It was in the year of 2017 when Shahidah sat in front of me and began pitching ideas for her final year project. This phase of film making, the appraisal of an idea, is crucial. Before we begin the arduous task of story planning, we must first of all invest in the courtship of an idea. Is it attractive enough? Is it worth six months of grueling mental labor that would go into the fleshing out of a short film screenplay? When you hear the idea, it should cause some physiological changes in your body. You ought to sit up a little straighter. Lean forward with your eyebrows raised. Your pulse must race just a little faster. Your imagination spark with immediate possibilities. If nothing of that sort happens, then quickly toss the idea away. A boring idea, executed with great production values, is just a well-made boring film.
A student has a week to pitch ideas to her lecturer.
From experience, ideas pitched during the first few days are about as exciting as stale bread. But that’s okay. Good ideas spend their time hiding in dark cool places. It takes some coaxing to lure them out. In some cases, you’ve to drag them out, kicking and screaming, into the light. This is why you never settle on the first three ideas that come out of your head. Shahidah however, was the exception. Good ideas sprang unbidden from her on the first day of pitching. One that made me sit up was based on a true gold smuggling incident in India. I realized the logistics of producing that would be beyond a student’s capability and so very reluctantly, I asked her if she had another idea. Shahidah thought for a few seconds and then very casually said, My father once put a bomb on the mrt.
I nearly fell from my chair.
In early 2000, a man was arrested for planting a fake bomb on the Yishun mrt carriage. By some strange force of destiny and fate, seventeen years later, his daughter would be sitting in front of me, pitching an idea for her final year film.
This was her premise.
Azza, an 11-year-old girl, finds out the truth about her terrorist father and must make the most painful decision of her life.
I immediately said yes.
ASSEMBLING THE TEAM
Eleaner had worked with Shahidah during their second year on a documentary. And since they worked well together, Shahidah asked Eleaner if she wanted to be the director of the film. Eleaner agreed, and then began to assemble the rest of the team.
What does it mean to work together? Is it all smiles, and hugs? Passing out congratulatory statements like well done, and good job?
The Azza team went through epic fights. Script discussions were brutal. Eleaner was constantly getting critiques from Docson, the production designer. Docson went through bouts of long angst in making the bomb prop for the production. He also had to recreate the interrogation room from scratch. Sufy, the cam operator, was restless. He had a short fuse and got irritated every time the director asked for a shot. For Eleaner, it was very strenuous keeping her composure as being a director meant you had to give your opinion on every aspect of the production, right down to the color of a shoe. Shah and Vene had to step in and bring the temperature of the room down to decent levels before anyone could self-combust. Vene was the assistant director. Everyone trusted her not to take sides. Her word was law. So much so that everyone began to address her as Mama Vene. All throughout the pre-production, the rule was that anyone who had any issue, regardless how small and how silly, with the story or the screenplay, had to voice it out, after which the team had to convene and thrash it out before the whole team can move on.
A great film, like a great story, suffers birth pangs. It’s an unfortunate aspect of creative work that friction is necessary to produce anything worthy of remembrance. What makes a good team great was its ability to encourage as much friction as possible, weathering it, and then surviving it. Team Azza managed to survive long enough to begin preparation of the film.
Since the story was told from the point of view of the little girl, finding the right actress to play Azza, was crucial. They managed to find a good child actress. Finding the actor to play her younger brother, Nawi, however, was a challenge. The brother, Nawi, was the character who would win the hearts of the audience because his innocence and his life would be at stake. For a long time, they could not find the actor with the right look. And so they decided to do street casting. This meant heading down to Little India and just checking out kid after kid and trying not to come across as creepy child kidnappers.
Finally, they found one.
Working with a kid with no acting experience requires tons of preparation. Much of it involved the director and producer and the assistant director getting the kid to get used to them. So Eleaner, Shah, and Vene spent a lot of time during the school break, talking to the kid, playing games with the kid, helping the kid with the lines in the script, which all the while, was being rewritten by the director, with notes from me. Finding the adult actors did not take as long. They managed to find a good Indian actor to play the father, and a good freelancer to play the mother. When you can find a strong cast for your film, you are forty percent on the way to a good film. You now just have to fix this thing called a screenplay.
WRITING THE SCREENPLAY
During the first dozen drafts of the screenplay, Eleaner and her team kept coming up with exciting terrorist action scenarios. The climatic showdown between the police and the father. The attempted escape via boat on the beach. The hunt for the terrorist as he fights his way through underground tunnels, with the SWAT team hot on his heels. The team even went to recce these locations. I applauded their efforts but I was still concerned that all these just seemed a little familiar. These scenarios would have been more appropriate in a feature length film. But this was a student short film, and I thought we should be looking for a different kind of climax. Something less bombastic and a lot more intimate.
