By Vijaya Cherian
Being Osama, an award-winning documentary on the lives of people called Osama in Canada post 9/11, will have its Middle East premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival 2005. In an exclusive interview with Digital Studio, Lebanese director, Mahmoud Kaabour, discusses the challenges of making his documentary.
I|~|mohdbig1.jpg|~|Mahmoud Kaabour. |~|He was brought up in Dubai; went to the Lebanese American University in Beirut for his higher education, graduated from Canada’s Concordia University in filmmaking and then did the Arab world proud by making a documentary that won many awards at film festivals in the US and Canada. This month, Lebanese director, Mahmoud Kaabour’s documentary, Being Osama, will have its Middle East premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival.
Being Osama is a 45-minute documentary on the lives of six very diverse Arabs, who have one thing in common — their name. By exploring the inner and emotional lives of six Arabs by the name of Osama, the film examines their experiences in North American society set against the backdrop of continuing suspicion between the West and the Islamic world, especially after 9/11.
“At one point, I was told to change my name or renounce my job; so I walked out on my job,” says Kaabour, who lived in Montreal, Canada back then. “The same day, I was watching CNN on television and they were talking about Osama bin Laden and suddenly, it occurred to me that it must be so much worse for people whose names were Osama. That’s how the idea of doing Being Osama came about,” he adds.
Impressed by Kaabour’s research and the need to alter public opinion, Canada’s most prestigious documentary TV show, the Passionate Eye, gave the filmmaker a whopping US $300,000 — one of the biggest budgets in the history of Canada to be given to a young filmmaker — to make the documentary. “This show aims at changing public opinion. They thought it would be a way to build bridges between the troubled Arab community and the surrounding bigger society that was looking askance at it. Also, they were aware of the racism that I, as a Muslim, was experiencing at that time in Canada and thought I would be able to make it in a powerful manner,” explains Kaabour.
The film, which was shot on a digibeta cam and edited on an Avid Xpress, took three years to make. The first year was spent just in research and identifying Arab people with the name Osama. After meeting with about 17 Osamas, the director honed in on six people. “These people are so different from each other that some of them even contradict each other’s points of view and that is the thrill of it. It reiterates the fact that just because someone is called Osama and is an Arab Muslim or an Arab Christian, it does not necessarily signify a monolithic experience,” explains Kaabour.
“People who live here in the Middle East know that. But in the US or Canada, people are so quick to jump to conclusions that I felt they needed to be educated about this. So I picked a spectrum of Osamas — the religious zealot, the angry rebellious anarchist activist, the musician with dreadlocks and green eyes, and an immigrant who has lived in Canada for 25 years and is more French Canadian than an Arab. It was a way of opening windows to different parts of the Arab community and shattering the stereotypes the Western media had created around us,” Kaabour says.
||**||II|~||~||~|The movie was completed in November 2004 and was aired for the first time in February 2005. “It had a huge festival circuit place,” says Kaabour. “In fact, I also did a special tour for high schools and colleges to discuss racism and the creation of stereotypes in the media and how the film cancels that. I went to 45 schools in total to show this documentary.”
The Canadian government, however, seemed miffed by the racism portrayed in the documentary. So, when the film got invited for a special screening at the Harvard film archive, a big art house in Boston, the Canadian government warned Kaabour that if he crossed the border to the US, his immigration application, which had been pending for four years, would be annulled. “Most people get their immigration papers processed in a year-and-a-half. I was in my fourth year and I hadn’t been back to the Middle East a single time because if you leave Canada while your file is pending, your file will be annulled. So I didn’t go. But they denied me this opportunity, especially when I had got a US visa for five years within a day.”
The Harvard screening did take place albeit without Kaabour. The filmmaker joined the audience by phone. “They even hosted two screenings of the film in their embassy in Canada. It is one instance where America was a lot nicer to me than Canada,” he explains.
The filmmaker agrees that America would have probably taken as much offence to the movie if it was made on its turf. “You could definitely transpose this concept within any country in the world, but it was more powerful because I knew Montreal. If I had to do a documentary, I needed to know my surroundings well and have easy access to the people there. It was easier to do it in Montreal because I knew the city and I knew its politics.
That’s why the film is so much more powerful,” Kaabour says.
