Filmmakers at Shoot'n'Post & Tonbüro: Dima Hamdan
Introducing the Palestinian self-taught film director
With the support of Shoot’n’Post, and funding by Medienboard Berlin Brandenburg, Palestinian filmmaker Dima Hamdan is currently producing her short film “The Bomb” at Tonbüro. Shoot’n’Post is providing the full picture and sound post-production. In a break during the final mix, Dima found the time to sit down with us and chat about the bumpy road to developing her first feature film. We discuss her time as a former journalist and now film director, why she didn’t go to film school and how she taught herself filmmaking via directing numerous short films.
SnP: How did you go from journalism to filmmaking and how do you think your fiction storytelling is connected to your work as a journalist?
Dima Hamdan: Well I’ve dreamt of becoming a film director ever since I was 12 or 13. I’m Palestinian and I grew up in Kuwait, and at the time there was no real prospect of me ever going to a film school because my family expected me to become a lawyer or something else. I did study law but I never practised it. Then I found myself getting into journalism because I thought it would be a way to meet film directors and actors. I wanted to be around that world so I became a cultural correspondent for an English magazine in Jordan. I would meet these directors and actors and I would feel envious. But I kept pushing that dream to the back of my head and then I moved on to work with the BBC in London and I was reporting from Baghdad, Jerusalem, Beirut,..etc. I loved being out on the street and talking to people and getting stories.
I was inspired by a lot of the things that I saw as a journalist, and the people that I met along the way. There was always this random free association that happened while covering stories. I would randomly, and for no obvious reason, start connecting things, sometimes to my own childhood and upbringing. While reporting on the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, or the attacks on Gaza, I would compare or connect the experiences of the people that I met with my parents’ own experience with war and exile.... These things kept turning in my mind and reminded me that I want to tell stories - not just by reporting, but to make films.
I started writing scripts on my own and I got my first opportunity in 2009 when one of my scripts was selected for the RAWI Sundance screenwriter`s Lab in Jordan. To date, I’ve done about 5 or 6 short films. They were all financed and produced by me. One of them, “Gaza-London” which was made in 2009 - after the Israeli war on Gaza at the time – had travelled around some festivals. But my films really up to this point have been my only education. I didn’t go to film school. I just learned by writing scripts and bringing people together and going out and making some terrible mistakes.
I stopped being a journalist in 2014. But to this day a lot of things I did as a journalist resonate with me. Even when I research my scripts, I still approach them as a journalist in the way I research and verify things. There is a side of me that still focusses on facts, as opposed to the other side of me that is trying to be a little bit more loose and creative and imaginative.
SnP: Do you think as a fiction storyteller you could dig deeper into the life experience of your characters?
Dima Hamdan: Being a journalist was like being a camera – recording people’s stories and then putting them out there. Whether you sympathise or side with your interviewees, you are only a vehicle to tell their story to the world. But when you write fiction – even if the stories and the research comes from the journalism - a lot of the fiction really is about you exploring yourself and your paranoias and your fears. I think, at least in my experience, the scripts that I love or that are closest to me are the ones where I was really able to look at my own fears and just allow things to come out. Most of the characters that I have written are a version of myself. That way of telling stories can be hard. In some case it felt like a hard form of therapy.
SnP: Is there one film you would say is the most important film of my life, that I have seen?
Dima Hamdan: I cannot give you one in particular, but the film that really triggered it is Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun”. He is not my favourite director now, but when I watched that film at the age of 13 I thought “oh, this is the kind of film that I want to make”. Right now, it is not the kind of film that I want to make. I love Paolo Sorrentino a lot because there is something very emotional in his films. I also love the Dardenne brothers.
SnP: We see a lot of female directors emerging especially from the Middle East. Is film a good medium to express themselves?
Dima Hamdan: I think it is as important for women in the Middle East as it is important for women anywhere in the world. Although I’m Palestinian and a lot of inspiration comes from there, especially from my families’ experience, I find inspiration in a variety of places, and they don’t have to be focussed on women’s issues. I could make a film about Palestine, but then I will make a film in Jordan, and the project after that would be in Dubai. Having lived in different parts of the Arab world and the West, there is so much that inspires me.
When it comes to gender, I never felt that the challenges facing me as a filmmaker were because I’m a woman. What was the obstacle for me to this day was that I am not from the filmmakers’ circle. I never went to film school. I do not come from an artistic background. And I find very often when I apply to funds that I am judged negatively on those grounds. When it comes to gender representation a lot of people do not actually realize that there are a lot of more female filmmakers in the Arab world than there are in Hollywood, and we should take pride in that.
SnP: In preparation for your first feature film, you're currently making another short film called 'The Bomb', which you are also producing here with us at Shoot'n'Post. What have you completed so far and how have you found the overall post-production experience with us?
Dima Hamdan: Here is the issue with „The Bomb“. I ended up becoming the producer which meant that suddenly in addition to being a writer and the director I found myself having to deal directly with funds, and in a language that I don’t speak. It turned out that, as a producer, I had to make some financial contribution as well, and so I needed to go out and get some post-production deals to fill certain gaps. And I think of all the post production houses that I approached Shoot’n‘Post was the only one that truly understood the predicament that I was in. And there was a lot of flexibility in what was offered to me in terms of colour grading and sound mix and studio facilities.
The film was shot under very difficult circumstances with a dedicated team that worked incredibly hard. The film would not be what it is right now if it was not for every single one of them and should pay special tribute to Frank Schwaiger, our director of photography, and Olivia Stubbe, the line producer who pretty much saved the day when she joined the project. But because we shot it in such difficult circumstances certain issues appeared in the footage, and anybody who has ever shot on a small budget knows that having a post-production house that could help you make things look a lot better – to sound like cinema, to look like cinema – could make all the difference to the project.
When I first came to your facilities, I could not believe the size of the screen because up until that point I was watching the film on a small monitor and I did not think it was a big deal. But then I saw the scale of it and it was astounding! After you completed the color grading and sound mix… there was just a huge difference between the picture lock version and the final film. I’m very grateful for the artistic and technical input of Shoot’n’Post because it helped in “The Bomb” becoming the best thing I’ve done so far and that is very important for a film director who is still struggling to make a film every four years or so. So to wait this long and then make a film and not be happy with it would’ve been a major setback.
I think I could not have hoped for a better outcome, and there is a lot of gratitude that goes to Shoot’n’Post.