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21:03

Creative Writing & Filming with youth in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 2

In our second week of the workshop the children and trainers in all groups began developing their story concepts and storyboards, along with acting and shooting video on-location for their films. Below is a day-by-day summary of our experiences with the workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza.

More photos and updates on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

Day 6: Creative story-writing

We began the workshop with a focus on creative story-writing; the session was lead by Asmaa Elghoul, an award winning writer and journalist in Gaza, who's been volunteering some time with our workshops.

After a quick warm-up yoga stance and physical ice-breaker, Asmaa began the session with having everyone introduce themselves to her and describe their dream the previous night; this elicited some hilarious and touching thoughts. She then discussed what children felt were key story elements like place, climax, plot, ending, turning point, dialog, writing style, characters, context etc. We noted these points on a large sheet and referred to them often during the day as they spoke about their own narratives.

We then broke-up in 5 groups and Asmaa handed each one an illustrated storybook to read and decompose the key story elements we had discussed. Each group leader spoke a summary of the story (often acted out in funny ways) followed by one of the children presenting key elements. We then had each group participate in a rapid story-writing game we developed as follows:

1. Children in each group wrote a character, object and place on separate pieces of paper and threw then into 3 baskets.
2. We shuffled each one and handed them back to children in all groups (3 for each person).
3. Then children worked in their groups to quickly write a story comprising of these elements in 15 minutes.
4. Trainers reviewed the stories written among the groups asking about key story elements and the narratives were refined.
5. We collected the pieces of paper and re-shuffled them in the baskets, handing them back once again to children in all groups.
6. Children repeated the exercise and wrote new narratives from the elements they received.
7. After a quick review among the groups, we then collected everyone for a class wide activity called "story chains". Here we asked one person to read their story and then using elements in their narrative, someone else with similar elements (each a character, place or object) had to read their story... this continued till nearly everyone read theirs, while we often chose children who were shy or had not spoken earlier.

The entire activity was devised by us on the fly and it went really well; it got all the groups really engaged and internalizing some of the story elements we discussed earlier.

After lunch we watched two short films made by youth in previous workshops, Lamees Daydream and Street Lesson, to discuss story elements in the films, using the later to develop a storyboard of key scenes. This went quite well as the children understood the reasons for storyboarding, to better communicate ideas and break narratives down to the visual elements for filming.

The final exercise was to discuss stories they wrote over the weekend in their groups; there was less time for this and given the long day I think children were less creative and energetic at this stage. The narratives they read were typical of a day in their life with few if any imaginative elements (though one was about dreaming a trip to the moon). One that struck me was about a magic stick and a couple seeking counseling from a psychiatrist... though the story was under-developed, I suggested making the psychiatrist the one needing help - visiting families in the families in his neighborhood to figure out his dilemma :-)

Trainers felt this was the hardest activity for the children and many thought it would take a long time to get children into a more creative space. They were less optimistic but I mentioned that we've always experienced these challenges at this stage of the workshop.

Overall, I think our creative exercises in the morning were valuable but we need to spurn the children into more imaginative thinking; we'll try a few other exercises the next day, like developing narratives from photographs, story circles where children start a story and others in the circle have to complete it, improvisational stories by acting out character roles assigned to them, and perhaps going back to their neighborhoods or a brief field-trip to activate their imagination.

Day 7: Improvisational play - The psychiatrist and the donkey...

Our day began with the usual warm-up; this time children lined up along a cross-bar and playing a game of swapping themselves like musical chairs quite rapidly. I could barely make sense of it all. I'm just amazing with the creative new exercises they keep devising each day.

Asmaa and I then led our next stage of creative narrative sessions; this time we played the "story-chain" in the full circle of the group of 20 children and their trainers. Asmaa started with one example phrase "One day as I was on my way home ..." and then asked me to continue as I said "I met an elephant" .. and so on. The children at first were a bit slow to keep up the pace but eventually got the hang of it and created quite an imaginative storyline towards the end of the circle.

I then suggested we repeat the "story-circle" and I started with a more specific context to spur a richer storyline. I said "There was once a psychiatrist in Jabaliya camp, who thought he was going crazy and wanted help ..." and then the next person said "and he ran down the street and met a donkey" ... "who told him about his problems" ... and so on... by the end we had a hilarious and touching storyline that had a rich array of characters including "donkeys who protested their working conditions (i.e. DR - or donkey rights)", "mice who stole their petitions", and "a magician on a broom stick" who tried to solve their dilemma. In the end the psychiatrist wakes up from his "dream" but as he washes his face sees a "donkey" in the mirror... and runs back into the street seeing donkeys everywhere... I think they wanted to imply that the psychiatrists' problem was inside him and only he could solve it by introspection - yet instead of a direct message, the children suggested an "open ending" - leaving that up to the audience. It felt more like a version of the "Twilight Zone" :-)

