assistant, a DoP and a sound engineer,” explains Kaabour.

“I’m working with Muriel Aboulrouss, an award-winning DoP from Lebanon for this film. As a woman, she’s able to interact with my conservative grandmother in a very unique way.”

Like most other independent filmmakers, Kaabour has also had to keep his budget low. This meant working with entry level cameras rather than going for high-end options.

“In my opinion, any camera can be used to serve a story,” justifies Kaabour.

“We started with the Sony Z7 because it met the requirements of this shoot. We also have an adapter so we can use digital beta zoom lens on the Z7. This gave us more margins for close-ups and less depth than the usual Z7 lens or video cameras would generally,” explains Kaabour.

However, the filmmaker’s company Veritas films recently acquired the PMW-EX3, which he plans to use for the rest of the shoot.

“I believe it’s the best HDV camera I have used so far along with the Panasonic HVX200. It’s a great toy in that it has better lens, better image resolution and many options in the menu that allow us to get the image we want without relying heavily on post. We hope to continue the rest of the shoot for the documentary with this camera,” DoP Aboulrouss says.

Although shooting in Beirut was not difficult, Aboulrouss confesses that filming a very old person meant adopting different measures in terms of lighting.

“Beirut is both a beautiful and an ugly city that I am very attached to so I did not have any trouble shooting there. The bigger challenge was dealing with the subject,” explains Aboulrouss.“We had discussed Teta in great detail. As an old woman, any upfront lighting would not just have annoyed her, it would also have made her lose her spontaneity. Therefore, we agreed to keep the lighting minimal and as natural as possible. As a backup, we had a sungun (a spot that works well on battery and power) and a Kinoflo although we didn’t use this,” she explains.

Kaabour adds that the natural lighting approach worked in the team’s favour as they were less dependent on electricity in Beirut, where power outages are a common phenomenon.

“We were still able to shoot during an outage as long as we didn’t need artificial ‘fill’ lights. Such scenes we had to leave till later. Paradoxically, whenever power returned in Beirut, we had to deal with noise. Shops reopening … TV sets coming to life … noises erupted from every direction. I have long accepted that the noise of the Hamad neighborhood will be part of the film’s ambience; yet we still had to make sure to record samples of all the noises in the back of the dialogue, for our sound edit. And such noises were numerous,” explains Kaabour.

As the documentary has no specific deadline and is not looking to enter any film festivals soon, Kaabour has exploited the opportunity to experiment with the form.

“We have been experimenting with one idea that we are shooting in the first week of January and this is not common in documentaries. I’m going to interview my grandmother in her favourite chair in her room but we are going to pitch a green screen behind her. On that green screen, you will see the usual background, which is a curtain in her living room but depending on how the conversation goes, the green screen will help bring the world to her home. We’re going to start seeing Beirut in the 60s as a background, and then, her and my late grandfather in some flash back. Then we will flash forward on the screen to some of the things we will potentially film without her years later. So I’m going to be interviewing her about some things she imagines about the future and on the green screen, I hope to project some of that. This is possible if you have a film you can keep in production over a long period of time,” explains Kaabour.

Although the ending is presently open ended, the team is clear about the rest of the project. For instance, Kaabour believes he will have all the material by June 2001. “It is still open ended for now. I don’t know if we want to go for the usual poetic ending. However, I would like to revisit this film and her home after my grandmother passes away,” explains Kaabour.

The filmmaker anticipates that the team will have a total of 50 hours of footage at the end of the shoot. “50 hours is not that much. Being Osama had around 100,” says Kaabour.

The team is also presently scouting for an Arabic-speaking editor to edit the documentary.

“We need an Arabic-speaking editor who can weave all of this together into a piece that is not in chronological order. I’m too involved to be able to see it objectively or do justice to it,” Kaabour says.

Thus far, the filmmaker has put aside a small portion of his income from each of the projects he has worked on to do this documentary and estimates that he should be able to complete it with a total budget of US $150,000.

However, he also points out that documentary making will return to smaller budgets with the current economic situation. “In the last couple of years, everyone has been talking about millions and shoots that required huge crews and infrastructure. However, it might be a long time before the world went back to that mode again. Filmmaking as an art form and as a medium is at a pivotal change and people will have to go back to the old method of filmmaking. It will inspire people to go out and make it on their own. It doesn’t mean that everything will look low budget but people will go back to having that very intimate connection with the projects they are making as opposed to being separated from what they are doing by layers of producers and crews and multiple intermediaries, which is quite exciting because even if the final product may not look like a million dollars, the content is probably going to be very inspiring,” Kaabour adds.

The film’s soundtrack will be compiled from violin improvisations recorded on audiocassettes by Mahmoud Kaabour (Sr.) in his home between 1980-1988 and remastered in Montreal in 2004.

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