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Iraqi filmmaking workshop, May 2013

COW Blogs : Iraqi filmmaking workshop, May 2013

May 10, 2013

My last day here, I wake with excitement and a bit of sadness, dreading saying goodbyes. I’m in the fancy Saddam guestroom, the rest of the guys are scattered across the campus and it’s the first chance I’ve had to run since I’ve arrived, Baghdad being obviously too dangerous. Looming above is Saddam’s summer palace, very imposing. I grab my camera and run up towards it, expecting to be stopped at any moment.

I’ve been running since high school and it’s a big part of every trip and job for me, a good way to get to know a city, as well as good for relieving stress, keeping me fit and helping me to sleep and overcome jetlag. I’ve missed it on this trip and even though my hotel in Baghdad had a pool and I swam a few days, it’s not the same. It was wonderful to actually run and sweat.

There’s a road that spirals around the huge mound that Saddam built and I run up, stopping whenever I see a good angle on the palace, sneakily taking a picture. I figure the palace is guarded and I’ll be thrown out and get into trouble if I get caught.

As I get closer, I see that the palace has been vandalized, (huge) windows are missing, steps broken, graffiti in different colors. Around the far side, which it turns out is the main entrance, is a guard with a machine gun, but he doesn’t see me as I slip into an opening with no door. I figure it’ll be a short time until I’m found, so I quietly sneak from room to room, taking as many pictures as I can. The ceilings are still gorgeous, carved plaster in delicate colors, like in the house I stayed last night or else beautiful carved wood, but everything else is trashed, marble and carved wood pulled off of walls, chandeliers shredded, this done by the birds, I think, all other damage by angry Iraqis. At every staircase there is a huge bundle of concertina wire, to prevent people from ascending, more likely to protect the visitor rather than the building.

Click on horizontal images to enlarge them

Around one side I look out over the ruins of ancient Babylon and the reconstruction that Saddam started, on top of the old city.

Old Babylon

New Babylon

A view of the palace from the archaeological digs below

I work my way around to the front and see the guard. Rather than chastise me, he offers me some of his tea, which I gratefully accept. He ignores my running shorts and sweaty t-shirt. Over the dual entranceways are bas-reliefs of Saddam in Babylonian and Social Realism scenarios. The palace visit brings up many emotions, reminders of the terror and iniquity of Saddam’s regime, I imagine people running through it and trashing it. It’s one of the few remaining visual signs of his presence. It’s haunting and mocks me that I’ll never know about how it really was here and what people lived through.

On my way down the hill, I run into two of my students, H and SH, who have come to take pictures, as well.

After a run through the old and new Babylonia, I make it back to my room in time for a quick pack and then off to breakfast and suddenly we’re running late to get me to the airport. The older students are left behind to prepare for the evening’s screening, and we say goodbye. Mohamed, the younger students and I pile into a van and we head off to find our passports. After being sent to a third building, success and we finally set off.

Some of the boys on the bus

On the drive down yesterday and in this ride, I make it a point to have individual meetings with each student to discuss the latest version of his script, reflecting what we’ve discussed during my time here. Though none is quite ready to film, I do feel that we’ve made progress on each one and that everybody has a new understanding of what makes a good story and has new ideas and confidence to move forward.

During the drive, I have a long talk with Mohamed, where he tells me about being kidnapped by Al Qaeda in 2004 while shooting a scene on the street in Baghdad. He and his crew escaped and were then captured and imprisoned by the US military and held in prison for six days on suspicion of filming insurgent attacks.

The Baghdad airport has very intense security and this time it's not empty, but quite busy. My bags were x-rayed at least 7 times, hand inspected and dog-sniffed. Passengers are left off several miles from the airport (transported from there in special government taxis) and we said goodbye at the side of the road. Most of us were crying and it was pretty tough to get in the cab. All I could say was Ashoufak October.

Wrapping up
I enjoyed my visit to Iraq very much. I have always found friendship with Arabs to be special: direct, simple and heartfelt, and this trip was no different. Everybody showed me the utmost in hospitality, warmth, and respect. After the terrible way this past war and its aftermath was handled, I found it amazing and encouraging that every person could treat me as affectionately as they did. After this trip, I have no doubt that everyone is happy that Saddam is gone and that his regime was dreadful for the overwhelming majority of Iraqi’s and that if there is any gratitude towards the US and allies, it’s that we removed him.

I’m grateful that I was able to see Iraq for myself and that I was able to do a little bit to help Iraqis tell their stories to the rest of us. I can’t imagine growing up as my students did, through dictatorship, sanctions and war and I am heartened that they are as healthy as they are. I look forward to staying in contact with them and helping them find their voices as they rebuild their country and their society.

For myself, I’m so glad I was given the opportunity to share what I’ve learned about the work I love. I have come away rededicated to my mission of creating a world of peace by speaking my truth and empowering others to speak theirs. Even better, I made new friends and I was able to show them an American in a non-military role and to share our values. Ashoufak October!

