How They Did It: Shooting “From the Sky” in Arabic

Seattle native Ian Ebright set out to make “From the Sky,” a short film that captured life in the Middle East under the constant threat of drone attacks. In this essay, he writes about the challenges behind nailing his desired verisimilitude by casting Arabic actors and translating the script into Arabic–a language he didn’t speak.

By 2012, I had been following the reporting on drone strikes in the Middle East and Asia for years, and the findings weren’t good. My mind kept returning to the fact that civilians over there were now living in a haunted bizarro world; a place where they feared clear skies (optimal weather for drones), battled sleeplessness (thanks to the metallic buzzing overhead), and were hesitant to engage socially (because of the dubious targeting methods and disproportionate number of civilian casualties). It was a scenario worthy of cinematic exploration, so I began writing a screenplay, and titled it “From the Sky.”

Along with my desire to write and direct this narrative short film came some quick realizations about what “From the Sky” would and wouldn’t be. I recalled the earlier works of Peter Weir and some of the best documentaries from Werner Herzog, films which were etched in my memory thanks to their ethereal aesthetic, eerie tension, and minimalist approach to storytelling. “From the Sky” would put the audience in the shoes of those living under drones, requiring a story that was grounded and credible.

Director Ian Ebright (l), actor Georges Chalhoub (r) and interpreter Omar Rahmouni (center).

Director Ian Ebright (l), actor Georges Chalhoub (r) and interpreter Omar Rahmouni (center).

I thought a lot about Jaws and the “less is more” model, which the crew and I carried with us through production in order to avoid turning this thing into a shiny Tom Clancy thriller, or, worse, a cheap looking version of a Tom Clancy thriller. The film had to avoid the Hollywood cliché of cowboys and Indians in the desert, of good guys and bad guys, and credits listing “Terrorist #3.” The Middle Eastern scenes would be performed in the Arabic language. And the film certainly had to avoid the stench of white savior complex. I believed in the plan wholeheartedly, which quickly became a huge hurdle as a white guy from Seattle who didn’t speak a word of Arabic.

A Slight Trim…Of 50 Percent

The earliest versions of the script were crafted to be Aaron Sorkin-esque, cutting back and forth between Yemen and Camp David, as a presidential character and his counterterrorism adviser poured over dossiers of men on a kill list. As a story it was more typical, but managed to hold my interest while infusing my perspective on a few timely issues. I had become friendly with a prominent independent director in Seattle at the time. After reading the screenplay, this director voiced support for the story, but was also quick to point out that it was hugely ambitious for a short film. She was right about that.

At the same time, I was feeling convinced that the subject matter was cheapened by my approach. Though I had worked to avoid any comparison to the more stale politically-charged TV and film of late, my screenplay still had a proximity to scenes that we’ve all seen too many times, of U.S. officials grimacing in control centers, hanging up phones, giving orders reluctantly, as if–in the case of my story–drones were primarily our burden. I realized the heart of this film-in-progress belonged to the character Abbas, a male in his late teens struggling to manage his PTSD and conflicted about the way he should go in life. So the U.S scenes were cut, and I began gluing the remnants together to form a more cohesive and unique narrative. The greater challenge was that I was left with a setting I had only read about and a language I had only heard.

Change is Uncomfortable, Even When We Initiate it

Feeling oh-so-altruistic about the new angle of my screenplay, I reached out to men and women from the Middle East in the hopes that their feedback would help shave away my own western bias. Among them was Oscar-nominated producer John Sinno (Iraq in Fragments). This is where the project began to develop an unlikely beauty, as perfect strangers invited me into their homes for meals and went on walks with me for hours on sunny afternoons. They articulated why my good intentions had done more than just fall short in places. As they saw it, there were areas that were actually counter-productive, and achieving the very kinds of caricatures I had worked so hard to avoid. Here are two examples:

1. The lead antagonist and his recruit were thieves in earlier drafts, and stole goats from our poverty-stricken protagonist and his peaceful father.

2. Politicized language like “extremist” and “terrorism” had managed to find its way into the dialogue, and spoken by characters who would never refer to the others in the film in such terms.

These advisers were welcoming, informed, and ultimately supportive of the film’s aims, but the feedback still left me feeling bruised. Screenwriters at every level know what I’m talking about. Pushback can lead us to a quietly bitter space. Sure, it always works to improve the story, regardless of whether we utilize the corrections or leave them behind. We comprehend that it’s just part of the creative process, but in the moment, criticism stings.

In the case of “From the Sky,” I didn’t sit with the discomfort for too long. The project could only improve once I got over myself and made some adjustments. So I did, and the screenplay matured in ways I never would have discovered on my own.