And a lot cheaper.
The answer came when we went back to our original premise and focused on our main character. This, incidentally, is a good way to figure out a way to unblock a story choke. Always go back to your original premise and look at where your main character began.
In our case, Azza began with adulation of her father. He was her role model. What better way to climax the entire story than by ending on her decision in the interrogation room. Would she lie to save her father?
We rewrote the script to reflect that. But we ran into a brick wall trying to fix the midpoint of the script. Good stories have a strong midpoint because it’s always at that precise point where the story does a dramatic turn and you reveal what is truly at stake and what the main character must do, to resolve her inner conflict. Failure to nail the mid-point is generally why many student films collapse and you get this nagging feeling, at the end of the film, that “something is missing”.
The team had suggested that it was a recurring nightmare that caused Azza to decide to come clean to the police. But again, the nightmare involved the recreation of a restaurant devastated by a bomb, with severed limbs littered everywhere. Once again, aside from the crazy production cost of recreating that scene, it did not ring true to me. We were stuck for the longest time. Eleaner had interviewed her producer’s mother and sister for the details back then. She had even transcribed the interviews in her research notebooks, and I asked her if there was anything we can use. Eleaner could not recall anything. Shahidah thought for a few seconds and then very casually said, My mom tried to poison the family.
I nearly fell from my chair.
We found our midpoint.
With that very suspenseful and dramatic scene in place, it was clear what Azza had to do next to ensure that the family survive. She had to make sure her father answer for what he did. Thus, we reached the final climax of the film. The interrogation scene. The most difficult scene to write as every line had to be carefully calibrated. It had to build to the final moment when Azza told her father exactly why she had lied to the police. This key line of dialogue, uttered by the actress, never fails to elicit a gasp from the audience whenever the film is played. It’s a line I am immensely proud of, and it came from the crew, after an exceptionally long rewrite meeting. At this point, Eleaner was exhausted. Shahidah had insisted that the entire team attend script meetings, because she had this theory that a film is like a coffin, and every team member must carry it like a coffin bearer, and to make sure the coffin doesn’t drop, every team member must carry his share of the weight. I got her point but I’m not sure comparing a film project to a coffin is exactly the right analogy you want to use as inspiration. At any rate, the art and camera crew were in class when I beamed up the script onto the wall, and went through that last scene line by line. And when it came to that moment, when Azza stood up, and gave a retort to her father, I turned to the class, and asked, what does she say here. She has to say something. What does she say to him, to fix this whole mess?
Some wiseass shouted from the back of class. You need to fix yourself first.
And the light bulb flashed.
That was the line. Which meant Eleaner had to go back to the start of the script and plant the “fix” seed. How the father was always promising his daughter he can fix anything. So that she could eventually nail him with that phrase. You should fix yourself first.
After ten long months, and twenty-one drafts, the screenplay was finally locked down. It was time to produce the script.
Shahidah’s insistence in making everyone attend the script meetings rubbed off on everyone. Everyone now felt they owned the story. Knowing that everyone is united in one common vision, allowed the entire team to speak in one voice. So much so, that when I went down on set, it was startling to see how the director would turn to the cameraman, utter one sentence, and the cameraman would finish it for her. They even had their own special lingo. To this day, I’m mystified by the term “Subjective pov” which they kept tossing around on set. Sure, there were the occasional grumblings, as Sufy the cameraman had to wear a rig and run with the child actor for five takes which took a toll on his back, but by and large, because the script had been rehearsed, and workshopped to death, the team could just focus on getting the scenes shot.
Shooting the bomb discovery in the underground tunnel at East Coast, was where I saw great teamwork in action. The tunnel was unbearably warm. The heat clung to your body like a second skin. Phone reception was nil. So the producer had to run upstairs to ground, give instructions and then run back down to the tunnel. There were dozens of extras to co-ordinate, several of them had to return for repeating shots. The cameraman, a large jovial chap by the name of Hamizah, was a force of nature. He bellowed out motivational cheers, encouraged everyone, and kept the momentum going. I had to stay far in the background so no one could see how touched I was to see the whole student team working as good as any professional crew I’ve seen in the industry. I said to myself, as far as I’m concerned, these students have already graduated and would survive in the industry.
The film was finally wrapped and edited. The interrogation scene moved me mightily. What impressed me the most was not just that the whole film was shot well, it hammered into me the meaning of what makes a good team. A great team is not comprised of members who are individually strong. That is not the point. A great team is one that is able to turn its weaker members into beacons of strength. By believing in them, being patient with them, and never letting up on standards.
In all my years as a lecturer, Azza remains as the best student film I’ve ever mentored. I will forever hold up the Azza team as an example of what great teamwork can be.
Azza won the Silver medal in New York TV & Film Awards (2018) — Best Student Film