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Niam Itani (1) - Before the Venice Film Festival

Niam Itani
Niam Itani (also Etany) is the only woman director among the ten finalists in YouTube’s short film competition, Your Film Festival, with her Super.Full. I followed her Your Film Festival campaign for votes, admired its focus and intensity and was delighted when she reached the final. I’m always curious when just one woman filmmaker is successful within a group of successful men, so I wondered what factors affected Niam's achievement, asked her for an interview, and was thrilled when she said yes.  And then, like Super.Full., Niam's generous responses to my questions made me think. And touched my heart.

The interview will be in two parts. In this part, Niam talks about the story before she joins the other finalists at the Venice Film Festival for the next step in the competition. There, the films will be screened on 2 September and Ridley Scott and Michael Fassbender will be on the jury to select the grand prizewinner. In the second part of the interview, Niam will report on her Venice experience.

Niam was born and grew up in Beirut during the civil war. She has degrees from the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut and a screenwriting MFA from Hollins University in the United States. She worked for five years at the Al Jazeera Network as a Programs Producer, where she wrote, directed, and produced several films – mostly documentaries. She now teaches part-time at LAU and is working on her debut feature narrative, Shadow of a Man /Salaman ya Abi, about a young man who wants to have a peaceful life in Lebanon. Niam’s documentary A Foretold Memory was selected for the Al Jazeera Documentary Film Festival in 2005, her graduate student film Nickelheads won Best Comedy at the Trebas International Student Film Awards in Toronto in 2010 and Super.Full. won Best Screenplay during the MAISHA Screenwriting Lab in Zanzibar 2010 and was Highly Commended at the Forster Film Festival in Australia.

What and/or who inspired Super.Full.? What were the challenges in the writing and directing, and where did your support (mentors, funding) come from?

Super.Full. started as a simple hope on my behalf to make a film where the picture tells the story instead of the dialogue. There were fewer challenges in the writing process than in the directing process. This was mainly because I had an excellent mentoring time at the MAISHA Screenwriting Lab in Zanzibar and had time to rewrite over and over again. The challenges during directing were mostly related to making the right choice on set regarding the shots we cannot do without and the shots we can. We had the support of MAISHA and the Doha Film Institute (DFI), but we were still on a very tight schedule (three days of filming) and it was Ramadan and September, so the weather was very hot and humid in Qatar.

MAISHA, ‘life’ in Kiswahili, is a non-profit training initiative for emerging East African filmmakers, founded by Mira Nair. Its motto is ‘If we don’t tell our stories, no-one else will’. How did you get to go there, as someone who is not East African, and what was the experience like for you?

I was lucky to be chosen for the MAISHA Zanzibar Lab. DFI had partnered with MAISHA that year to host two people from Doha at the lab. I applied with my friend Fatma Naib, my ex-colleague at Al Jazeera. We used to finish our work shifts really late in the mornings (around 3 or 4 a.m.) then drive to a nearby café and work on our screenplays. Eventually we were both selected and went for the Zanzibar Lab. The experience in Africa was life changing and eye opening for me on a personal level, let alone on a professional screenwriting level.

Niam and Fatma Niab (executive producer Super.Full.)
Are you also motivated by ‘If we don’t tell our stories, no-one else will’?

I have adopted the MAISHA motto as my own. I make sure to pass it on to my students at the beginning and at the end of every single semester.

Why did you enter Your Film Festival?

I didn’t want to enter Your Film Festival when I saw the ads. It was open to everybody from all over the world and I felt it would be impossible for me to make the finals. But a festival programmer emailed me and said “Why don’t you submit your short film, you have a good one.” So I submitted it. I know it is not a very exciting story but that’s the truth :).

Have you always been competitive? Do you enjoy competition?

I am absolutely someone who does NOT like competition. But that doesn't mean that I don’t try my best to win, while still hoping the best competitor wins. For the Your Film Festival campaign, my group of close friends whom I also consult on my story ideas asked me not to watch ANY of the films until the voting was over, because they know if I find a better film I will probably campaign for THEM and drop mine :). So I didn't watch any of them till the voting concluded.

The finalists were selected through public vote. How were the 50 semi-finalists selected, from 15,000 entries?

I only know that the first round of the competition was narrowed down through Scott Free, the production company of Ridley and Tony Scott. So I think there must have been jurors.

Over three million people watched and shared the semi-final list and voted. It looks as though Facebook wasn’t at the centre of your campaign because Super.Full. doesn’t have a lot of Facebook fans? What strategies did you use to get enough votes to reach the final selection? Where did your support come from?

