Dubai-based filmmaker Wassim Beydoun made a documentary on thalassaemia using a Sony NEX- FS700. In an exclusive interview with Vibhuti Arora, the filmmaker talks about his experience of working on the medical documentary
Ismi – My Name Is
Wassim Beydoun’s Ismi – My Name is, is a documentary about thalassaemia. In his film, Beydoun pays tribute to thalassaemia patients, who live happy, wholesome lives despite the challenges they face in everyday life owing to the blood disorder.
It’s a positive film according to Beydoun, who wanted to show that patients suffering from the condition can lead a normal life.
“They look normal and have dreams and aspirations just like us. Most importantly, they have a passion to live life to the fullest, to make the most of what they have,” he says.
“The disorder has a taboo attached to it, which makes it worse for those suffering from it. Although things have drastically improved from what they were a decade ago, more awareness needs to be created to quell myths about the disorder, which is the reason I made this film,” he adds.
Beydoun began researching the subject to make a film at the behest of a friend. He had just completed a black-and-white medical documentary about breast cancer, and had expressed a desire to make more medical documentaries.
With no knowledge about the disorder, Beydoun started reading about it on the internet. To his dismay, while there was a lot of medical and scientific information about the disorder, it was hard to find what it meant to live with the disorder.
“There was expansive information in medical and scientific terms but for a lay person trying to learn about the condition, there was very little available on the internet. I struggled to find more,” he says.
That’s when Beydoun contacted his uncle, a pathologist in the U.S. He helped him get a backgrounder on the disorder and gave him better insight into what the treatment entailed.
The former First lady of Lebanon, Mouna Haroui who happens to be a family friend of Beydoun advised him to contact the Ministry of Health in Dubai to tell his story. She guided Beydoun and put him in contact with the right people to approach for the film.
“I got a mixed feeling, the people that I approached for the film encouraged me but did not promise any support. That stemmed from the taboo attached to the disorder. It’s a common misconception that thalassaemia patients look sickly and weak. It was also politically difficult to approach government hospitals to have access to the patients,” he says.
After several months of trying, with no breakthrough in sight, Beydoun almost gave up the idea, when Haroui told him about the Shaikh Sultan Thalassaemia Awards.
“She even called them up on my behalf and fixed a meeting with HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan Humanitarian and Scientific Foundation.
“I had a meeting with the Head of Public Relations, Saeed Al Awadhi. Our meeting lasted four hours, wherein I explained to him my vision for the film. Al Awadhi is a thalassaemia major himself and was very keen to help make the film.”
After the initial hiccups, the film received the necessary support it needed and the project finally took off. Beydoun was given an official letter saying that the film was made in cooperation with HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan Humanitarian and Scientific Foundation.
This was the moment he had been waiting for. With the story board and script in place, Beydoun approached Dubai-based distributor of broadcast equipment, Advanced Media for the equipment. Sony NEX-FS700 was the main camera he wanted to use in the film for its proven ability to shoot in slow motion. He owns a Sony DG-900, and the complimentary lenses – Zeiss 24/70 and Zeiss 85mm, which he used to shoot Ismi.
“I have previously worked on ARRI, RED and FS700 and, of course, Sony DG-900 but I believe no other camera would have captured the essence of Ismi like the FS700,” he explains.
According to Beydoun, the FS700’s slow motion capture was the main reason for his choice. He calls it a simple-to-use, idiot-proof camera, which leaves little scope for error. The camera was deployed for both indoor and outdoor shooting without many additional lights.
The film was to be shot around the lives of 10 Emirati thalassaemia patients who were receiving treatment in Thalassaemia Specialty Hospital in Fujairah. The film, however, did not focus on their suffering or what they had to go through at the hospital. Instead, it was about what these brave men, women and children did outside the hospital.
The filming had to be as non-invasive as possible. It had to be a pleasant experience for those working in the film, says Beydoun. This was the reason why Beydoun shot the entire film alone.
With just one camera, Audioteknic mics, and a couple LED panels, Beydoun set out to shoot.
He used zoom recording, which was a good way to not let the subjects get distracted with the camera. The FS700 offered a lot of dynamic range and worked well in low-light besides being a super slow motion camera.
Working with non-actors comes with its own set of challenges, says Beydoun, and it’s up to the filmmaker to make it work for the viewer.
“I made friends with them first to ensure that they had a certain level of comfort when they spoke to me. They were going to bare a significant part of their lives that hadn’t been talked about earlier. I asked them what they liked doing in their free time and was quite amazed with the answers I heard.
“One of the patients I interviewed is an avid swimmer, another one is a runner. I weaved a story around them and captured their activities. It was a very enriching experience for me, a life-altering one,” he comments.
The shoots were conducted around a football field, swimming pool and even inside a car.
“We also went to Latifa Hospital following a patient who needed a bone marrow transfusion. I shot it in black-and-white with only the blood in red.”
The colour grading of the film was done using Da Vinci Resolve and the film was edited with Adobe Premier CC.
The introductory music piece was done by Idris Phillips at JR Studios in Studio City. The studio belongs to Majid Hussain, who owns a recording studio and record label with Youseff Islam formally ‘Cat Stevens’, Hussain’s father-in-law.
The whole documentary took the filmmaker about two months to film.
He explains: “As I was working around the patients’ schedules and their treatments, I had to make myself available accordingly.”
He says the camera had to be as discreet as possible for the patients to feel comfortable.
“The camera was almost a part of me. I made sure, my subjects were not intimidated by it and they behaved as if they were talking to a friend,” he says.
The film was shot in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Fujairah as Beydoun followed the patients’ lives outside the medical confines of the hospital. He also had to ensure that they were calm and composed and appeared natural before the camera.
There were no assistants or ancillary staff on location in order to ensure the patients had one-on-one interviews. Each of the patients, Beydoun insists made a connection with him on a human level.
However, Beydoun says many people contributed to the film in their own way. Dr. Essam Dohair, Director of the Regional Collaborating Office of Thalassaemia International Federation was the medical advisor on the film.
Beydoun adds that he appreciates each and every person’s contribution to the making of his film. H. E. Dr. Mahmoud Talib Al Ali, Executive Director of the Foundation, signed off and approved the co-operation of the office.
“I can’t leave out Asma Obaid, Administrative Officer at the Foundation, who arranged my first meetings with Saeed and His Excellency. One more person at the Foundation, who really helped me was Niven Harab.
Harab is in the Abu Dhabi Office of the Foundation that I first called to get in touch with the authority.”
The film was exclusively premiered for His Highness HH Sheikh Sultan Bin Khalifa Al Nahyan in October last year and it is due to be released in May this year to mark the World Thalassaemia Day.
Beydoun plans to release the film on the internet subsequently.
“I want my film to reach out to as many viewers as possible,” he says.