One piece of equipment that helped Kaabour’s tiny crew get better images was a small wireless Sony LCD monitor. “This was one quirky piece of equipment that allowed us to do crazy things although it is not so popular in the Middle East. One of my Osamas was in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) demos in Canada, which were some of the most violent. During these shoots, the LCD monitor allowed me to break free from my cameraman. I let him shoot what was happening, while at the same time, I could see what he was filming and also be on the lookout for more interesting shots. This way, I could guarantee my cameraman more safety by letting him focus on what he was filming rather than expecting him to fish for other more interesting scenes while shooting. And if I saw anything interesting, I could just run to him, brief him in his ear and then run away again,” explains Kaabour.
With the wireless LCD monitor, the filmmaker says he could easily sit at a comfortable 15 to 20 metres away from the cameraman and view the action.
Likewise, like most documentary makers, Kaabour reiterates the importance of having a very small team. “It was a very intimate film so we just had a cameraman, a co-director and a sound guy. Most of our money was spent doing as much filming as possible. We spent a lot of time with the subjects, went to dine with them and even prayed with them. It was all about winning their trust,” he says.
||**||III|~||~||~|He also stresses the importance of using technology that is non-intrusive. For instance, Kaabour’s team initially used boom mikes to record sound. “My subjects, however, were constantly reminded that they were being taped and they were too conscious. So we left lapel mikes on them instead. The good thing about this is that there were so many times when the cameraman would set the camera down and go for a cup of coffee. And that is the time when we got some of the most candid comments from some of our subjects. Later, we could use that audio and put B-roll over it,” he explains.
For this film, content has obviously taken precedence over everything else. “I have not adopted any specific style for this documentary because the film unfolds in front of the camera,” says Kaabour. “There is a limit to which we can aesthetically manipulate the image. I’d tell the DOP what framing I wanted and what kind of camera movements I wanted but once you start rolling, you just let it be. I was more concerned with the content,” he reiterates.
Despite that, we do see a subtle style emerging in the film. In many cases, we see that music played on different instruments links one scene to another and in other instances, comments from one Osama are used to bring the next character in. There is also a deliberate attempt to make Montreal look like a city in the Middle East. We see a mini-Arabia in Canada… in the coffee shops, in how people dress and in the Arab neighbourhoods. There is a scene in the documentary, where Arabs are sitting in cafes and smoking their sheeshas and you’d think it was a typical scene in the Middle East. “We did want to show that despite everything that was happening politically, Arabs did find a home in Canada and there are very typical Arab areas in Montreal,” says Kaabour.
It is, however, in post production that the film pretty much came into being, says the filmmaker. “It took us 16 weeks to cut this film, which is seven weeks more than what it would normally take to cut a film of this length in Canada because it was really like fitting a puzzle. You have the lives of six guys on tape and we needed to see how one point in the life of one guy could be juxtaposed with another point in another guy’s s life.
To get this across, we used an editing style that is not much in practice here. We got all our footage — about 72 hours — transcribed and read it like a book. Then, we highlighted the interesting things people said and then, pulled them out of the video. This made it a lot easier for us to cut the film,” explains Kaabour.
The filmmaker and his team returned to Montreal a few months later to include an addendum to the documentary. It is this new version that will be premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival.
“For me, it is an honour to return to Dubai as this is where I grew up. For me, this film is my gift to Dubai. I went to school here — in Al Mawakeb school — and had the opportunity to mix with other Arabs from different countries. I picked up an Egyptian accent, understood Iraqi, learnt about the Palestinian problem and so on out here. This helped immensely when the Passionate Eye commissioned me to do this project. For one, I was not just an Arab Muslim but someone who had grown up in the region,” he says. “It may be easy to get a Lebanese director to speak about the Palestinian issue but my upbringing in Dubai made it feasible for me to speak about the Arab community in general,” he adds.
Kaabour hopes his film will dismiss preconceived notions about Dubai not being a conducive environment for filmmakers. “People argue that this emirate can’t nurture good filmmakers but I hope my film proves the contrary,” he adds.
Today, Mahmoud is in Dubai. After waiting for four years to be granted Canadian citizenship, Mahmoud gave up and returned home to the place where he was brought up. Here, he is pursuing other commercial work such as corporate videos and television commercials but on the side, he has plans to produce a second documentary. “I am going to give voice to the Sufis, who live in Europe, Berlin, Paris and London,” says Kaabour, who is still looking for funding for the project. “I intend to have them discuss with us how they seek to unite with God in what has been called the godless cities of Europe. I hope to do this on 35 mm film.”