On my very second outing as a fully fledged documentary director I was let loose on an unsuspecting Arab world. First port of call Wadi Rum. What most of you don’t know is that I grew up in a house in London where the film director David Lean had lunch every Sunday. Alas not with me and my family but with the family who owned the house before us. The fact that the maestro sat in the same dining room as I did gave me no small amount of frissons as I was growing up – yeah I know I was a strange child. So imagine my delight and my ambition when I found myself in the same place, with a camera and a crew. A place that my old chum David had (according to film lore) painted gold because it didn’t look yellow enough for him on-screen.
The Location, Wadi Rum, Jordan. The year 2001. If you have ever been to Wadi Rum then you will know what I mean when I say you can almost hear the music, the rise of those violins, feel the heat vibrating against your skin, taste the sand on the wind, see those white robes billowing in the breeze shining a brilliant white as Omar Sharif rides into shot with a bemused look on his face as he spies Lawrence preening in his Arab robes. But unlike David, Peter (O’Toole) and Omar, I was not in Wadi Rum making a movie, I was there making something a lot more important – a documentary. A documentary I felt was going to set the Arab world on fire. The subject: Arabs losing their identity. And I could talk I was half an Arab with ancestors from three continents who spoke little to no Arabic (at that point). But I was in Wadi Rum and I was directing and it was going to be great.
I arrived in Wadi Rum with two crew members, yup that’s it, me, a D.O.P and a Sound Engineer. I had worked with Fouad Sleiman on my first documentary; The Living Martyr; Hizbollah Unveiled and knew that I could trust him to get me the shots I wanted but I had never worked with Mohab Shaneh Saz, the Sound Engineer. Nevertheless, in my mind and between the three of us we were going to shoot the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ of documentaries. I could taste the Oscar.
If you have ever been to Wadi Rum then you will know that the first site of the Wadi is breathtaking. You are surrounded by a sea of red littered with imposing projections of granite and sandstone bringing to mind Lawrence’s own words on first sighting the Wadi “The Arab armies would have been lost in the length and breadth of it, and within the walls a squadron of aeroplanes could have wheeled in formation. Our little caravan grew self-conscious, and fell dead quiet, afraid and ashamed to flaunt its smallness in the presence of the stupendous hills.” (Lawrence, Seven Pillars, chapter LXII)
I was not feeling either ashamed or afraid, Lawrence my old friend, I was feeling ambitious. And then I saw them coming towards me in a slow motion undulating gait and oh, how I wanted to preen too – half an Arab making a film for Arabs about Arabs losing their identity – could it get any better. Yep it could. With the camels came fifteen lusty young men in their late teens – my Arab army had arrived and Mouna of Arabia was going to lead them to Academy Award victory.
‘Right then Mouna’ said Fouad ‘where would you like the camera and how do you want to shoot the action?’ ‘And what about sound’ chimed in Mohab. ‘Yes boys no probs got it sorted in my head. Fouad I want the camera there’ pointing to a flat bit of desert. ‘Mohab mic everyone up and stand behind Fouad with your boom’. ‘And you gentlemen’, I said to my mounted Bedouins ‘you will gallop full speed ahead towards camera with six or seven camels veering to the left and the rest veering to right of camera. Got it?’
‘Errr….Mouna, I don’t think I have enough mics for everyone….’
Bless them, I remember clearly their ‘this woman is crazy’ looks. Then came the ‘what about the continuity and post’ and ‘what about clean sound’ and what about…but all I could see and hear was the Bedouins in slow motion across a huge screen with that specially written piece of music by Maurice Jarre playing for Najat (my partner in Firehorse Films) and me as we ascended the stairs towards the golden statuette handed to us with a kiss by Viggo Mortensen (ok so sue me but Lord of the Rings had just come out and I am a huge Strider fan).
Then, like most people in this industry, Fouad and Mohab’s objections suddenly did an about-face and their ‘what the hell – let’s do it – should be fun’ expressions tuned in full blast. Hell yeah let’s do it. And it was – great fun and sheer lunacy. The Bedouins who, at first, looked and probably thought that the afternoon was going to be a chore ended up volunteering for even crazier stunts until the dipping sun put an end to camels leg cavorting dangerously close to our heads.
The wonderful thing about film people, whether movies, documentaries or news, is that they are at heart just like the Bedouins, true nomads, always in search of a new experience. That is what bonds most of us together almost instantaneously and makes for long, strong friendships. Mohab, turned out to be the most fantastic sound engineer I have ever worked with anywhere and Fouad went on to become a director of television drama.
As for me making the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ of documentaries, that part of the story requires the input of my good friends, Najat Rizk (CEO Firehorse), Simon Habre (director of The One Man Village) and Jean Assis (writer-actor and poet), chicken with garlic lunches and a gas stove keeping the Avid suite warm during a bitter cold winter…
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