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Watching English Shrink in the Rear-view Mirror

Despite having a Washingtonian crew and planning to film in the eastern portion of the same state, my producer Jess Grant and I went to Los Angeles looking to cast the four roles because we knew this film hinged on dynamic performances and would require the best Arab-American actors we could find. It was now time to walk away from the familiarity of our own language so that the auditions would mimic principal photography as closely as possible. We had the screenplay translated at a basic level, thanks mostly to a few Arabic-speaking friends and a little search engine magic. Actors were given sides in advance of the audition so that they could practice the language. Some had their Arabic down cold. Some struggled, understandably. I was sure a couple of the actors had never uttered a word of Arabic in their lives, despite promises to the contrary.

The wonderful Syrian actor Jay Abdo (ironically about to be cast in Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, and opposite Tom Hanks in A Hologram for the King) aided the audition process by serving as interpreter and coach. I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to decipher the most fitted performances through the barrier of this beautiful and complex language, but the opposite proved to be true. In some cases, the best candidate was confirmed at a gut level within seconds of the audition’s beginning. We were blessed to sign each of the four phenomenal, fluent Arabic-speaking actors we wanted. Mohamad Tamimi came on as the lead protagonist, Abbas. Maz Siam (Argo, The Mindy Project, Scandal) would play his father, Hakeem. In the antagonist department, we cast Steven Soro as the charismatic militant recruiter, Dhiya, and Georges Chalhoub to play Dhiya’s ambivalent new “hire,” Samir.

A little over a month later, the cast and crew arrived in Ellensburg, Washington, a small college town about an hour and a half east of Seattle on the opposite side of the Cascade mountains. This part of the state feels more like Montana, with its slower pace, golden hills, and the occasional jagged, snow-peaked mountain in the distance. We’d be traveling 45 minutes each day to reach the set from our production headquarters in Ellensburg, first via miles on I-90 until the edge of the Columbia River, where we’d turn to make a slow and bumpy trek up a dirt road in one of the lesser-known (or possibly forgotten) state parks.

This wasn’t the Oregon Trail, but the setting was rugged enough to earn us a few flat tires, more than one instance of poison oak, and a tick bite turned into an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. As the writer/director and co-producer of the project, it’s probably fitting that I was the recipient of one of those poison oak encounters as well as host to the tick/staph fiasco. And all of it happened on the same part of my left leg, making for a long June. But the setbacks were worth it for a remote and rugged area that proved to be a perfect representation of our story’s location in the Middle East.

Steven Soro and Georges Chalhoub in "From the Sky."

Steven Soro and Georges Chalhoub in “From the Sky.”

Back in Ellensburg, the actors and I crammed into one of the motel rooms along with our remarkably versatile Arabic translator Omar Rahmouni. We saw our job as threefold: to translate the screenplay into something that was credible when spoken in Arabic, to find words that honored the script as well as the characters’ motivations, and to confirm the translation in English for the purposes of subtitling (and finishing principal photography on time). Our sessions were enlivened by these outspoken actors representing various regions of the Middle East, who brought with them dialects, experiences, and perspectives that were not necessarily symbiotic for the purposes of the film. There was passion and frustration; there were stalls and breakthroughs. There was listening and dialogue; jokes and reflections; swearing, shouting, and the occasional storming out of the room. And it happened again each night as we hustled to prep for the next day’s scenes. These debates became so lively that members of the crew would often sit-in just for the spectacle of it all.

Sometimes the Arabic translation was confirmed in a hurry, with the quality checked by the consensus of the Arabic speakers in the room. We sought to maintain the spirit of the text in moments when the screenplay could not be cleanly adapted. At times, the actors knew the essence of the material even better than I did, and helped to elevate the wording to a more organic place. One such instance had us Googling C.S. Lewis (which had inspired a key bit of dialogue) so that we could find a replacement in Arabic for my word for “wide.” After more than an hour, we understood the Lewis passage and my dialogue’s intent from the inside out, and opted to go with “easy.”

We’ve all heard the stories of light bulb moments on set, where an idea fundamentally changes and radically improves a film. But to me, collaboration is more often slow and steady. It’s one word improved at a time, or a single gesture added to a performance, giving a critical moment the proper emotional heft. Stacked up and added together, hundreds of little choices made together are what amount to a more engaging and layered film.

Despite the theater and the fireworks of these nightly translation sessions, the energy remained constructive, and the intensity carried over to the next day’s shoot. The actors developed a rapport that played out beautifully in front of the camera, and we gained an understanding that proved to be invaluable behind the lens. I know it sounds hyperbolic, but the process of taking “From the Sky” from script to screen–a journey that took 20 drafts, 13 months and $34,000–was the greatest creative experience of my life. The end result? A narrative short that’s just under 18 minutes, and a film that surpassed my expectations. MM

“From the Sky” premieres at the 2014 Newport Beach Film Festival in April 30, at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival on May 25and at the 18th annual Rhode Island International Film Festival, August 5-10.

For more information, go to the film’s websiteTwitter or Facebook.

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