We than asked the children to script-out and storyboard the tale they devised for practice... this worked well as we went through key details for each potential scene devising better characters and transitions within the story. We got the children to make a play with the storyline. We selected Abeer (one of our best participants) as the director and got the children to "audition" for each of the roles, rehearsing key scenes several times, with a virtual film crew. Finally, Roger decided to film the full play and it went surprisingly smoothly (after many chaotic rehearsal takes). The acting was amazing with Abeer finally playing the psychiatrist (after directing many actors to do it) and little Hammad acting as the cool donkey wearing shades. I was impressed that everyone played their roles so well; feels like many children opened up in the exercise and there's pretty good working dynamics within the group.

We then screened the video and children got to see a complete concept to video example in less than 2 hours. It was a huge morale boost and hilariously fun to perform. They also talked about the difficult job of the director and importance of a really detailed script. We then watched another example youth video short "Mother of Palestine" (Jenin 2007) which also had a good storyline and discussed various aspects of the narrative and video shooting thereafter.

In the last hour we broke up into newly selected groups (we thought mixing them up again would bring fresh ideas) and had them each try developing new stories for their films the next day. The groups struggled a bit at first but then after we asked some of the children to close their eyes and imagine a few key characters and situations, got them to develop narrative scripts and storyboards together.

We plan to review the storyboards in the morning and have them act out the key scenes, before doing a sample video shoot in the afternoon. I expect many of their stories tomorrow will still be rather preliminary so they may get better refined/expanded as they shoot or they can simply develop a new one after this initial video trial. I think its best not to push the groups too hard to have coherent narratives in the first go, but let them get comfortable with the full process of concept to video and later develop better narratives as they mature their ideas.

Day 8: Refining story ideas, animation and video tutorial

Today the groups presented their storyboards and scripts for potential films they plan to work on. Here's a quick summary of the key ideas emerging thus far:

1. A folk tale about a lion that harasses a colony of rabbits ("Rabbit City"), asking for one delivered and sacrificed to him each day for his meal; finally the rabbits protest and devise a way to trick the lion into thinking another lion is vying for his share. The lion sees his own reflection in a pool of water and jumps in; it’s a simple tale but the group narrated it with a lot of symbolism and metaphors about Palestinian children under occupation.

2. A film about the "noise" in the camp from generators to street vendors selling watermelons... it was an unfinished story until I suggested bridging it with one they worked on about the deaf girl Amna. Here they story would transition from an annoying noise filled day in the life of a child in the camp to meeting Amna and transforming her world through Amna's impairment, and thus learning to appreciate the richness of the soundscape around her.

3. A child experiences nightmares and is unable to sleep, while his parents complain about his performance in school. The story drifted a bit with an accident experienced by the boy, after which the parents are sympathetic to the boy. We suggested the issue of problems with sleep in the camp may actually be useful to emphasize in the film (as we heard it from many of the mothers in our focus groups). The children are refining their narrative (including perhaps an animated dream sequence) and may try to make the script more dramatic.

4. A story about Ahmad and Anna on their last day in school. Ahmad is a poor child living in the camp and Anna in a more affluent neighborhood in the city. A series of events happen in their lives until Ahmad finds a jewel on the beach - a turning point in the story, after which their roles may switch after which they may both appreciate each other lives better.

5. A story about separation among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. It shows children walking lonely and confused in both places looking for each other, with Palestine being their mother. The film is a rather abstract performative piece with much symbolism.

After some long and constructive critique the narratives appear to be shaping up a bit - lets see what the groups try to make of them.

In the afternoon we watched an animated film presented by a guest speaker, Tilda, a photographer from Belgium, who worked with children in Nablus on the short. The kids got excited to try such animations for some scenes in their own films though they were well aware of the efforts needed.

Finally, Roger conducted the video session as planned quite thoroughly with some camera demonstrations on-screen, watching scenes from shorts like the Pole, Lamees Daydream, Theater of Stones and Take it or Leave it, to reinforce camera angles and composition. The session was long and needed to be a bit more interactive and hands-on.

By the end the children were losing steam and we ended the day with a quick review of their scripts in groups to start video shooting the following morning.

Day 9: First day of video shooting on-location

Today we began preparing groups for their first video shoot on-location. After revising their scripts and reviewing them with us, they had to develop detailed production plans with key characters and locations of scenes and also assign roles for the director, photo/video camera persons and actors. In some cases groups had to find extras for their films in the locations itself.

Before leaving we also asked all trainers to conduct brief hands-on video camera trainings with all children in their groups, reinforcing lessons learned on shot framing, angles and composition in the video tutorial by Roger the previous day. Finally, we asked all groups to register themselves in a sign-up sheet with the center so we knew who was on-location and what equipment they took along. We insisted on all group members wearing their badges on-location as well. All the preparations were meant to get them to take their shooting seriously and think through their efforts more professionally as they go forward.