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 6, 2013 at 2:31:26 amComments (2) Babylon, Saddam's summer palace

May 9, 2013

As soon as we arrived at the center this morning, a small crew of us incorporated Mohamed’s suggestions for the edit of the film and while they didn’t change the feel of the film, the final film is better for it. You can watch Bazoune here:

The Babylon Festival of International Cultures and Arts is a small festival based in Hillah, the largest town in the district that encompasses ancient Babylon. It’s a low-key affair that includes archaeology, poetry, visual arts and cross-cultural panels aimed at educating and entertaining the local population. This year, Mohamed is showing two of his feature-length films, one tonight and the other tomorrow night. Tonight’s film is called “In My Mother’s Arms.” It’s his most recent film, a documentary about the efforts of a man and his family to house and educate homeless orphans. He has brought my entire class and most of the IIFC’s staff for a working “mini-vacation.” The screening is outdoors, alongside a branch of the Euphrates and Mohamed and company will set up a large screen, a hi-def projector and a high-end sound system. It turns out that he shows his films outdoors all over the country and this is the equipment that he uses and he’s trained his staff to set up quickly (it still takes 90 minutes or so.)

We set out shortly after noon in a caravan of three vehicles. After a discussion, it was decided the best place for me was in the 12 passenger van that carried most of my students, and as usual, I was admonished not to speak at checkpoints. The other vehicles were a stakebed truck with the projection gear and Salam’s personal sedan. The trip to Babylon was mainly uneventful, once we left the center of Baghdad, the neighborhoods started looking very different, we could go a mile or so without seeing war damage and there was a minimal military presence.

Outside the city, it was a your basic middle eastern desert and scrub, hot, humid, the checkpoints were further apart, a few were quite large and well-manned, but for the most part, they were lonely and scruffy. At one point we stopped for a half hour, waiting for the truck to catch up following an apparently minor breakdown.

By late afternoon we were nearly there and approaching Babylon, we passed a large stone tablet, 15-20 feet tall, the backside of which had a carved bas-relief of Saddam Hussein in Sumerian style which had been shot up after the fall of his regime. I was unable to get a photo of it, as we were flying by. The landscape, or at least the flora, had changed, with miles of date palm groves on both sides of the highway. Soon, we left the road, passed (abandoned) watchtowers and bunkers and entered a private area, gated and guarded. This was the grounds of the ancient ruins of Babylon and also a major vacation spot of Saddam’s. What we saw might as well have been another planet. We entered a campus that Saddam had built designed for entertaining and hosting a fair number of people and probably as a conference center. The grounds were beautiful, easily the greenest place I’d seen. There were a number of buildings on the grounds, all designed with Babylonian elements, graceful columns with carved palm tops, but probably the most beautiful part was the groomed river (a branch of the Euphrates) running alongside. After the desert it practically felt like the Thames running through Oxford town. The most dramatic feature of the campus, however, was the massive temple built on top of a large hill, overseeing everything. The hill was imposing, all the more so as the surrounding area is totally flat and the temple was one of Saddam’s palaces, the first I’d seen and entirely over the top. I was itching to get up to it and see it, but that was not to be…yet.

The summer palace

We sat in the garden and ate for the first time all day. As hungry as I was and as tasty as the food was, life would have been perfect if I could have ordered a beer after the long, hot dusty drive. Though I saw liquor stores in Baghdad (owned by Christians, I’m told) and alcohol is available in certain hotels (it was in mine in Baghdad, in the bar but not in the restaurant) there is no alcohol in public. We all snapped pictures of each other in the garden while waiting for our large order to be prepared and my students were thrilled to be here. Clearly, they had never dreamed to visit the site and they were intoxicated by the cool greenness.

After eating, off we went to the town of Hillah, the government center of the district of Babylon to set up for the screening. Hillah was a center of the uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and mass graves with thousands of bodies have been found here. That uprising and the Hillah events is the subject of Mohamed’s film in progress and tonight we met one of his main characters, a photographer and participant. There was a sense of urgency as we were behind schedule and there was a lot of setup ahead of us. We pulled alongside the Euphrates (it’s gentle and narrow here, kids were swimming in the sunset light) and started setting up in the street. A few of the students were part of the setup team, while the rest of us encouraged them and wandered about. For the first time on the trip, I was able to walk around through the neighboring streets as I would just about anywhere else. Mohamed allowed me to go and take pictures (although he did send a student just to make sure I wasn’t misunderstood.) I snapped photos as I would anywhere, unafraid of police, just careful as usual to not annoy, exploit or bother people. Everyone was friendly and though I didn’t stay away long, it was a nice change.

Not surprisingly, it took longer to set up than expected and we got going late. Mohamed generously decided to show Bazoune and to introduce me and to show my short film about Esmeralda. Indeed, I was given a plaque and certificate by the festival. Mohamed’s film went over very well, although the youngsters who were many and boisterous at the beginning were all gone by the time the film finished.

It was very late after the Q&A and pulling down the inflatable screen and sound and projection gear, but that did not prevent us from eating again in the garden. It was after 1 am when I was shown to my room, in one of the guesthouses off the garden. The room was meant to be fancy, but was actually pretty tacky.

After I showered and was in bed, I was wakened by a man pounding on my door and yelling at me. Although I knew he wanted my passport, I was loathe to give it to him and refused. He went off, returned with another fellow who spoke no English but this guy knew the word passport and I gave him a photocopy, which I knew was unlikely to satisfy anyone. The third banging was S who explained what I already knew, so this time I gave up the passport. I was uncomfortable doing so until someone I knew was there as a witness. I’m to fly out in the early afternoon and the last thing I wanted was to be without a passport. Finally, sleep.

