Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Introducing Young Talents: Niam Itani


Niam Itani is a storyteller. She takes pieces of life and translates them into words, narratives and tales. She gives life to what is inanimate. To chunks of abstract. To snapshots of imagination. She has no children but she is the mother of tens of souls. They live in her pages and on the screen where their lives are rendered into moving images.

Because Niam Itani is a filmmaker.

Born in Lebanon where she lives and works as an independent screenwriter and filmmaker, she graduated from the Lebanese American University with a Bachelor Degree in Communication Arts and a Master's in Education. She then completed her Graduate Screenwriting Program at Hollins University in Virginia, USA before returning home to her alma mater where she currently teaches screenwriting.

"I worked for five years at Al Jazeera Channel in Doha, to get some experience and save money for my graduate tuition fees. When I returned from "Exile" (ghirbeh) people thought I had come back with a fortune, when in fact I was paying my savings for my Screenwriting MFA, so I returned with a degree instead. It was my dream to study screenwriting since I finished my undergrad degree in 2000, but for older relatives and acquaintances in Lebanon, the only good thing that come out of "ghirbeh" should be cashable at the bank. I think for them I might still be a failure". (smile) 

Some might disagree. In fact, Niam has been successfully featured in many film festivals worldwide and her latest short, Super.Full. has been selected out of more than 15,000 films from 160 countries, to compete in Your Film Festival, an online film festival organized by YouTube and Google Inc., in partnership with Sir Ridley Scott and the actor Michael FassbenderSuper.Full. is the only film from Lebanon and one of two Arab films in the competition.

Niam Itani

What got you interested in filmmaking? 
It was simply my desire to do something different than others when it was time to choose a major at university. I knew what I didn't want so I chose Communication Arts with an emphasis on Radio, TV and Film. And I fell in love with filmmaking.

Who is your favorite filmmaker?
Every passionate filmmaker is my favorite filmmaker. The first was Andrei Tarkovsky and countless others followed.

How would you describe your film education? 
My undergraduate and graduate film education were both so overloaded with film and theater work and so much fun, mainly because of the overnights that helped create lifelong friendships!

Is there anyone you call a mentor? 
Every teacher in their own realm were mentors. There isn't enough space to mention them all. I have a special place in my heart for my theater teacher Lina Abyad because she transcended the traditional student-teacher relationship and gave me advice on lots of issues that were life changing, with or without being aware of it!

What advice do you have for students interested in attending the same school? 
Anybody who wants to go to film school needs lots of passion, lots of courage and craziness and lots of discipline. I know that the last two are very difficult to balance, but that is my advice to every film student who wants to succeed.

What sort of internships and jobs have you had and what advice would you give to students interested in gaining the same types of opportunities?
I consider every free gig I worked on since I was a student and until now an internship. A special internship was the one I got at Aljazeera because it taught me alot and was a platform to work along many experienced and veteran journalists and filmmakers. My advice for students looking for opportunities is to say "YES" whenever they have time, and make every opportunity a learning experience. Get to know as many people in this industry as you can.

Super.Full Poster

Tell us about your experience at festivals.
The first time one of my films competed in a festival was in 2005. A short documentary I made was chosen for Aljazeera International Documentary Film Festival in Doha, Qatar. I was 24 and for someone who hadn't traveled much it was a thrilling experience. Later my student film in Hollins won an award in a student film competition in Canada. Super.Full. is the best festival runner so far. It has been selected in 14 film festivals so far and Your Film Festival is the 15th one. Festivals are an excellent way to get your work and yourself out there. They introduce you to new countries and new cultures and for an introvert like me, they put me face to face with strangers. Although I always beg a friend to meet me wherever I fly!

What areas of filmmaking interest you the most? 
Screenwriting is what interests me most. I am a loner. I love the idea of plugging my earphones and pouring my heart out on the page. I enjoy the acts of creating and manipulating characters, and above all, I love telling stories.

You have worked in Theater. How does it differ from Film and where do you feel most "yourself"?
Theater and film are spiritually very fulfilling for me. Theater carries much more thrill, being live and raw. For now I see myself writing for films, though I'd love to try playwriting in the future.

You also have worked in TV. What are some of the main differences between cinema and television? Are there specificities to the Arab world in that regard?
I can't compare Cinema to TV. Film is Art. TV can be art, but it is business. In the Arab world, unfortunately, most TV stations are propaganda outlets. I always advise my students to stop watching TV when they are working on films.

What do you consider the elements of a good film to be? Name a film you would regard as an example. 
A good script, first and foremost. Of course a harmonious production team is always needed to translate the writer's and/or director's vision to the screen. There are lots of good films out there. American Beauty and Little Miss Sunshine are two films that I refer to often in my film classes. I am also a huge fan of the Coen Brothers' films.