The five groups managed to spend 2-3 hours on their first shoot; each seemed quite satisfied with their experience. A de-briefing discussion among all later that afternoon indicated a few points. Groups took care to shoot several scenes in multiple takes to get it right; some had a hard time getting extras on-location or other characters for their films but managed partly - though will need to go back and shoot more with other characters the next day. One group had a hard time getting the hearing impaired girl to be in the film as she was not around and they felt the sign translation would take more effort, so they may have an actor in her place.

My group recruited half a dozen kids on-location to wear masks as rabbits and over 20 spectators (unintentionally) in the station park (apparently the only open green play-space in Gaza) where they shot their lion and rabbit tale. Most people there turned out to be quite helpful. The group managed to use many sections of the park as key locations for different scenes (but had some trouble maintaining scene continuity shooting a forest in an urban space); they generally enjoyed the shoot, despite the blaring sun.

Getting permission to shoot in other locations was not easy e.g. a UN school and a special needs center, so these needed to be negotiated in advance; some eventually worked out through personal connections. One group wanted to shoot in an open desert area, but when they got there, many new homes were being built to their surprise and they felt uncomfortable shooting due to the police there. They finally got assistance from a popular old man in the neighborhood to get access from the community. Most did not give up easily and tried to get many of their scenes done. "Location Scouting" in advance is an important lesson they recognized.

The groups mentioned that everyone took to their roles easily and many got to use the video camera as well, though often only 1-2 were assigned the video camera. Most said they used lessons learned in the video tutorial the previous day, though I expect many mistakes in their shots. I noted some using zoom and rapid movement too often, so I think stable shots maybe something they learn over time. We'll see how their first day of footage turned out during video reviews the following day, and whether they can turn these into their final films. I expect quite a bit may need to be re-shot or scripts re-worked, but its still a good learning exercise.

Day 10: Reviewing Video Footage and Group Critique

In the morning, we had Jehan, a drama trainer from Tamer, come back to conduct a drama session with the group. This was really refreshing for all after a long day of video shooting the day before. Jehan led them through a series of movements, gestures and role playing exercises. Her goal was to make them less shy, more expressive and improve their body language on-screen while acting out their stories "in character".

We than lead a long session of video footage reviews among all groups. Roger and I had watched and compiled key scenes from the group's footage the night before and we examined these "shot selections" carefully to highlight good and poor examples of camera techniques used, along with overall composition and how the scenes actually convey the narrative intended. We were actually quite impressed with the content and composition of many of their shots (thanks to their photo training), though all noticed critical issues with camera stability and movement. One of the more powerful set of scenes was completely silent, with shots composed of the actors running and searching through a barren and destroyed landscape - almost felt like a surreal David Lynch scene or an apocalyptic Mad Max film.

We downloaded all footage into the VideoStudio software for each group as a separate project to show an overall summary of visual footage shot, and also culled 3-4 shot selections from each for illustrative purposes into its own project folder for review. We had labeled all scenes, shots and takes for all projects and the footage selections over 2-3 hours the night before; this was very helpful during the review as we screened different takes and shots of the same scenes to demonstrate techniques used.

This overall session went really well with much of the critique coming from the children themselves as they saw their footage projected on a large screen, with all of the challenges they encountered on-location including camera movement, shot stability, excessive zooming, sound quality, and acting. Jehan, Roger and I helped summarize key lessons learned on a poster including improving shot stability using a tripod and no zoom, breaking up scenes into multiple shots (instead of zooming midway), using cameras closer to the subjects to get more expressive features and better audio, improving overall shot composition with attention to lightning and framing of subjects, acting tips for being "in character" rather than reading out lines, not looking directly at the camera but not turning ones body to it either etc. We asked them to consider consider when and how the camera itself becomes a unintentional "character" in the film if its used with excessive movement and zooming, while POV shots need to be done intentionally to match story outcomes.

The discussions were very lively and I think the groups loved talking about their shots and recognizing things they had simply not noticed during the shoot. We asked each to refine their storyboards for a visual summary of shots and the dialog in their scripts, before continuing shooting. We've now given cameras to all their trainers over the weekend to continue shooing as they have time to meet, and extended their shooting schedule through Sunday, after which we hope to begin video editing tutorials with them next week.

We are generally going on-track this week and it’s been good to do a critical review of their footage before the weekend to get them to re-think their visual aesthetics and techniques. I have a feeling they'll do a great job on their next days of shooting with trainers, now that there's a higher-bar for what we expect to see. They're really motivated and psyched to work on their films...

(PRO)
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