The 2011 edition of the Gulf Film Festival (GFF), a platform launched four years ago to give Arab filmmakers a more intimate space to screen their films and work with other local players, was a proud moment for the industry. Over the years, GFF has become the yardstick for us to gauge the progress of […]
The 2011 edition of the Gulf Film Festival (GFF), a platform launched four years ago to give Arab filmmakers a more intimate space to screen their films and work with other local players, was a proud moment for the industry.
Over the years, GFF has become the yardstick for us to gauge the progress of the local film industry. Since the inaugural edition of the festival, which showcased a slate of slack productions, we have seen much bolder themes, better execution and greater sophistication in local films. This years edition especially brought to light a documentary and a director that caught our attention for three special reasons.
For one, it is about an Emirati woman called the Doctor of Dhaid who has an incredible gift for healing people of their ailments. It does not just showcase the simple life of the protagonist but also reflects a side of Emirati culture that the public has rarely witnessed. Secondly, the director of the documentary, Nujoom Alghanem, brings greater maturity to her film than some of her younger counterparts and has a number of films to her credit. Thirdly, the technology that was used to shoot and edit this documentary made the audio-visual experience much more attractive to the audience.
Hamama was screened to a packed audience at GFF, and bagged the award for Best Documentary at the festival.
Co-produced by Alghanems Nahar Productions and Dubai-based Alchemy Films, the 64-minute film begins with an external shot of Hamamas house that was taken during the day on a RED camera and graded to look as if it were filmed at night.
The whole documentary was shot on the RED camera, explains Nicholas Davidson, Director of Photography (DoP) and owner of Alchemy Films.
This is the first time we have shot for over an hour on the RED. Normally, we use this camera for five-minute corporate films. Doing a whole hour was quite a challenge as we had a small crew and had to maintain all that data and back it up. But you couldnt have got some of the shots we have for this documentary as easily, if it wasnt for the RED. The opening scene is an example. We discussed doing a day for night grade instead of going to Dhaid and shooting at 3 in the morning. We changed the colour balance, dropped the contrast and removed some of the colour to make it look like a night shot. Actually, if you had shot this at night, you would not have seen any of this detail, just a black hole, Davidson says.
Hamama is Alghanems first feature-length documentary. The 48-year-old director, who majored in cinema production from the US, has attempted two short documentaries in the past about the last local boatman at Dubai Creek and an eminent Emirati Sufi personality.
This documentary, however, was a coup for Alghanem as Hamama has previously refused any interviews. Once Alghanem managed to persuade the 90-something Emirati to tell her story, she had other challenges to address; chief among them being funding.
This is a very costly business and funding was not easy to come by in the early days of my film career. It has got better though as people came to know me and my works, explains Alghanem, who often works closely with her husband, researcher and scriptwriter Khalid Al Budoor on her films.
A documentary requires many resources and a team of professionals at all stages of the process from pre-production to production and post. Otherwise, its not easy to make a high-quality film. Luckily, I met with Alchemy Films and this is my first experience with the RED camera. I have another documentary that was shot in a similar period of time but on High Definition and Im editing this now. HD is not bad at all as a format but when I place my two documentaries side by side, I feel my HD footage looks almost a bit old fashioned, she says, almost apologetically.
Shooting with the RED helped the crew in many ways as the social and time constraints were many, according to Alghanem.
Because of Hamamas old age and work, it was important we didnt tire her out, she says.
The team, therefore, decided to shoot with two cameras, explains Davidson.
She is very old so on some days, wed turn up and shed be too tired and aching all over and another day, shed be all fired up and rearing to go, making her own cheese and butter. So wed have one camera on the crane and the other handheld so we didnt have to reshoot close-ups. We also decided to shoot the whole film in 2K and that made close-ups easy to shoot as well, he claims.
Despite these efforts, the team took almost nine days to shoot the film but Alghanem points out that in the end, it worked to our advantage because it broke the ice between the crew and Hamama.
Although the film moves seamlessly from one shot to another, several techniques were applied to create the final output, according to Alchemy.
In some parts of the documentary, for instance, we see a tilted and blurry view when people walk into Hamamas line of sight.
Davidson explains that this is deliberate.