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 6, 2013 at 1:47:49 am Babylon

May 8, 2013

I probably have less to write about today than any day so far. We spent the day editing and editing is one of those things that’s more interesting in the doing than it is in the describing. The worst thing was continued power outages, plus people coming and going, in preparation for the trip we’re to take tomorrow. There were plenty of other distractions, with class members being pulled away to work on pickups for Mohamed’s film or to prepare for tomorrow: the entire class and center will be traveling two hours out of Baghdad to take part in the Babylon Festival of International Cultures and Arts. I’m excited to get out of Baghdad and see a bit more of the country.

At the end of an exhausting day, when we felt we’d taken the Bazoune film as far as we could and that it was near perfect, we showed it to Mohamed, who hadn’t seen a bit of it and he had many notes. Unfortunately, most of them involved coverage that we didn’t have because of the bazoune’s stubbornness. We called it a night, figuring to make the changes we could in the morning, before setting out to Babylon.

The bazoune is enjoying what he sees when we show him the film

I'm still jetlagged and not sleeping that well and by late afternoon I'm beat

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 6, 2013 at 1:22:31 am Editing

May 7, 2013

I probably have looked forward to this morning more than anything else on this trip. From the start, HDI had asked Mohamed if any of the students traveling to Los Angeles could be women and he said that wasn’t possible. Indeed, the only female who entered the center while I was there was the producer of one of the feature films the center had produced, the middle-aged Iraqi-German wife of the film’s director. Rob, the public affairs officer from the embassy who spearheaded my visit and the students’ trip to LA came up with the a plan for me to visit the Fine Arts Institute for Girls, to show a film of mine, to watch a few films of theirs and to give a master class on filmmaking. The film I showed is a four minute profile of Esmeralda Cerezo, a parent volunteer at a public elementary school that is part of an ambitious documentary project
I managed to subtitle it in Arabic during my evenings at the hotel
English version here
Arabic version here

I was picked up this morning at my hotel by an Iraqi employee of the US embassy who took me to the Institute via taxi. He was extremely cautious, seating me behind the driver, because there was a big sticker on that window. We were heading into and through the Green Zone and the checkpoints proved to be tougher than the ones I’d been going through in the less secure Red Zone. It seems we were pulled over at every checkpoint and questioned. These checkpoints slow traffic to a crawl and make it impossible to determine how long it will take to get anywhere in town.

We arrived at the Institute to find the streets around it torn up and a new power system being installed. This was the only active infrastructure project I saw while in town. Most of the projects seem to have been stopped mid-shovel, who knows what it will take to get them going again.

It was scorching hot when we arrived at the Institute and close to a hundred students (high school age) were out in the courtyard painting, sculpting and drawing. There was a real buzz of excitement as they were all engaged and happily working away.

The room we screened in was dark and hot and though there was a big air-conditioning unit, it wasn’t working. The room was full, people were standing at the back and side and the class went well. Everybody liked my film and its message of support for education and for women. They showed three of their films, the one I enjoyed the most was an animated fairy tale that I could tell they loved making. The students (and the teachers) were lively in our discussion. One girl named Sarah had excellent English and when I asked where she learned, she answered entirely from watching movies!

On the way back to the center, we gave a ride to a female staff member at the embassy who translated my film and it was most illuminating to talk with her. She’s single, living with her family, far from her job at the embassy. She’s representative of many of the women of her generation: so many men her age were killed in the war with Iran, the result being that there are an inordinate number of unwed women. On the way to the institute we were pulled over at every checkpoint, on the way back, none. She said that the soldiers very rarely pull over a car with women, it makes them nervous. According to her, a car with four men will be pulled over every time, with three sometimes, and with a driver and just one passenger, rarely.

While I was gone in the morning with the girls, the class had watched the footage from yesterday’s shoot and picked the shots they wanted to use and we started editing. We got off to a slow start, but there should be time enough to finish before the end of the workshop. One of the things I want them to learn is how important the little things are in editing and how important it is to give yourself enough time to leave the cut and return to it, and how much difference the fine tuning at the end makes.

We started editing, but it was a frustrating afternoon, as the power kept cutting out even more than usual. This is a daily part of life in Baghdad, and we’d had it every day, but it wasn’t until editing started that it really became a problem. To me, it was quite annoying, but to them, it was just the way it is and they had Dalai Lama grade patience around it.

Mohamed has been picking up shots for his latest feature, The Sands Of Babylon, a mix of archival, documentary and fictional footage about the failed Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the first major work into this terrible episode. It’s an important film and in my opinion will be very helpful for the Iraqis to deal with their past and move forward beyond their current disagreements. We stayed late tonight to watch a roughcut of the film and to give our notes. Sadly, the power kept cutting out and we started late and by the time we started, mosquitos had made themselves very comfortable in the room we were screening in. They only attacked my hands for some reason, but it was brutal. For the first time, I started reconsidering my love of the house.