Facebook and Twitter were part of the online campaign, and my personal Facebook page was more helpful than the Super.Full. page because most of my friends are on it. But I also used two other strategies. One was asking two of my students to help me with PR by reaching out to TV stations and newspapers. The second was emails. I sent personal and group emails to most of my contacts asking them to forward the link to their friends and contacts too. I also reached out to associations that might relate to one theme or another in the film, mainly associations for the deaf and/or disabled.

What happens now?

The next step is a trip to Venice, where we will screen the films and pitch a new idea to Scott Free. They are offering half a million USD and to executive produce the winning concept.

What can you say about your concept?

As a finalist, I have to write a proposal for a project for YouTube, so I can’t pitch the film I am working on because it is for theatrical release. I am polishing an old idea I had before. The idea is still in development and I will be pitching it in person. I don’t like pitching much because I am very shy in public, but most of the times I end up enjoying it. I only pitch ideas I am passionate about so I am always excited when I tell the stories.

Will you be taking part in the Women's Tales – The explosion of female creativity in the era of the digital imageprogramme?

Nope !!

Are you going alone? What preparations are you making? Are you organizing red carpet clothes etc? I'm thinking of Destri Martino's stories in Unglam Cannes here!

I will be going alone from Lebanon but some of my close friends will meet me in Venice. The most important thing to prepare for me as a Lebanese citizen is the visa to Italy, so I am working on that and hoping to get my passport back on time. I also went out shopping for clothes for sure. Even someone who is very carefree with fashion like me has to stop and get ready. This is Venice! But the truth is I still haven’t asked for details about the dress code, etc… though I feel I have to because I am the only female at this stage and I suspect none of the boys is going to ask!

What are you especially looking forward to in Venice?

I am looking forward to enjoying the experience in Venice. I am trying not to look forward to particular things so I don’t end up with disappointments. But I will confess that I can’t wait to taste the gelato!

It’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be born into a country at civil war and to be brought up during a civil war. Can you write a little bit about how these circumstances may have affected your filmmaking?

The civil war shaped the human being that I have become today and thus shapes my passion for life, happiness and beauty and shapes my career. During a certain part of my life I had decided to ignore war completely, but now I am part of a movement of people who are pleading to look back and admit our mistakes in order to learn from them, and ask where 17,000 missing people have gone, who want to face the war and its consequences, cinematically and otherwise. I don’t use cinema as therapy to heal from my wounds, but cinema heals me anyway.

What else and who else influences your work?

My work is influenced mostly by the people around me, the experiences and adventures I find myself in, and also by literary works of fiction and poetry – mainly Arabic poetry. As for my style, it is visually closer to European and Soviet cinema than American cinema, whereas content wise I make sure the story is solid.

I think you see yourself primarily as a screenwriter. What draws you to directing? And arguably you acted as producer in your Super.Full. campaign? Do you think that writers and directors now have to act as producers as well, to get their work out into the world?

Absolutely. Screenwriting is where I find myself because I prefer solitude at any given moment. But executing the job of creation, to actually make the beautiful visuals a reality, is something seductive and tempting as well. I love directing and I am very selective about what I direct, which is why I rarely –if ever– take directing jobs. I think indie filmmakers nowadays have to wear the ‘multitasking’ cap at all times. But I always prefer to work with people who are passionate about the project and take it as their own, than with people who view the film as an assignment which ends once the filming is wrapped.

Are there particular challenges for you as a woman filmmaker? Having lived in the United States, do you think that the challenges that you face in the Arab world are different than those that American women face in the United States? Do you have benefits that American women don’t have?

I think women filmmakers face challenges everywhere and my heart goes out to them, especially in western countries. I absolutely know that women in the Arab world are at a huge advantage over women in the States. There is huge interest in empowering women in the Arab world, because people want to break the stereotypical image of the dominating Arab man. All women with vision are trying to use these initiatives for their benefit. But of course we also face the same challenges as women filmmakers everywhere, in that you find yourself working in a male dominated field and you always come across people who have narrow minded preconceptions and won’t trust your talent or ability until they actually see you working, and even then they might not be happy, out of sheer stubbornness and/or arrogance. But this drives me to be more intent on proving myself.

Are you a feminist? Is feminism relevant to you?

Feminism is very relevant to me, though I wouldn't want to label myself as a feminist, simply because of the wide range of meanings that feminism now might relate to. I only label myself as a humanist, and in that sense, I am an advocate of women's rights. I am not an extremist feminist. I am a moderate one :).

I recognize that men and women are different but I don't accept this fact to be used as a base to differentiate between them in treatment, rights, justice, social roles, etc... This is my version of feminism.

More about Niam here.
Super.Full. on Facebook
Super.Full. on Twitter
Niam on Twitter


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