Hamama is blind in one eye and has blurred vision in the other so in post, we tried to create a tilt and shift, and blurry effect and that was quite effective because when people walk into her view in the film, we see it from her perspective and that creates a separation from how we would see the same thing. We also played with the colours in post, desaturating them or tweaking them because Hamama said the colours she sees are different.
One aspect that posed a significant challenge at the editing table was Hamamas Bedouin dialect, which even Emiratis had difficulty comprehending.
This was editor Acen Rizvis biggest challenge. Cracking the audio was the most difficult part. Nujoom (the director) and her husband went through the audio painstakingly, listening to it for hours on end. Nujoom tried to capture her protagonists light heartedness and her sense of humour, and retain the nuances of Hamamas poetic style. As a poet herself, she manages that beautifully. Once we had the audio translated, it sort of became the backbone for the documentary, and the images just fell into place, he says.
As the footage was shot on the RED, it was fed through RED Rocket and RED CineX and edited on Final Cut Pro.
Interestingly, the early part of the documentary was shot with the first RED sensor and then Alchemy, which has several RED kits at its Dubai facility, got a Red M-X upgrade.
We shot the documentary essentially with two different cameras so the difference in quality and latitude was visibly different. What was a lot noisier on the old RED system was much cleaner with the Red M-X, Davidson explains.
For Alchemy, this was also the first shoot they had done in true documentary style.
We would turn up at Hamamas house each morning, and wait and see how the day panned out. There was no set script. We were incredibly lucky one day. Theres this funny little shop in Dhaid that looks more like a run-down shack surrounded by chicken wire in the middle of a scrubland in Dhaid. Its from where Hamama buys most of her traditional medicine. Out of the blue, in walked an Arab guy and called Hamama auntie and they had a really funny exchange. Apparently, she had cured him of cancer as a kid, explains Davidson.
We also see the Doctor of Dhaid explain some of the herbal medicines and actually stop the tremors of a man suffering from Parkinsons in the film.
She was truly amazing. She knows when people are coming to visit her. She has some sort of a gift and sees visions. We never saw Hamamas daughters though. They would disappear the moment we arrived as they did not want to be filmed, says Davidson.
There were also other benefits to using the RED including the flexibility to work with different exposures to get the most attractive output.
You cant get all parts of a shot lit unless you bring along a lot of lights, explains editor Rizvi.
The alternative is to apply different exposures to a shot. As RED shoots RAW, we could do that. We could output a 200 ASA version of the scene, a 600 ASA version of it and other exposures and then matte them together. That way, you get the right exposures in different areas of the same shot. In the scene with the goat (above), for instance, you can see the goat and the detail around it although its a poorly-lit scene. You can play with the exposure in post to get that effect. That way, we could get away with using minimal lighting, adds Rizvi.
Besides this, adding more depth of field helped to make a drab location look interesting, Davidson chips in.
The team also used slow motion in a few scenes.
Shooting in slow motion was another reason why it was ideal to film in 2K. We also saved a huge amount of money because we didnt have to store anything on tape, Davidson adds.
Perhaps one element that was central to this documentary was the sound.
It is the first time I have worked on this level where the sound is just as important as the picture. In this documentary, you can hear the rice bubbling and Hamama pouring out her coffee. The sound track is crucial while the music itself is minimal. Most of the sound has been recorded on the RED and its all synced sound so we had to be careful not to speak, explains Davidson.
Credit for the sound goes to sound recordist Ron Bagnulo, who explains that he used an older technique called m/s recording for this documentary.
I knew at the outset that this documentary was being made for the big screen so I had to record it for that purpose. And you have only one take. The content of the film required that if a pins dropping, you should hear it. You want to hear everything unlike a TVC, where you want to get a cleaner track. I couldnt mic Hamama up because she had a burqa on and her voice was likely to get muffled; youd have heard the rustle of her clothes as well. Here, a combination of the Shure VP88 microphone, the Sennheiser 40 and a little Sanken CS-1 short capsule served the purpose, explains Bagnulo.
Technology apart, the protagonist touches a chord in our hearts with her slightly flippant, yet matter-of-fact way of talking, and we are treated to a glimpse of Emirati culture that is often off limits.
More importantly, the use of bold and unconventional technology such as the RED to film Hamama seems a fitting tribute to the protagonist, who is so steeped in tradition in her daily life and yet paradoxically, a maverick who resolutely follows the path she has chosen for herself.