Salah is a national hero. He is a reluctant symbol. Symbol. "That's what we call our martyrs," he says.
In my development team is Panagiotis, a Greek animator, and Mohammad, a filmmaker and television journalist from Gaza. Mohammad tells the heartbreaking story of his sister getting married, alone. She had only her husband there, no members of her family could get permission to attend her wedding in Jenin. "She was crying the whole time," he says. In his film, Waiting For You, he will try to bring them all together in the same frame, even if he has to use special effects.
How can you reduce the entirety of your film to one sentence, like a news headline? ("One man running to retrieve his country," Peter suggests) Retrieve? It sounds like someone has lost their country, forgotten it in a cafe or lost it down the back of the sofa. Now they have to retrieve it.
The tutors react well to the character of Salah. They like to look into his eyes. They remark on the intensity there.
He has nowhere to be, so he has to keep running. What is he running from? What is he running to?
I have to be secure about the content, about what kind of film this is. I feel I'm still shooting this like a news documentary, but it isn't a news documentary. (Back in London, weeks later, James says the same thing. "What's your personal style? I don't see it here...")
Is he denying his own life for the sake of the cause? What drives him, is it faith or certainty? These are two ends of the spectrum (faith is the will to believe even if it's impossible)
"Tell his story as a reflection of the history of Western Sahara"
Inside my head: What is the one thing? What is the big idea? Is there one big idea, or is it not that kind of film? But, whatever I decide, everyone asks for the one big thing...
(on the way in the elevator to the beach, I think of two things. 1) how bizarre that I'm taking an elevator down to a beach, and 2) how Nico said to me, in the same elevator and without hesitation, "that's why Tarkovsy could never have been Greek." No mysticism, he says. "But I knew if I discussed it with you, you would understand," he says.
Irena refers to Salah as a "Lone Ranger." Eva refers to him as a saint. Is he either of these? I think of him only as a reluctant hero. Irena suggests perhaps he is running to prove his country exists. I'm not sure I enjoy psychoanalysing Salah without him present. (Forgive me, Salah, if we overdo it. This is what the people want...) Irena also remarks "this project requires a lot of energy and patience." Yes, I agree. Like long-distance running. I expect making this film to be as exhausting, as demanding, as trying on my patience and stamina. Later, Panagiotis and Costas, both competitive long-distance runners themselves, say I don't know enough about the sport. Emma agrees. I need to become absorbed in that world. I need to make that mindset my own. I never considered this. A runner is a runner, I thought. But no, Panagiotis explains the "dead zone", about three quarters of the way through a race, when your body is telling you "enough! You must stop! I cannot go on! I was not made for this!" But your mind disagrees. It says "No. Keep going. You must win..." How can I understand the dead zone if I don't understand running?
Then it becomes clear to me. I must start running again. I must understand the stamina and perseverance required.
Iike, in his talk, declares "we are prisoners of the fiction film in documentary," and I cannot disagree. Every time I type his name, I'm struck by the fact that it looks simply as though I've typed "like", as in "to appreciate, admire, have a liking for." But it is, in fact, I (capital "I") i (lowercase "i") k - e. This must frustrate him when he types his own name."We lack a conceptual approach to documentary," he goes on "even though we are immersed in documentary subculture." It is as I've often observed: most filmmakers are more interested in the industry than in the craft of storytelling. Go to any networking event, and the conversation is dominated not by talk of film, but of who now works for which broadcaster, which commissioning editor now heads which strand, which funds are now easy or difficult to get. Spinning the wheels without achieving distance.
"The mysticism of filmmaking is gone" Iike says. He means we no longer gaze in wonder at the camera because we all know how it works. I would also say, the mysticism is gone because filmmakers see it as a formula. Add a number of factors, like camera technology, location, character, sound, money, and after the equals sign, you have a film. But where is the "something else". Where is the unquantifiable factor, that is, the filmmaker herself? Weeks later, I tell my students "The directors that influence you, that you admire, they are not good filmmakers because they know how to use a camera, or how to light a scene, or how to direct an actor. They are good directors because of who they are, because they dedicate their lives to understanding this craft." In all this talk of technology, story, and narrative drive, we forget about the craft.
More wisdom from Iike: "Respect the story. The person in the film is a subject, respect their story. The story is their heart."
And finally, most prescient, "What is worth living for when the life described by the media has no space for me?"
Ghada tells me she wants to hear the sound of Salah running in the opening scenes to my teaser. At the moment, the scenes have no ambient sound. He is running silently. Running without sound is distancing, alienating, she says. Do I want the audience to feel distant? At this point, maybe...
Mikael identifies the heart of the story like this: "Salah took a decision with irreversible consequences, the narrative has to come out of this." I agree. And George sees further. "What is the existential question in the film?" he asks. Later, he uses a word that I will steal from him, "What is Salah's hesitation? At what point does he ask himself if he has done the right thing? At what point does he question himself? At what point does he doubt?" I wonder the same thing. I will ask Salah, "what are your doubts? Where is your hesitation?"
Why the need for a country? The Sahrawi were, after all, nomads...
Sacrifice? Faith? Heroism? Risk? It is a cycle, the more famous and successful Salah becomes, the more he is putting himself and his family at risk.