When I returned to my room, I was again confronted with something that has been perplexing me every evening. The maids who make up the room move my stuff around every day, to new locations. I’m used to a minimal amount of moving of objects that are obviously in use, like books, perhaps a shirt of pants draped over a chair. These ladies (one morning I came in and there were several women working in the room) seem to rearrange the room entirely. I’ll put my shoes under the desk I’ve been using, they’ll be by the door. I leave them by the door, they’ll be under the foot of the bed. The same with my toiletry stuff. It’s funny and I wonder if it’s a different person each day with her own idea or if it’s the same person playing with me…

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 6, 2013 at 1:16:08 am Institute for Fine Arts Girls

May 6, 2013

The day we’ve been waiting for: shoot day. The film is called Bazoune, which means female cat and troublemaker, maybe because she’s in heat? I guess for English, it’s closer to say kitten. Anyway, that’s what they call Hassan, the bazoune. Yesterday, when we’d been lining up shots, we used another local boy as a stand-in and he’d been very happy to help. He was sweet and a delight to work with. The real-life bazoune was anything but that. It was a great lesson for the students and a reminder for me; when you want a devil in your film, don’t hire a devil, hire an actor to play a devil. The bazoune was a monster from the start, quitting after we’d filmed a few scenes. Everybody had a shot at trying to get him back, but it took a while.

The bazoune

L shooting, A3 protecting the lens from flare

Art direction for a key plot point

In the middle of this, a delegation from the US Embassy showed up (they support the IIFC in this and in other projects.) What a huge difference from the way I’ve been traveling! First of all, three vehicles showed up and security guards came out and scoped out the center and set up positions while Rob Mearkle, public affairs officer and Brian Shott, cultural affairs officer stayed in the car. Once it was deemed safe, Rob and Brian entered. Of course, as US officials, should anything happen to them, there would be serious repercussions, but I felt sorry for them, unable to get out and taste the city as I have.

We met for a bit and they were happy with what they were seeing and I went back to overseeing the shoot. By the end of the day, we managed to get what we needed, but just barely. Luckily the film is a comedy and we weren’t going for nuance of performance, but we ended up with the bare minimum of coverage due to the bazoune’s feistiness. Let’s see how it goes together when we start to edit tomorrow.

Chasing the bazoune in an action scene

Shooting the final scene by the Tigris. The older fellow on the right is the bazoune's father

Click on any horizontal picture to enlarge it

A4 and his scooter, O checking audio

I feel lucky that I get to go out for dinner two nights in a row! Tonight Y and A2 took me to get falafel. We parked and walked by a large Chaldean church that had been bombed years ago resulting in a large number of casualties. I was told not to photograph it, although they let me photograph an apartment building nearby that had also been bombed and abandoned. I was more interested in the huge tangle of improvised wires strung to supply electricity than in the blackened building.

Sharing resources or theft of services?

The falafel was good, blonder and milder than what I’m used to. Y told me this place is very popular with journalists as it’s cheap. He said he and his friends call falafel the meat of artists. Afterwards, we went to a café a stone’s throw away where writers, directors, actors and musicians congregate and I was introduced around over little glasses of very sweet, very strong tea. Y claimed that he didn’t come often, because of all the gossip, but everybody did seem to know him…

I saw we were on a major market street (called Kerada) and asked if we could take a stroll and this was probably the most free and normal I felt in Baghdad. The shops and vendors went on forever and we walked a long distance, past guys selling and grilling mazgouf. It turns out it’s a strange looking carp, with very thick “shoulders” kept alive in tanks and killed with a single whack to the forehead. It is slit along the spine and placed in metal grilling frame, really quite beautiful to see a few of them grilled over charcoal.

Kerada had everything: hardware stores, clothing stores, restaurants, street vendors selling fruit, pastries, charms, books, shoes, hair products, and it seems as if everyone was out in the night. Certainly women were out, the first time I had seen significant numbers, a few with hijabs covering their faces but most with just scarves, some wearing jeans. I was able to buy a number of unusual evil eye trinkets for gifts but the real treat was being out among people. It was the closest to the open city I wished for Allison's sister and her husband, whom I visited a few nights earlier, though they might have found the bustle a bit rough going.

A shop window on Kerada

Click on a photo to enlarge it

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 6, 2013 at 1:02:54 am Shoot day

May 5, 2013

We spent today preparing for the shoot. It's crucial that A, the writer and director of the film, be thoroughly prepared, because he will be working with a child tomorrow, a very difficult child, by all accounts. I had him go through every scene, in the location it would be shot, with the camera and his cameramen (we split the camerawork between three of the students) so he could come up with storyboards and be prepared lest Hassan give him a hard time.

I want to take a moment now to talk about the building the IIFC occupies. I LOVE it, more day by day and have started telling people that I would live in Baghdad if I could own a building like it. It turns out the building has quite a history. It was built in 1920 by Sassoon Eskell, by all accounts an amazing man, an Iraqi Jew who was the first minister of finance of the Iraqi republic.

This image of Eskell is stenciled on a trunk in the garden of his house

It is built around an inner courtyard and every room has very high ceilings to counter the brutal heat of the Iraqi summers. The second floor walkway is enclosed by wooden walls and windows that look onto the inner courtyard. It seems to me that every day I discover a different room that I hadn’t seen before. The building played an important role during the years of the vibrant film industry pre-1991 Gulf War (there were a dozen movie theaters within walking distance, all now abandoned) H, one of the students, showed me a film that was shot there in the early 1980s. The building is owned by the government, which has granted it to the IIFC to use. It’s easy to imagine all the people who have lived and worked here over the past 90 years. Did I mention that it’s built right on the Tigris and has a great view? The outer courtyard has tall trees that protect the terrace from the sun. The upper roof has views across the rooftops of Al-Rashid, the former Jewish district and it feels like you’re looking into the past.

