Jordanian filmmaker Zain Duraie is making waves with award-winning movies that take a provocative stance on social and gender taboos. BroadcastPro ME spoke to her about her motivations, resources and convictions.
We’re all familiar with movies that save their biggest punch for the climactic closing scenes, with a last-minute twist that leaves us stunned. Brian Singer’s cult crime film The Usual Suspects waits until the eleventh hour to show us how the disabled, mild-mannered detainee is actually the near-satanic warlord hunted across the globe; Mike Hodges’ gangster masterpiece Get Carter ends with the unassailable anti-hero falling dead into the freezing waters of the North Sea.
Zain Duraie’s Give up the Ghost, however, has its pivotal – and deeply shocking – moment in the middle of the movie, turning a short that studies a couple traumatised by infertility into a highly unsettling commentary on culture and tradition. As the director herself says, it explores “the act of injustice men and women go through in a highly codified society” and “poses essential questions of how the expectations that parents have on their children to rise up to a certain image can negatively influence a person’s character”.
Set in Amman, Jordan, it’s the latest film from a director who is successfully bringing the agendas and social mores of life in the Middle East to a truly international audience. Give up the Ghost had its world premiere this year at the highly prestigious La Biennale de Venezia, and at the El Gouna Film Festival, it won the Golden Star for Best Arab Short.
Duraie herself is no stranger to the global stage. A graduate of Toronto Film School, the first movie she made in her own right, Horizon (produced by Philistine Films), had its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films, winning Best of the Fest Selects. The success was repeated at the Montreal World Film Festival and Cannes Short Corner.
Duraie’s earlier projects include The Rendezvous, Thank You for Bombing, Mare Nostrum and Wajib. She was chosen in 2017 to work with acclaimed Bosnian filmmaker Aida Begic in Sanliurfa, Turkey on her recent movie Never Leave Me. Not to mention the fact that her screenplay was one of only two among entries from 70 countries to be selected for the prestigious Asia Pacific Screen Academy, and also found favour at Meditalents Residence and the Torino Film Lab. Even at the very beginning of her career in 2010, her nascent creativity attracted attention – working as a trainee at Philistine Films, she was paired with prestigious names such as filmmaker Annemarie Jacir and producer Ossama Bawardi.
Content is King
The resonance of Give up the Ghost is that it takes a real human issue and shows how its incompatibility with accepted gender roles can impel families to rip an otherwise loving and devoted couple apart. BroadcastPro ME asked Duraie how she managed to take this subject matter and bring tears to our eyes.
“Give up the Ghost,” she says, “is inspired by real events and real stories; women are always blamed in a very patriarchal and male-dominated society. We still didn’t open the film in Jordan. But we hope we will get a good response like we did in El Gouna, where we won the Golden Prize for Best Arab Short.
Also, the reception in Venice was amazing; our world premiere and Arab premieres in both festivals were sold out. Give up the Ghost is my second short. It was actually inspired by the story of someone close to me; I got so tired of how women victimise themselves that I had to do something about it and make a film.”
Did the provocative content actually help propel the film’s success, or just make the whole challenging process even harder?
“Yes, the topic helps, but it’s always how you treat the subject that raises eyebrows – and that’s how we got the grant to make it. Even though some people and some grants refused the film, we didn’t stop fighting. And I had a team that never stopped believing in me and in the film. Going to Venice with the film was the biggest victory for Jordanian cinema, and made up for every single ‘no’ we heard.
“In other ways, too, it was a huge challenge – low budget – but I had a great team like Alaa Alasad, my producer, who believed in this film and worked so hard to make it happen, despite the fact that we didn’t win the grants that we’d aimed for. The most helpful of all was the Royal Film Commission. They gave us financial support for the film.”
Learning the trade
Duraie’s reasons for making Give up the Ghost align very clearly with her creative motivations. “Filmmaking,” she believes, “begins with the heart and the gut and your voice as a filmmaker. What do you want to say? Why you? Why not someone else? Even if you are gifted, you must also know why you want to make the film and what is your intention behind it. Getting into filmmaking has always been my dream … after having some theatre background in high school, I became more aware that I wanted to do cinema.”
The fact that Give up the Ghost has done so well critically and in international circles belies the fact that Duraie is a Jordan-based filmmaker on a limited budget. We ask her about her concerns with technology. How did she ensure she met the standards necessary to take the movie to the global film circuit? For example, what cameras did she use?
“This film didn’t have any special technology. A lot of work was done at post-production, for which we had collaboration and sponsorships. And all the people involved worked for a very low fee. We also got support for renting the Amira Alexa camera, which is a cinema camera that shoots 4K. Of course, the film business is very expensive, but I’m grateful to have been supported by a wonderful big crew, which includes friends from previous productions. They helped me pursue this film with their hard work, strong work ethic and professionalism.
“I also need to thank the many professionals who bet on the film and joined as co-producers – like Yanal Kassay, who was the first assistant director on Theeb. He gave his heart to the project, like many others. Khaled Haddad from Jordan Pioneers gave us free lighting equipment. It was such a dream having such sponsorships and this support system. I am so grateful. I even got our location for free from Faris Halaseh, our location manager, who joined as a co-producer. All of this happened because they loved the script and the story and message behind the film.”
Duraie’s points are particularly telling because it’s something of a truism that low-budget movies are characterised by great stories but poor execution. So what does she believe made the film come together so remarkably?
“My team. It takes a village and an army of soldiers to make a film, and I had the most professional and experienced crew from Jordan and from abroad. My cinematographer, Benoit Chamaillard, for instance, came all the way from Paris to shoot the film despite his low fee.”
The price of success?
Money is always a challenge, even for relatively well-resourced filmmakers, and inevitably a huge issue for a relatively new independent filmmaker. What kind of budget was available for Give up the Ghost, and where does Duraie feel the financial corners were cut?
“I can’t say the exact number, but less than $12,000. My producer, Alaa Alasad, didn’t let me feel any cuts. He made it happen with the lowest number, and that’s what makes a real producer. I’m sure he made cuts, but he never made them around the film. I got every shot and everything I wanted for my vision. I also come from a production background, so I’m very conscious of the production fees and how much I can afford to develop my story – meaning that the KISS rule we learned at film school is very important: Keep it simple, stupid.”
Duraie’s production background has contributed strongly to her noted ability to multi-task. She’s rarely worked purely as director, and typically wears a number of hats – on Give up the Ghost, she was both writer and director. Nonetheless, she’s the first to thank the key raft of consultants and advisors who collaborated closely.
“I had amazing script consultants, like my mentor from my previous short, Annemarie Jacir, who was also a creative producer on this film, along with Khaled Abu Sharif and Ali Kareem, who also consulted on the script. Plus my producer Alaa, of course. I also had a wonderful team of creatives, and my editor was brilliant, helping me shape the story in the editing room.”
How will Duraie build on her growing success and the beginnings of real international popularity? Are there script opportunities and features on the horizon, and is there any chance of expanding Give up the Ghost into a full-length feature?
“No, this one was meant to be a short film. In terms of other projects, I’m currently writing my feature The Sea Needs to Heave, which just won the Swedish Institute Development Award (cash prize) at the Malmo Festival.”
As Duraie’s winning ways continue, it’s likely that we’ll see more of the Middle East’s cultural and gender issues brought centre stage for an international community – and that her voice will become a critical lever for social reform.