We caught up with another filmmaker Hazim Bitar, who's film Fish Above Sea Level will be screening this Saturday (November 26th, 2011) at the Thalia as part of the ADIFF. We had a few questions for him about his film and his native Jordan and he offered us an in depth look into all of this and more. I'm sure when you read this you'll be itching to see his film!
Can you tell us a bit about your film Fish Above See Level, that we will be screening during the ADIFF?
First of all, I feel privileged by the selection of my film to the ADIFF. It validates my film. Fish Above Sea Level is my first feature narrative film. As in my other films, this is a no-budget film. It is a labor of conviction, passion, and relentless energy by the small cast and crew. It's a film that would not have been produced under any other circumstances. While cinema falls under the general category of entertainment, for me to consider my film worthwhile the effort, it must disrupt generic beliefs and it must cast doubts over some of our assumptions concerning the status quo. For my film, I hope members of the audience will question the sincerity of charismatic politicians who peddle with progressive slogans so long as the cameras are rolling but outside the studio they are not so progressive.
What was your inspiration to make such a film?
We have to go back to 2001 when I was visiting my family in Israeli occupied Palestine right before the 2nd Intifada broke out. On the first day (or second day, depending on the historian) there was a blood drive at the Makased Hospital in Jerusalem to help the injured Palestinians. Soon as people started gathering at the hospital, it became another flashpoint with Israeli troops positioned just down the road from the hospital shooting rubber bullets and live ammo at unarmed Palestinian protestors who had enough of the brutal Israeli military occupation.
When I entered the hospital, the scene was very tragic. One of the martyrs was a young man by the name of Osama Jadda. He was an African Palestinian. He went to donate blood at Makased hospital and was shot by an Israeli sniper outside the hospital. I was deeply affected by his family's trauma so I decided to make a documentary which I titled Jerusalem's High Cost of Living. During the making of the documentary I was introduced to a proud and dedicated African Palestinian community in Jerusalem. They celebrated both their African and Palestinian identity. They are a very ancient Palestinian community with roots stretching back thousands of years. And like other Palestinians, they continue to pay a dear price for being Arab in an Israeli-occupied Jerusalem.
Palestinians, like other Arabs, are a diverse people both ethnically and spiritually. But in the Greater Syria region (Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan) I felt African Arabs were not present at the cultural scene even though other ethnic groups were recognized and celebrated their identity. That's when I became involved in telling stories of African Arabs. When I left the US for Jordan, where many of my family members have settled after their expulsion by the Israelis from Palestine, I decided to continue my focus on African Arabs. When I came to Jordan I became very involved with the African Jordanian community in the village of Ghour Mazra'ah by the Dead Sea.
In Jordan, the African Jordanian community in the south Ghour region was living in the most fertile and most touristic region, by the Dead Sea, yet they were hardest hit by poverty, industrial pollution, military checkpoints, and negative stereotypes to boot. The residents of Ghour were afraid to tell their story. No one dared speak out publicly for fear of consequences, which ranged from loss of government employment (an economic death sentence in the impoverished region) to threats by government gangsters (aka Balta-jeyyah). Can you imagine a victim of such injustice who is also afraid to ask for help.
Since my first visit to the Ghour region a few years ago, I held numerous filmmaking and computer skills workshops. I worked closely with the film's co-star Rabee Zureikat who is active in the eco-tourism industry in the Ghour region. During my work in the Ghour region, I was able to produce a number of short films, some celebrating the beauty of the region and its people. While other films spoke to the hardships faced by the residents of Ghour. These were short films that generated public interest.
Then I came across a book by the late Dr. Peter Gubser, an Oxfordscholar and a great humanitarian, who did lots of good work in Palestinian refugee camps and other areas. Dr. Gubser lived in the Karak province (near the Ghour villages) for about a year. He published his work in a book titled The History and Politics of Karak. Karak is a large Jordanian province where most African Jordanians live, in the villages of southern Ghour by the Dead Sea. Karak is so full of history and hospitable people, natural attractions. In his book, Dr. Gubser wrote a chapter about African Jordanians. When I read it, I was taken aback by some of the history. It confirmed the bits and pieces of oral history we gleaned from the Ghour communities, but also added more troubling revelations.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, African Jordanians were systematically stripped of their property and even brutalized. They also fell victim to loan-sharking schemes. According to Dr. Gubser, the central government aided and abetted the economic disenfranchisement of African Jordanians. The fact is, had this economic disposition of African Jordanians not take place, they would have been a very prosperous community. The Arab Spring will bring with it urgent relief because I truly believe young Jordanians are determined to make a positive difference if given a chance.
