We’ve covered a number of micro-budget Indie films from this year and one that I was lucky enough to catch was Christopher Jason Bell’s feature debut, The Winds That Scatter, during an exclusive 24-hour presentation of the film over at The Playlist back in mid-September. The film won the Best International No Budget Film Award at the Korea International Expat Film Festival and has been screening in various cities since. And, due to the arbitrary nature of the parameters of my year-end list, this won’t be the last time we mention Bell’s debut from this year.
What compelled you to tell this story? To make this film?
A couple of different reasons. At the earliest, I just wanted to make a feature film. I felt like people didn’t take short films and short filmmakers seriously, so if I wanted any sort of progression in this “career,” I needed to make a feature pronto. No one was going to wait around for me to do it. I wanted to do a micro-budget thing in the same way that, say, the Duplass brothers were doing their films, but more aligned with the style & aesthetics that I preferred, i.e. slow, atmospheric, etc. After graduating film school in 2008 I moved back home and encountered a gas station attendant in my town that had such an amazing presence. He was the perfect “slow cinema” subject — you could stare at his face for hours and it would be compelling. So I started writing a thing based around him. Of course I didn’t have the courage to talk to him, and then eventually he moved on from the station.
A couple of years passed, I was writing other features, and eventually I came back to this and decided to recast. It’s pretty crazy, but I figured the best way to go was to drive around and ask gas station attendants if they were interested in acting. Eventually I came upon an Egyptian man who had a perfect look and feel for the film. We talked a lot about his life, and this fleshed the bare outline I had from years prior. This is where the idea really transformed — it wasn’t going to just be a film about a character navigating the current American economy, we were now going to touch on what it was like to be a person of Middle Eastern descent, and Muslim, in post 9/11 America. It wasn’t going to be another micro-budget film about a white guy talking to other white guys in apartments. It also would fight against the notion that the only place for Middle Eastern people in cinema are in the roles of terrorists, suicide bombers, etc. The script was forming very nicely but we decided to part ways after the man got cold feet. I pressed on, though, trying to find another Arab male to replace him and bring their own experiences to the script. I hit the pavement, put up ads, etc. Eventually I found Nasri Zacharia, who lead to Mohammad Dagman, who came on as producer and found me Ahmad Chahrour. Since these guys were Syrian, we changed the script to reflect their thoughts and feelings about their country. The film became even more political in that sense, even more passionate thanks to them. Let’s put it this way — I thought all of this was important enough to shoot every Sunday for a year and a half.
At times, your film seems to take a backseat to document actual Syrian protests (also, the get-togethers w/ Ahmad’s friends and acquaintances). How much input did Ahmad and the rest of the cast have with regards to the film’s content and narrative?
I don’t really think it takes a backseat… that kind of stuff was always in the DNA of the film from the get go. I went into the film knowing that there would be things in the environment that I could never control on the (no) budget I had, so I decided to embrace the untamable environment and use it to my advantage.
The plot is very minimal, which is just my preference, but it allows for us to spend time on characters and moments that might not get their due in other types of movies. And that’s my kind of film. In reference to something like the demonstrations, I noticed that Nagisa Oshima’s films were not only radical in a political sense, but in something like “Sing A Song Of Sex” he would utilize real-life marches and demonstrations and incorporate them into his film, marrying their raw energy and political/societal impact with his scripted film. The end result is pretty breathtaking and powerful.
The entire film was the result of a lot of collaboration. There were things I wanted to happen, but I was very open as to what everyone wanted to do or say. We all really trusted each other. For me, that meant knowing that they would mostly be speaking Arabic because, realistically, that’s what they would do, even though I had no idea what they were saying! For them, they trusted that I wasn’t doing something that would reflect poorly on their attitudes, ideas, morals, etc.
While working on the film, did you imagine it would be as relevant as it is now? It feels as though the film’s relevancy continues to grow day by day, unfortunately.
I knew certain things would be relevant. 9/11 was a long time ago and still people look at Middle Eastern people, at Muslims, in a negative way. The Arab Spring was pretty huge but I knew that regardless of what happened, it wouldn’t just disappear. You would still feel all the reverberations of it for some time.
