Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Imam wants to know if you’re on your period: the top 10 moments of shooting a video in Byblos, Lebanon

Andy Ash and I have spent a week in Jbeil, ancient Byblos, making a short video about a JRS school for Syrian refugees. Here are the highlights:

10.  100 Turkish coffees with the family we were following
We followed one student for this video, from when she got up in the morning, through her day at school. Throughout the week, her family continuously came to us with a tray of delicious coffee to get us through our long days of shooting.

9.  Hot tubbing on the balcony of the hotel
Because we arrived at 6 a.m. to the hotel, a room wasn’t prepared for us, so instead of making us wait, they upgraded us to a suite with a Jacuzzi on the balcony, overlooking the sea. After a long day of shooting, I watched the storm over the sea, rain and hail hitting the windows, while I relaxed in the Jacuzzi. As I went to bed, I heard Andy climb in with a beer to watch It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, so it was win for both of us.

8.  Our Oscar award-winning star
We followed a 13-year-old girl for the video, whose father is a teacher at the school. She was incredible. With no shared language, she was prepared to let us surround he with cameras, and ask her to stop walking or move from here to there. When we asked her to sit still for her interview, to keep her in focus on camera, she stayed perfectly still for an hour. A videographer’s dream.

7.  Getting Andy a fishing pole
The minute Andy saw the sea, he got a bee in his bonnet that he needed to go fishing in Lebanon. After shooting, we took him to a gun shop to look at fishing poles, and eventually a friend of JRS lent him one for free. Expect photos of Andy standing on pier to be uploaded soon.

6.  Watching the lightning from an abandoned building day one
After getting all the time lapse footage from an abandoned apartment complex, we switched gears. Andy put a lightning trigger on the camera and got some beautiful shots of the storm over the sea. We made out of the building and into the car just as the heavens opened over us.

(watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and eating lunch in the abandoned building during a 5-hour photo time lapse)

5.  Getting Andy’s lunch order via walkie talkie
I always thought his walkie talkies were useless; “Why can’t we just use our cell phones?” but walkie-ing him from the hotel, while he was at the top of another abandoned building down the street was pretty cool. “Come in Andy, come in. Do you want ham on your pizza? Over.”

4.  Setting up the Go Pro on the roof of the mosque in the rain
My tiny HD waterproof camera came in handy when we were trying to get a great shot of the minaret on top of the mosque. Even though it was raining, we climbed onto the terra cotta roof and set up the shot we wanted.

3.  Shooting the school bus, leaning out of the car window in the pouring rain
The first day of filming, Andy rode the school bus with the students. I followed alongside in a car to get some outside shots. In order to accomplish this, I stood on the front seat, leaning out the window in the pouring rain. By the time we reached the school, I was drenched.

2.  Are you on your period?
Women aren’t usually allowed in this mosque, but the Imam is so keen on the video we are making, that he let Andy and I film him during his afternoon prayer. I just needed to cover my hair, and wear a long, heavy robe. Oh yeah, and he needed to make sure that I wasn’t “unclean” at the time. My friend, who works for JRS in Jbeil (Byblos), leaned out the door of the mosque saying, “He says it’s ok to come in. Personal question, though, he needs to know that you aren’t on your period…”

1.  The police arriving at the abandoned building
Our last shot, I am typing now as we are shooting it. We are getting an establishing shot of the mosque that doubles as a JRS school. Because it’s tucked away between buildings, we needed the right vantage point. So, Andy and I set up his camera and an umbrella on the top floor of an abandoned building across the street. A family kept looking out their apartment and taking photos of us, assuming we were criminals. A few hours later, a police car and a tinted Dodge Charger pulled up at the school. The Imam’s son and two armed police came running towards the building. Andy ran down, and when they saw it was us, they left us alone.

Low points:
1.     Spilling Andy’s camera bag and spilling orange juice on his Macbook Pro
2.     Freezing my ass off during rain-drenched time-lapses

 (Almost all photos by Andy Ash)

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Record shopping in Hamra (Part 1)

Poor Gavin. He arrived to start working for JRS Middle East, moving his life to a new continent, the day the office reached it's breaking point. Welcome to JRS.

My solution was to take him around the city, which is a pretty big joke seeing as how I never go out. I took him record shopping in Hamra, a kind of student district near the American University. We were looking for a record store I couldn't find, records he's never heard of, in a language neither of us could speak.

So breakfast turned into lunch, and a quick shopping trip turned into an all-day odyssey. We were looking for a man straight out of High Fidelity. I say "we", even though Gavin could care less about records. Every music shop knew of this man, but didn't really want to help us because he is so terrible – the type that has records you want but won't sell them, who laughs at your music taste because it's just not obscure enough, who would rather be left alone is his dusty attic shop with his music. We asked another record guy how to find him and he said, "I know where he is, but that man is NOT my friend!"

That's who we were looking for and it took us four hours to find his shop. But the hours of searching allowed me to get out of this rut I've dug for myself. See, when I got here I was so desperately homesick that I shied away from everyone. Living and working with great JRS people saved me from being alone all the time, but I didn't know how to process the constant talk about Syria, and death, and stress and war.

It was getting out in the city, with another foreigner, someone even newer than myself, that reminded me of normal life – not thinking of Omaha, not talking about Syria– but just wandering the streets looking for the curmudgeonly record guy.

Well, we finally found his shop, and it turns out he's in Germany for the week. But at least it gives me an excuse to go back.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Almaza, and Andy Ash

So, my time in Beirut in winding down, although I can hardly feel it. The office is in an uproar, I'm starting up my last few projects for JRS Middle East and Andy Ash just arrived to help.

I first met Andy in India, well over a year ago. I was dating his roommate but found myself up late night with Andy, talking about photography and singing "The Weight" over and over, seeing as it was the only song he could play on the guitar.

I've visited him and his family in England three times over the past year; conned him into meeting me in Paris to see Bruce Springsteen and then convinced him to road trip from London to Rome in his tiny, 2-seater convertible, top down, in winter. That'll test a friendship.

Now he's in Beirut, shooting a video with me about our education projects in Lebanon for Syrian refugees. And man, it feels like such a blessing to have him. After seeing him and his family more over this year than my own, it feels like I've got a little slice of family, of home, here in Beirut.

Andy arrived on Mardi Gras, which doesn't mean anything in Beirut, even though it's a former French colony. He got off the plane and we went out straight away with my roommates and colleagues. I'd like to say this was because of Mardi Gras, but every day here in Beirut is blur of whiskey and cigarettes. It's truly been a whirlwind here. I haven't been drinking, which has helped and hindered in it's own ways.

Beirut is a funny place. I don't know any Lebanese people; all my roommates until recently were from the same home town in Syria. Beirut is expensive cars, new condos, bars and restaurants. You hear about a bombing across town over Facebook in the morning and then go out at night.

And after a few months in the city, I've gotten strangely attached. I've never met JRS people like the guys I've met here. Maybe it's because they are from Syria that makes them so dedicated. But I don't think so; they are dedicated because it's in their nature. Maybe it's because the office has been turned upside down recently with new management decisions that have brought us closer through turmoil.

It's just because it takes time to settle in, and now it hurts to think I have to go. It took me and Andy a year or more to feel like family, but the people I've met in Beirut welcomed me into their big, crazy, dysfunctional family almost immediately.