Garden courtyard

Rooftop views of Al-Rashid

Another part of the preparation for the shoot has been teaching the students how to use a camera that Sony lent me for this trip, their new PMW-160 XDCAM. I had asked Sony for a PMW-200, which has ½” chips and is essentially a new version of the PMW-EX1, which I have used very happily for the past five years (a practical eternity in this era of new cameras and new HD formats released nearly weekly) the difference being that the 200 records at 50 mbs, the current benchmark for broadcast rather than the 35 mbs of the earlier camera. Sony couldn’t supply the 200, but offered the newer 160, which has 1/3” chips. They also included the .8 wide angle adapter. Though disappointed to not get the 200, I decided to put the new camera through its paces and see what it could do. I spent a couple hours with it in Los Angeles, to make sure that I understood its menus and settings and to input my picture profiles that I developed for the EX1 over the years with LA-based Dan Zimbaldi, a DIT and refined with Scott B, producer and cameraman (the profiles are lower gamma, slightly desaturated, and protect highlights, crucial for doc work.) I found my profiles looked very similar in the 160 and I didn't feel the need to adjust them at all.

The PMW-160 with wide angle adapter, matte box and eyebrow

The students took to the camera very quickly. The IIFC owns a Sony F3 with a set of Zeiss prime lenses, which they will use on the short films they are making this summer, but Mohamed was using it for pickup shots for his latest feature throughout the week. That was fortunate, as I can’t imagine that we would have been able to pull off the film with little Hassan what with changing lenses and needing to rehearse and set focus marks with the much narrower depth of field of the F3. The 160 was a MUCH better fit for the students’ film, being far superior to hand-hold (not more than 10% of the shots ended up being on tripod) and we managed to use the long end of the lens quiet effectively (the 160 has a 20x zoom rather than the 14x lens of the EX1, EX3 and 200.) Though we tested the wide angle adapter and thought it was a lovely package with a nice mattebox with one filter slot and an eyebrow, for this film, we found the lens by itself to be wide enough.

When I went to visit my friend Allison's sister two evenings earlier, I used the 160 to tape her. It was basically just like shooting on my EX1, but I did notice that the 160 needed a bit more light, likely because the chips are smaller. We filmed in the garden as the dusk was fading and the lighting in the house was dim. I had checked out the gain back in Los Angeles and found it to be very smooth and felt comfortable switching to 9dB, which was cleaner than the 9db on my five year-old EX1. The color on the new camera was superb. I think it’s a fine camera, but it would be a difficult decision to choose it over the nearly similarly priced PMW-200. The images are comparable, so it’s about do you want a longer lens (the 160 has a 20x zoom, the 200 a 14x) or do you want larger sensors (the 200 sports 1/2” to the 160’s 1/3”).

I’m really starting to feel close to these guys and even though we’re just halfway through the course, I’m beginning to dread leaving and saying goodbye. Every night, as we part, I say ashoufak bache, see you tomorrow, and I’m going to feel terrible on the last day, not being able to say it.

That evening, Atia and Y, a student who will be coming to Los Angeles and whom I’ve become especially close to, take me out for bacha, (not bache, which means tomorrow) which I’ve been asking to eat since the first night when I saw it being made. A famous Iraqi dish, it is beef stomach and head that has been cooked for hours, maybe days and eaten in the morning, as well as at night. There is a similar dish from the north of Greece that’s a winter breakfast dish called patsas, normally made only with tripe and when I told Y about it, he mused that the name might be the same, as with several other foods that share names in Greek and Arabic, fassoulia (beans), bamia, (okra) and karpooz (melon). Bacha, at least as served in this restaurant also has flatbread in it, soft and soaked in the broth, so it’s almost like noodles. Heavy stuff, but I’m glad I got to taste it. David Prettyman, who is running this program for HDI and arrived two days ago, had said he wanted to come with us, but then thought better of it. When I saw him back at the hotel and showed him pictures of the bacha, he said he had no regrets that he had missed it.

Bacha At least some of the white peeking out is bread, the rest not. Click to enlarge any image

The chef preparing a big batch of bacha

I try to get out as much as possible, to see whatever I can of the city. The only opportunities are at night, after teaching, for dinner and not every night. When I get in cabs now, if the cab driver asks about me and my bags, whoever is with me, Y, S, or B, says I am Yunani, Greek, which suits me just fine.

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 5, 2013 at 7:54:55 pm Sassoon Eskell, bacha

May 4, 2013

I woke this morning to a very vivid dream of my father laying in the street covered with blood, which prompted a call to him. It turns out that my mother, who suffered a severe stroke six months ago, had a seizure the day before and was in the hospital. I looked into rerouting my return trip to visit them directly in Florida on my way home to Los Angeles.

Class went quite well today, as it always seems to. We spent most of the day discussing the film that we would be making as a class. I had asked everyone to come up with an idea, and then we would discuss the ideas and pick one. The requirements are that it would be shot in and around the center and that we would not have to search far and wide for actors, we would either pull from the class or from their friends. Another condition is that the story is to be told visually, without dialogue. The film is not to be silent, occasional words or shouts could be used, but no talking or plot delivered through dialogue. Some of the ideas presented were: a psychological portrait of a painter, a wartime drama where soldiers inform parents of their son’s death, only to have the son return years later, two people living in similar apartments in the same building are on each other’s nerves, yet turn out to be the same person, a horror story, and friends trying to trick another friend. The favorite was a film based on a neighborhood kid who is always hanging around the center and is always bothering the students and causing trouble. The writer, A, was chosen to direct and started work on it.