Presently, and despite calls by African Jordanians for reforms, their and and surrounding lands are still being parceled out to the highest bidders or as gifts to government loyalists. Recently, in one of the Jordan's top corruption cases, prime Dead Sea property close the Ghour villages worth millions of dollars were handed over by the government to a casino developer who never built the casino. I reacted to all of this the way I know best. I decided to light a candle. I made Fish Above Sea Level. And the support my film got in Jordan shows that if Jordanians are given a chance, they will make amends.
What is the film industry like in Jordan?
Jordan has all the talent needed to launch and sustain a film industry but there is no film industry in Jordan. The government's interest in film is mostly to provide production services to big studios that might be looking to shoot a film in Jordan. With the exception of Egypt, no Arab country has a cinema industry. Yet with the arrival of digital filmmaking and distribution, and given the proliferation of inexpensive digital video cameras, it was impossible for Arab governments to control digital filmmaking. The specter of dozens of indie filmmakers running around telling stories that exposed the failures of those regimes was very disconcerting to them. So governments resorted to a system of containment by offering incentives to filmmakers who aligned themselves with the government even if tacitly. The second strategy followed by those governments was to flood the filmmaking scene with loyalist filmmakers they handpicked and bankrolled and who cab be trusted not to rock the boat. The same strategy was followed with film festivals. So what you see in many Arab countries is not the birth of a cinema industry, but containment strategies. There's some Arab art cinema, but it has no significant presence outside of film festivals because either the stories were written for an exclusive art cinema crowd or there's no distribution channelsother than the 1 dollar pirated DVD business. Most Arabs are too poor to afford the price of a cinema ticket so the proliferation of pirated DVDs was a natural consequence.
You can extrapolate the Jordanian film scene from the above. Egypt on the other hand has escaped the misfortune of other Arab cinema. The reason for Egypt's success is subject of debate. Egypt with its large population has the economies of scale on its side. Jordan has 6 million people and the majority are very poor.
How did you make your casting decision and why?
It was very difficult to find a professional actor to commit to a film like Fish Above Sea Level. The film required a serious emotional commitment to the cause as well as an unusually demanding work schedule. It's this commitment that sustained us despite lack of resources. Our schedule was so unstructured and the shooting dragged on for months. No one was getting paid in the film except to cover meals and transportation. No local professional actor is willing to work such long hours and over months for no pay. But I got lucky with my picks. The lead actors already attended my filmmaking workshops and had assisted me in other films. They both had a few acting roles in my past short films. So they were a known quantity. I knew they would commit to the film but I was always concerned for their wellbeing. Will they suffer any consequences as a result of their role in the film? Will they be compelled to denounce the film under pressure?
What is the one key message that you want people to come away with when they see the film?
Don't believe the hype, and question conventional wisdom. The struggle for justice has gotten harder because injustice has become more sophisticated but still as devastating as ever.
How was your film received in Jordan?
The progressive intelligentsia and the general public in Jordan was very supportive. The pro government intelligentsia was ambivalent. This film puts them in a tight spot. They like to play liberals on TV to impress their Western patrons. But suddenly this film comes along and undermines their sales pitch. Young Jordanians and (and the young Arab generations in general) welcome change and will not defend injustice. But in a non-democratic environment, there's little young Jordanians can do to change anything. We can't even get the government to fix our broken sidewalks, let alone correct historical injustices.
What was your background and training in film?
I am self-taught. I have a BS in Computer Science so the technical part of digital filmmaking came easy to me. The artistic part of filmmaking came from reading, watching, and experimenting with films.
With more and more film festivals and more films screening online, there is no dearth of films to watch. I used to subscribe to a number of film magazines, which I read religiously. I also had a decent library of films and filmmaking books. My early inspiration, believe it or not, was Robert Rodriguez. I read his book Rebel without a Crew after I saw his film the El Mariachi. Sometimes all an aspiring filmmaker needs is motivation and inspiration. If you have passion for a cause, that can be all the motivation you need.
What advice do you have for new black filmmakers?
I will share the same tips I got from other indie filmmakers: You don't have to wait for funding to make your film. You don't have to forego your filmmaking aspirations if you can't go to film school.
Grab any video camera, even if a mobile phone camera, and start making short films. The web has lots of free filmmaking tutorials including ones by leading filmmakers. Watch and read, again and again. Solicit and listen feedback from all sorts of people with open mind, but stick to your artistic vision, once you find it. And the most important of all: find a filmmaker who is interested in mentoring you. Amazing what mentors can do to shorten your journey as a filmmaker. I did not have a mentor when I started but I became mentor to a few Jordanian and Palestinian filmmakers some of whom became award-winning filmmakers.
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