Of course, I didn’t think we’d be where we are now. The Syrian Refugee diatribe of a few weeks ago really, really got to me. I’m not sure why I was so shocked, but I was. But I also didn’t think Syria would be what it is today. One of the saddest memories during the shoot relates to this…. We often met up every Sunday and shot parts of the film, and generally it would be myself, my DP Paul Taylor, and Ahmad. A lot of driving around, a lot of time for conversation not necessarily related to the film. Ahmad could tell us about what was going on in Syria better than any mainstream media outlet could. One day he said “I think Assad will go soon. In a couple of months, it will be over.” The reality now is obviously very different and very dire.
You mention the “The Syrian Refugee diatribe” getting to you a couple of weeks ago. It seems like it got to you enough to warrant a series of tweets that ended with you opening up viewing of the film on Vimeo for a 24 hr period. What was the thought process/intent of opening up the film for viewing for 24 hours?
It’s frustrating because I have a film that directly counters the spew that was coming out around that time (I say “that time” — it’s still coming out and is there, but it was in full, chaotic force then). I got home from work and vented to my girlfriend, as I do daily, about my frustrations. And then it just seemed like — why not? Nobody else owns this film but me. I don’t have to answer to anyone but me. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to just be honest about my feelings and then let everyone watch it and share it and all that? There’s still that aspect of me “capitalizing” on that moment — not that I got any money out of it, but I think you know what I mean. And that certainly doesn’t feel great, but at the end of the day I’m not sure if there’s a way around it. But here it is, I have this film that I think works against negative perceptions of Muslims, Arabs, and now Syrian Refugees. So why wouldn’t I unlock it, at least for a night? I can sit by myself and stew, I can talk my girlfriend’s ear off, I can be passive aggressive on Twitter, but it seemed to me that the most meaningful thing I could do was just get it out there, at least for a day.
You could have gone the easy, dramatic route by injecting elements of xenophobia and/or Islamophobia but you choose not to, what went into that decision? Did including those elements cross your mind?
There were elements of that in the early script, and even certain scenes that I ultimately cut were much more overt. They just didn’t work. They were very obvious, very statement-like, and ultimately really hollow. There’s a way to do it, but it just clashed with the film we were trying to make. That said, I think there are subtle forms of both going on in the film — things that don’t really appear xenophobic/islamophobic on the surface, but upon further inspection these moments reveal a hidden, deep-rooted form of the two. I would never say that these feelings lurking within people are worse than overt hate, but it’s something that isn’t talked or thought about as much and it’s dangerous in itself.
When it comes to the scenes of Ahmad and his friends discussing topics in Arabic, you say that you didn’t know what they were saying at the time. Did you have those scenes scripted in anyway or did you fully trust them to improvise those scenes? If so, when in the process of making the film did you have full comprehension of the content within those scenes?
All of the scenes that are in Arabic had scripted dialogue, but that “hang-out” scene in particular (and also something like Ahmad’s phone call home in the beginning) just had a couple things I wanted to touch on instead of strict lines to follow. Still, when we would shoot any scene, Arabic or English, I encouraged the actors to say the dialogue however was more comfortable for them so it wouldn’t come off as clunky.
After Arabic-heavy scenes we’d talk about how the actors felt about the scene — did they get the conversation/dialogue across as well as they thought they could? We’d talk like this after every scene, but in these instances the DP and I could only go by what we saw in their faces and mannerisms and couldn’t contribute too much to the exact things being said in the scene. In that sense it made us more attuned to the physicality of the actors, particularly Ahmad and Mohammad.
What’s next for you?
Next up! Winds took quite awhile so I have a bunch of things in varying stages of “done.” There’s a couple shorts — one is a companion piece to Winds titled One Times One — and then my second feature, Incorrectional.
Christopher Bell’s The Winds That Scatter will be screening at BV Cinemas in Los Angeles, CA on Saturday, December 12th at 10PM PST (for more information). More screenings to be announced soon, you can check the film’s Facebook page for updates and announcements at www.facebook.com/thewindsthatscatter