In the afternoon, I went over lighting again with them. I find that long sessions of talking and theory are draining and it’s always good to get students excited again by showing them a few tricks, using sexier technical filmmaking and gear as a treat after the more difficult brainstorming and writing. These students ranging in age from 17 to 28 with a single 35 year-old outlier are mostly younger and have trouble sitting for long periods, as do younger boys throughout the world. Although the film we will shoot will mostly be shot with available light, I’m hoping this session will help them make better choices.

This year, Orthodox Easter is observed tomorrow, much later than Catholic and Protestant Easter. Though I no longer consider myself a practicing Christian, I was raised Greek Orthodox and I decided to go to services tonight (they are generally held at midnight and the congregants break the lenten fast with a meal afterwards) to pray for my mother, knowing how important holy week is for her and that were she not in the hospital, she would be at services. I told Mohamed I wanted to go, and though he was concerned about my safety, he found a church and his brother Atia dropped me and B, one of the young fellows from the center, at the small Greek Orthodox church a distance from the center. Due to security reasons, services started at 5:30 and ended at 8 pm and we arrived about 7, after class. There were a dozen soldiers and 3 or 4 vehicles and the entire block had cement barriers and barbed wire protecting the little church. It was first time I heard the liturgy in Arabic, and although it was a Greek Orthodox church, I didn’t find anyone who spoke Greek. I’m sure it was the first time Baqer ever set foot in a church and the experience was unusual for me, as well. While there was a healthy congregation, it wasn’t packed as Easter services normally are and for me, it was odd that it wasn’t at midnight. I didn’t stick around for the meal, as I had B with me and didn’t want to worry Mohamed, but I was grateful for the opportunity to attend the service and say a few prayers.

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 5, 2013 at 7:43:49 pm Orthodox Easter in Baghdad

May 3, 2013

Today was a good day, the best so far. It’s Friday, the holy day and we were going to make it a day off, or at most a half day of class, but Mohamed and the students feel that my time here is so precious that we had nearly a full day. We got off to a slow start, the staff person who opens the IIFC didn’t show up (as the center is usually closed on Friday), so we were waiting to get in and I actually started class down in the courtyard garden, which worked out ok.

The garden courtyard, the terrace is above, to the left

My main translator is a wonderful man named S, who at 35 is the oldest in the class. He is the most experienced filmmaker, which is fortunate, as he understands what I’m saying for the most part. Today I decided to show them an excellent film that brings together a lot of what we’ve been discussing, a Columbia University thesis film called Pop Foul by Moon Molson
The film is quite complex and I needed to give them a lot of background, some rules about baseball, African-American family dynamics and also explain some information that is given in dialogue. The film is quite long for a short, 17 minutes and there are a lot of events in it, but the plot and story are driven by character, nothing happens in it arbitrarily, which unfortunately, is the situation with most of my students’ scripts. It was an excellent session, everybody understood the film, everybody was engaged and excited and the discussion was great. They got a bit hung up in the most critical scene, which was quite complicated and it was a great opportunity to discuss beats with them; this scene had 8 distinct beats. The film also had a clear example of subtext that they were able to see.

We also discussed their films, as they are progressing and we selected four ideas to develop for the film we will start shooting in two days. The students will come back tomorrow with script and scene outlines and then we’ll decide which one to go with. It will be good to get more hands-on. As much as they’ve needed the theory and background info, it’s always better to learn while doing.

We ate together today, as we do every day, and it’s great fun, although by the time we get to it, I’m always starving. Three tables are set up outside and we all stand and eat. Food is prepared in the kitchen; until today it’s been a bean dish, a potato dish, fresh-cut and diced tomatoes and cucumbers, a plate of raw onions and bread, no cutlery, although there are a few spoons hanging around. We eat standing up and it’s FAST, maybe 10 minutes, 15 max. Today was special, the guy who cooks is the same one who didn’t show up, so in addition to the pre-cooked basics, someone went out and brought back biryani, chicken and a very tasty cooked eggplant and tomato dish called tepsi. It’s great to eat together as I get to watch them more relaxed and I’m not speaking, I can see them as they are, not just as my students. The food is always good, as well.

Dining al fresco. Mohamed is the nearest person on the right

Typical lunch

After lunch we discussed lighting in a way they’d never imagined before (I’m expecting this will play out in the upcoming filming) and I ended class early.

What happened next was the best experience I’ve had outside class so far. Sadly, I will need to drop most of the details of this moving and illuminating evening in order to protect the Iraqis who made such a big impression on me. Still, I feel the need to report it because of what I learned about Iraqis tonight.

An old friend of mine, Allison (not her real name,) was raised by her mom and grandparents in the UK, her father was Iraqi, whom she’d only met briefly two times (he was studying when he met her mother and then returned to Iraq, where he already had started a family). Allison’s mother died four years ago and she thought, well, that’s it, I’m alone, but two hours later, one of her sisters called from Iraq, telling her she would always have a family. They’ve never met although they telephone, skype and email each other. I videoed Allison in her home in California a month ago, made a DVD and delivered it today, when I had the great opportunity to visit her sister, the only sibling in Baghdad (the family is from another city in Iraq.) I showed the sister the DVD and filmed a similar “video postcard” of her to give to Allison.