You teach screenwriting, name the one film you consider to showcase excellence in screenwriting.
I always change the examples I use in my classrooms, mostly to challenge myself and study more screenplays every year. This year I used a Russian film to show good screenwriting: The Return. The year before I used American Beauty. A Separation was an excellent screenplay for this year, and I thought it deserved the Academy Award for Best Screenplay par excellence.

What sort of things do you study when watching a film?
Sometimes I just let go and don't consider anything. But most of the time I can't help but watch for plot points, act breaks, character identifying lines, etc. It becomes intuitive.

Who are your favorite screen actors and why do you admire their work? 
I don't have an all time favorite screen actor, but I love certain actors in certain roles. There are some that earned immortal acclaim like Al Pacino in Michael Corleone, or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Jack Nicholson in Chinatown and many others. I mostly admire actors work when I feel that they took a challenging role, not one that "fits" who they are. Brad Pitt in Burn After Reading is an example that jumps to mind.

What are your best qualities as a filmmaker? 
I have a thing for observing life and people around me and a good eye for detail.

Your worst? 
I try to please everyone.

What inspires your work?
Daily life, for the most part, is where I get my inspiration.

What is the most inspired project you have done? 
My most inspired project is a screenplay I wrote really fast last year. It is my heart's favorite because it is a comedy, it takes place in Beirut, and its protagonist is a "Itani". I am waiting for my screenwriting experience to increase in order to polish the script well. But it is my favorite screenplay so far.


Tell us about Super.Full. 
Super.Full. slowly developed over the years, between 2007 and 2010. I come from a middle class family and when I saw the world I was exposed to so much poverty and so much wealth, the differences made me sick -literally. But I noticed that the poor were always more content. That was my motive to make the film. The filmmaking process was facilitated with lots of help from my friends and from MAISHA (the Mira Nair association) and from the Doha Film Institute because I was a Qatari resident at the time. DFI assisted us with the equipment and the facilities and key production people, namely a professional DOP and Sound Recordist, and the rest was personal investment. There were lots of production challenges really but none of them was major. I will be publishing "Super.Full. stories" on my blog which everyone is welcome to read and learn from, hopefully. Distribution wise, websites and distribution arms contacted me after festival screenings to show the film for a fee but I refused. I made this film because I want it to be seen and I was planning to make it available online for free, whether through Your Film Festival or simply Vimeo and YouTube.

Are you working on anything new?
I am working on my first feature film, which I hope to film in September 2013. It is a drama intended for theatrical release and festivals alike. We still didn't send out the rewritten script to anybody yet but we will be submitting it to major production grants and funds later this summer and next fall. I am looking for funding but I am a firm believer that with tighter financial power, more hearts go into production. And a production with more heart is usually better on screen than one with more cash. 

How would you describe the film industry in the Arab world and in Lebanon in particular? 
I love that there were many Lebanese films produced last year and this year. There is no industry yet, per se, in the Arab world. But that doesn't mean we cannot make good films. Nadine Labaki made two films that won international acclaim and she is paving the road for other Lebanese and Arab filmmakers. For the mere fact that she gives us hope, I think we have to salute her efforts.

What advice do you have for anyone interested in trying to succeed in our part of the world?
The journey is long, so don't let go. Be in it to win it. Be bold, be free, be truthful.


If you hadn't been a filmmaker, what profession would you have chosen?
Anything that has to do with writing.

Outside of films, what are your hobbies? 
Tennis, soccer (football), reading, photography, music, life!

If you were stranded on a desert island with only one item, what would it be? 
My eyeglasses, please!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 
Hopefully writing screenplays for other directors. I have lots of stories to tell and I enjoy writing more than directing. I hope some people would want to put those stories on the big screen.

Where can readers view your films and learn more about you? 
My website for a professional version or my blogs (here and here) for the human version. They can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, I am all over the place! (smile)

In one word, if you were a

Film? The English Patient 

Soundtrack? Babel

Book or literary piece? Annabel Lee - Edgar Allen Poe

Color? Navy Blue

Shape? Circle

Famous character (real or fictional)? The Talented Mr. Ripley!


Make sure you watch Super.Full. here and vote

This one tiny click of yours can make a huge change as Your Film Festival is now inviting everyone to take part in the voting process in order to select the films that will be screened at the Venice Film Festival. You can vote once a day, every day, until July 13th so make sure you try to pass by daily so Niam can get a shot at making a film with Ridley Scott's production company! 

How awesome would that be, right?


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um albanat said...

Nice thanks miss rouba

rouba said...

most welcome, um albanat ;)
you raised beautiful minds and souls :)

Anonymous said...

Um albanat has a lovely and generous spirit indeed. Well done, Rouba: some very nice touches in that film.
Mishka Mourani