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Niam Itani (2) At Venice, & After

Niam in Venice
Niam Itani was the only woman filmmaker among the finalists in YouTube's Your Film Festival competition, and joined the other finalists at this year's Venice Film Festival, to pitch the idea which could win her $500,000 to make a feature film. When I interviewed her before she went to Venice, she promised to write about her Venice experience, and she has: here you are. Niam didn't win, but she had a great time! And is now busy working on her feature.

What kind of programme did the organisers arrange for you all? From the YouTube clip, it looked busy!
The program was busy before pitching day, I’d say it was well balanced to make sure we don’t get exhausted but still enjoy each other’s company and have our own time. We went on a sightseeing tour of Venice, which was an excellent idea. We also had several group dinners and cocktail receptions. These were great for networking and bonding. Then there was the pitching day, where pitching was our only task, and screening day which also included a reception.

You were nervous about pitching the project you created especially for the competition. How did the pitch go? Who did you pitch to?
The pitch was perfect, thanks to excessive rehearsals with my friend and one of the producing partners on my next feature film who joined me on the trip. We made sure to cover all aspects of the project while pitching (narrative, commercial, marketing, virality, etc…). When I pitched to Scott Free, Google, YouTube, and Michael Fassbender’s production company, they all said it was excellent and barely had any questions. I was happy because this was my best time pitching too!

Will you continue with the project even though you didn’t win?
The project was on my list of ideas before this opportunity presented itself so it surely stays. We might be pitching it as a TV series soon. This is a comedy that I think will be fun to write and I would like some director to make it other than myself.

What were the highlights for you?
The thing that struck me most is that you feel this festival has a soul and energy of its own. It is bigger than any festival I’ve been to, not in physical space/area but in essence. It keeps you conscious that you are in a film festival. I enjoy that energy.

Niam, Google's Sue McCauley, & Vidya Santhanam
What did you learn?
I learned lots of things mingling with the Google/Youtube staff and the other filmmakers. But the most important thing I learned is that leaving the red carpet is not as easy as walking it upon arrival! But that is a funny story I promise to blog about :) (see links to Niam's blogs, below.)

The finalists out on the street!
What key opportunities presented themselves?
The most enjoyable and beneficial opportunity was to mingle with the other finalists. We all have projects happening in the near future and we already exchanged potential ways of working with each other. Meeting Michael Fassbender and the development executives from Scott Free was a great opportunity.

In the clip (below) you're not the only woman among the competitors. Who were the others?
One of the other finalists had a woman co-director, Fernanda Fernandes. Otherwise, all the other ladies were either the finalists’ producers, partners, or plus ones.

Did you have time to see films at the festival? Any stand outs?
I usually don’t catch lots of films in festivals because I am busy workshopping or networking. Venice wasn’t different. I have to admit that I had a great opportunity to see the world premiere of “The Master” but I missed it unfortunately.

You were looking forward to the gelato! What was it like?
The gelato was delicious! I recommend Vanilla and mint flavors :) And the cappuccino was good all around Italy!

What advice do you have for other filmmakers who go to Venice? Any special advice for women filmmakers?
Venice is a special city and the festival is grand. Filmmakers who plan to go for the first time should familiarize themselves with the city, the various festival venues and the transportation system. It would be best if they have a companion who has been there before or knows how to move around.

On Facebook I saw that you visited other parts of Italy. What were the highlights apart from the Your Film Festival programme?
I visited a couple of UNESCO World Heritage sites, namely Cinque Terre and Ferrara and went to Lago Maggiore at Stresa for tourism. This was my annual vacation. I’m not sure I will be having time for one week vacations anymore. University is starting and I am moving to pre-production work on my feature film.
Lago Maggiore
What differences between Lebanon and Venice and Italy particularly affected you?
Venice is a city from a different planet. I loved it. But Italy is very similar to Lebanon in its nature, people and general atmosphere. Italy is surely much more advanced and civilized. It made me feel sad because if we haven’t had war, maybe Lebanon would have been as civilized and well built as Italy today.

You’ve been active in publicising the disappearance of Orwa Nayrabia. Can you write a little bit about this? Are more filmmakers likely to disappear? Why?
Orwa has been finally set free after three weeks of disappearance. As I write these words in our small village I have no more information, but hopefully we will get to know everything from him soon. Orwa is a Syrian filmmaker and a friend whom I’ve known from online and offline film forums for years. He is an outspoken free spirit and he doesn’t hide his hope and desire for a free Syria, and he is anti-violence, anti-oppression, no matter who the perpetrators are. Unfortunately, the events in Syria don’t leave a space to differentiate filmmakers from other people. The sad answer is yes, more filmmakers are likely to disappear, to get injured, to die. We are part of the people. But the unity and the awareness that Orwa’s case created all over the world was phenomenal and I am proud to have been part of it, and also a member of The D-Word and IDA (International Documentary Association), who helped further his case.

You have a new film on its way. Can you tell me about it?
My feature film Shadow of a Man (working title) is currently in a stage between development and pre-production. We are trying to find funds in Lebanon and/or the Arab world before looking abroad. Co-production is not an easy route, though it is an option, and Lebanon has very talented artists. Shadow of a Man is an actors’ film par excellence. It has complex characters, though it is a very simple story about a troubled mechanic trying to bring his dead father’s car back to life to make it his wedding ride. It is also an anti-war statement and I hope the political and security situation in Lebanon will be stable enough for us to film next summer.

You’ve mentioned ‘obsession’ here and there. What role does obsession have in your life and work? What does obsession mean to you? How do you know when you’re obsessed (I tend to find it hard to find matching socks!)? What does obsession do to your relationships, especially your domestic relationships? How do you deal with it?
I don’t take obsession very seriously because then it might be annoying for me and others. But at this stage I think I am obsessed with Shadow of a Man. I am obsessed about finding the right actors, I look for them in people’s faces wherever I am. I can find a connection between any discussion topic and something related to the film and I will change gear for everyone around. This was in ways a burden for me because I had difficulty focusing on a different project for the Your Film Festival pitch. I don’t deal with my obsession. I enjoy it and I am trying to channel it all into getting the film made :) The good thing is that most people close to me are familiar with the story, my Mom read the whole script more than once, and they know how much this film means to me so they are very understanding.

Finally, have the competition and the trip to Venice changed you in any way? Were they a turning point in your career? 
The competition was surely a changing point in my career. It provided huge media exposure and some sort of test on a personal level for me. The trip to Venice was a great experience on its own. Every chance to workshop with other filmmakers close to me in age and mindset is like a boot camp for me. I have been through similar experiences inside the US and in regional ones for Arab filmmakers but never with one that combined universal filmmakers. I am very grateful to Google, Youtube & Emirates for their visible efforts to make the trip a success and to Scott Free and Michael of course for coming up with the initiative and supporting it. I can’t yet tell if Venice was a turning point in my career but I sure hope that is what it was!



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