First I had to get to her house. Mohammed is very cautious about my security and comings and goings. When I’m in a cab (never alone) I’m not to speak, I just hide behind my beard and keep my head down (the guys say that with the beard, I can be taken for an Iraqi Christian, as long as I don’t speak.) My student and translator S (who is half Kurd, his mom is from the north) took me by cab to a neighborhood on the other side of town where Allison’s sister lives. It had been an upscale neighborhood, but now is considered a bit dangerous. We were to meet at a traffic circle at the edge of the neighborhood. S called them as we were approaching, we got out of the cab and he was nervous because her husband was not there to meet us in his SUV. S had me walk under an overhang of a building that had sustained some damage and was not currently used. It’s hard (impossible?) for me to know the actual level of threat at any point (which I carefully respect): is there really a threat or do my hosts view me as so precious that they are hyper-careful? I figure it is closer to the latter, but I don’t know that I want to find out the truth. After three minutes, they showed up, I got in and promised to call Mohamed an hour before I wanted to return to the hotel. It was already late afternoon and it was understood that daylight is better than nighttime for being out.

We drove through broken streets to the house they were living in (it belonged to a relative and she said they were taking care of the garden.) This was a traditional neighborhood, smaller streets and the houses were on small lots, the outer walls simple and no protection against bombs, no blast shields, unlike every other place we’d visited in the center of town.

The visit was so sweet and moving, I doubt I will ever forget it. Needless to say, I was expecting that Allison’s sister would have prepared a huge meal, way beyond what was needed or what could be eaten, but before we ate, I asked that we do some filming outside in the garden as the light was already waning.

The garden was well-tended and the greenest place I’d seen in Baghdad. After showing me around and speaking to Allison through the video camera, I asked her to sit and tell Allison some memories about their father. It was one of the most moving “interviews” I’ve filmed. Her love for her sister she’s never met, her happiness at being able to speak directly to her and her yearning to meet her someday were so touching. As she finished and I went to turn off the camera, her tears were flowing.

We returned inside to the table where the centerpiece was a mazgouf, a freshwater fish from the Tigris that is covered with a tomato and vegetable sauce that when cooked seals the fish flesh so the fish is moister and more succulent than any I’ve ever eaten. It’s a famous Iraqi dish and justifiably so. There were also several other time-intensive dishes, different types of stuffed vegetables, favas, and special yogurt from the north that friends bring specially for them. The yogurt was unlike any I’d ever tasted, bitter and smoky and powerful. There was so much food that the three of us could barely make a dent in it, and of course I was constantly pushed to eat more. I was grateful that there were so many dishes that at the outset I could state I would taste only a little from each so that I could sample them all. I was also lucky in that I am nearly the husband’s age and a few years older than her, and was therefore not intimidated and could say no to the third and fourth proffering of a dish. Had I been younger, I couldn’t have pulled this off.

All this for me, the special guest. The mazgouf is on the left.

During dinner, I felt I got a small sense of what life has been like for Iraqis. They have four grown children who live in their home city but they themselves live in more dangerous Baghdad for their work. I asked when the best time in Iraq was and he quickly said the years from 1970-1980, before the war with Iran. There was not an atom of complaint in their conversation, but it was obvious how difficult life has been. The fact that they invited me into their humble house (they told me their family home was much more substantial) was a testament to their love for Allison and their desire to connect with her. He was every bit as generous and loving as his wife and their relationship and treatment of each other was the sweetest thing I’ve seen. They so clearly adore each other and said such nice genuine things about the other. He cleaned up after dinner, which was a surprise to me. He said that when he was younger, he was a typical Iraqi man, commanding the home and leaving the work to his wife, but as he’s grown older he’s learned a lot and has changed.

After dinner, they watched the video of Allison with such delight that every bit of work that went into driving to her home, filming for an afternoon, editing, convincing Mohamed to allow me to visit them and more was worth it. They drove me back to the hotel and we passed through checkpoint after checkpoint in heavy evening traffic and I really felt the endless pressure of living in a city and country that is still at war, this time with itself. I told them that I wished they could have a city without fear, one where you could just walk, drive and do what you like without making every decision based on danger and possible death. It was heartbreaking to drive through this rough city with this gentle older couple who should be having a quiet, calm life.

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 5, 2013 at 7:37:14 pm Baghdad, home visit

May 2, 2013

A rough, typical, first night trying to sleep with a 10-hour timezone difference. I find it’s crucial to stay up until at least 10pm, so after the inevitable waking after a few hours of sleep, I’ve made it to middle of the night and don’t have to lie in bed all night long. It was quite a slog making it through today after my nearly sleepless night. The worst is the mid-afternoon when it’s 6am back in Los Angeles. I managed to make it through the day, but not without dozing off several times. When the students caught me, I said it was my chair’s fault and now it’s called the sleeping chair.

NOTE: I have waited until returning to the US to post this blog for security reasons, at Mohamed's recommendation. He also request that I not identify the students by name, only with their first initial.

Most of the students. A few were missing the first day when I took these shots so I could learn their names

Today was a hard day, as we needed to dig deep into the scripts that the students will be making into short films this summer. Mohamed had requested that this be where I spend the most time and it was rough sledding. I had read the scripts and none of them were remotely ready to start filming. This is a very delicate part of the process. The students are novice writers and they haven’t had guidance. It’s a tough balancing act stripping their ideas down to the most basic elements and then building them back up. Finding the best parts and concentrating on that is a good start, but it’s very hard to keep their confidence and excitement up while pointing out what doesn’t work, either individually, or in this case, in front of their peers. I let the other students have the first crack at comments, this way the writer/director gets to hear what’s not working from friends and colleagues and then I can come in with suggestions. At the same time, I don’t want them just to do what I recommend, I want to keep them on their own path, yet at the same time address the real problems. None of them have ever considered story the way we do in the industry in Hollywood, so there’s a tremendous amount of new ideas I have to present to them in a short time. It’s exhausting, especially when everything needs to be translated into Arabic. I did have a year of Arabic as an undergrad and while I can’t say that I’m following their responses, I can tell when I’m being translated correctly and when everybody is following. As tiring as this part of the workshop is, it’s also very satisfying when everybody’s engaged in the discussion and it’s obvious that they’re thinking about story, structure, character and motivation in a whole new way. At the same time, the last thing I’m trying to do is to turn their stories into little Hollywood productions. What I’m hoping to do is to give them enough grounding in story conventions that they can maximize the impact of the stories they’re trying to tell. I’ve found that the best way to put new ideas into practice and for the students to own those ideas is to create a film together during the workshop. Let’s see what sticks tomorrow. We’ve made it through the individual films and tomorrow we’ll see what the students who aren’t going to the states will come up with for the film we’ll be making together this week.

How can I describe the city, which I’ve barely seen? The most striking element is the huge presence of national police on the streets. There are checkpoints sometimes every hundred yards. I wish I could show images of a checkpoint, but it’s forbidden and dangerous to photograph any military presence. As you pass down the streets there’s vehicle after vehicle turned sideways, narrowing wider streets down to one lane. These vehicles are mostly aging Hummers and aging APCs (armored personnel carriers) painted medium blue and white if they are National Police vehicles, matching the blue camouflage uniforms of the police.

Armored vehicles everywhere. One of the few I was able to photograph

If the checkpoint is manned by the military, the vehicles and uniforms are sand-colored. Sometimes there are heavy concrete barriers, sometimes portable metal spikes, sometimes 10 foot tall blast shields. Most checkpoints consist of slowing down and a nod, but sometimes bags are checked. It slows traffic down to an absolute crawl. It’s frustrating to try to grab shots out the window as the car is moving and except for one road, most are in very bad shape, potholes and broken pavement. I’ll keep trying to refine my technique and get some images that show Baghdad as I’m seeing it and feeling it, but I’m not optimistic. Every time I lift my camera, I’m told, “Not here.”

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 5, 2013 at 3:44:44 pm Day 2

May 1, 2013

After a long layover in Istanbul where I finally caught up with Mohamed, we arrived at the Baghdad airport, which was practically deserted.

Click on any image to enlarge it
Like so much of the infrastructure in Baghd
ad, it was built during the years of Iraq’s greatest wealth, before the eight-year war with Iran followed by two wars with the US and its allies. The architecture of this period is unique (I’ll describe it in more detail in the following days,) building on traditional Arabic elements, but so odd and often butt-ugly. By the time we got through customs, it was just after 7am and we headed straight for the IIFC where the students we waiting to meet me. Before I knew it, I was teaching a class, without checking into the hotel, with no shower after a 36 hour, three flight journey. We met out on the terrace under some trees, because the classroom wasn’t close to being ready, it was filled with dust and was being used as a storage room.
Our first session, while the classroom was being prepared. We spent alot of time on this terrace, off the second floor of the building

The view across the Tigris from the terrace. On the opposite shore: the Green Zone

Click on any image to enlarge it

The good news is that the students are very engaged and want to be there and by the time we finished four hours later, the room looked great. We ate together out on the terrace and I finally got to the hotel. I passed out for an hour before one of the staff came to gather me and take me to the National Theater where there was a festival of plays and I was introduced to a dozen directors, film and theater, all of whom, I was told, are great directors. The theater was huge and quite the worse for wear, the carpet was distressed and steps were loose. The seats were comfortable and it turns out it was a great place to take a nap.

I’m glad I’m getting out a bit, because I’ve been so warned about security that I was afraid that I’d just be shuttled between the center and my hotel. Baghdad looks nothing like any other city I’ve been in and there are familiar buildings and views we’ve all seen from years of CNN. It’s too soon to make any definitive statements, but I’m looking forward to seeing as much of it as possible. Tonight we went out after the theater and had some excellent shish kebab with ripe tomatoes, nice bread and sweet onions. The restaurant had two separate sections. We ate in the side for males, there was a smaller section for families.

Outside the theater, Baghdad by night

Posted by: Bill Megalos on Jun 5, 2013 at 10:18:07 amComments (1) Baghdad

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This May I trained young Iraqi filmmakers on behalf of a program organized by the Humpty Dumpty Institute ( with funding from the US State Department. Seven of the students will be coming to Los Angeles this summer for further training through UCLA and to meet members of the film community. I'll be guiding these filmmakers as they make short dramatic films this year. The focus in May was on their scripts, on story and character development, on working with actors, as well as giving them an overall background in production. In October, I will return to Baghdad to help with post-production and will continue mentoring them afterward. The workshop was co-sponsored by the Iraqi Independent Film Center as well as the US Embassy in Baghdad. Sony kindly lent me a new PMW 160 camera to test and use with the students, so I discuss that, as well as the workshop. Because of security reasons and to protect the filmmakers from danger in this turbulent time in Iraq, I am using initials of their first names in these reports.
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