Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights has been travelling to film festivals around the world and has managed to strike a chord with audiences worldwide with its heart-rending account of life in a Palestinian prison. The filmmaker speaks exclusively to BroadcastPro ME about the story behind the film
Palestinian-American filmmaker Mai Masri’s 3000 Nights, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) last month, has been touring film festivals around the world ever since. The film opened to much acclaim at Busan International Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival, having been described as a poetic, compelling and raw allegory for freedom under occupation. 3000 Nights struck a chord with audiences for its moving account of life in a Palestinian prison, making prison into a metaphor for Palestine under occupation.
“Both screenings were packed,” says the Palestinian filmmaker of the film’s Toronto debut.
“The Toronto premiere was crucial in determining how the film would be received by an international audience. It was also a celebration after a long and arduous journey.”
3000 Nights was inspired by the real-life story of a Palestinian woman detained in an Israeli prison who gave birth to a baby boy there. Meeting her made her story no longer distant but something Masri could sense and feel.
“I found her story very touching, so I decided to meet other mothers who had given birth in detention. Their stories hit a deep chord within me, especially since I had recently become a mother myself. I discovered a fascinating world and a story that needed to be told,” says the filmmaker.
The film amalgamates the rawness of a documentary with a poetic aestheticism of the prison experience itself. There are many instances in the film when real life crosses over into an imaginary world that lays bare the inner world and thoughts of the characters. Although the film is shot in an old military prison with thick concrete walls and rusty iron bars to keep the setting as real as possible, the filmmaker does take creative liberty to add a new dimension to the scenes and give her characters more depth.
“I wanted to capture the magic of the moment, like in a scene when the wooden bird turns into a real bird, and the various time lapses, passages of time and change of seasons,” she says.
The film is not a documentary, but rather a dramatised account of life in prison, according to Masri.
“We shot with a handheld camera most of the time. I wanted to give the images a raw cinema verité edge that would accentuate the harshness of the prison experience. I also used documentary footage at the end of the film to tie my story to the actual events. We also decided to frame the actors through the bars whenever possible to accentuate the feeling of confinement, and to go for a de-saturated look with high contrast and deep blacks; colours and warmth would come from the flesh tones of the actresses.”
The film was entirely shot on location in a military prison in Zarqa, near Amman in Jordan, with no studios. Filming in an old military prison helped the actors stay close to reality. The shoot took a little over a month, pre-production took around three months and post-production took another four months.
Although Masri started working on the script in 2010, she admits that serious writing began only in 2012.
“The people at Enjaaz saw the rough cuts of the film, liked it and decided to support the film with a co-production grant.”
During pre-production, production designer Hussein Baydoun and his team flew in from Beirut and set up camp in Zarqa. The Jordanian army gave the crew permission to repaint the prison and build new partitions. In the meantime, Masri worked with the actors and developed their characters along with them. DoP Gilles Porte was also very closely involved in the film’s visual approach. Masri and Porte together planned the use of colours, lighting, contrast and movement to enhance the look and feel of the film.
The film was mainly shot on the Sony F55 using a RAW recorder. Porte used Angénieux Optimo zoom 28-76mm lenses.
The lights were placed high up on the ceiling to avoid any hindrance to the actors. HMIs and Fresnel Tungsten lighting were the main lights used in the film. Porte cleverly used sodium lights used in prisons to create a contrast with the cold blue lighting.
The shoot was completed in 34 days, after which editing began. Masri worked closely with Beirut-based editor Michele Tyan, with whom she has worked on several previous documentaries.
“Michele Tyan has a keen sensitivity and understanding of the subject and the spirit of the film. Editing with her gave me a chance to take a fresh look at the material and bring out the best in it. Altogether, we edited for four months. I then worked with my sound designer Rana Eid in Beirut to create the sounds that would bring the prison to life. The soundtrack added an important dimension and worked like music for the film, bringing in emotion, drama and intensity,” explains the director.
Sound recordists Chadi Rukos and Raja Dubayah focused on recording the direct sound of the actors as well as the ambient sound of the prison, to make it more authentic and not rely on post synchronisation.
The sound recording was done on a mix of shotgun Sennheiser, sunken microphones and wireless neck microphones. Well-known sound mixer Florent Lavalée and his team did the sound mixing for the film in Paris.
“There was a lot of echo, so we used blankets to cover the ceiling and the ground. We tried to capture the natural sounds of the prison such as chains, handcuffs, keys, locks, doors opening and closing, loudspeakers and so on.”
The main issues were raising funds and operating with a small budget under difficult conditions, says the filmmaker.Working with a large cast with a mix of actors and non-actors and managing scores of extras was another challenge. The film features 18 actors, predominantly women. Some are established actors from Palestine and Jordan, but many are non-actors appearing in front of the camera for the first time.
“I had decided to shoot long sequences, so every movement had to be highly synchronised. The biggest challenge of all was working with a two-year-old child. We didn’t have a professional coach. We had to get him used to the prison and to Layal, who was playing his mother in the film. In Hollywood, they say never to work with children or animals. I did both! With patience and good luck, we were able to get excellent results in both cases. The bird scene, for instance, was truly magical, we didn’t have to resort to special effects to bring the bird to life,” says Masri.
“Many of my actors and crew had either been in prison themselves or had a family member who had been in prison. Almost 20% of Palestinians have been detained in Israeli prisons at one time or another. I wanted them to bring this personal experience to their acting.”
Masri affirms that Palestinian cinema is on the rise despite minimal funding and resources.
“Palestinian filmmakers are expressing themselves more and more with minimal means, using small digital cameras and even cell phones. There is a trend to do more quality work exploring the aesthetic and creative boundaries. This year alone, there have been Palestinian films running in the official competitions of the major film festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Berlin. Palestinian cinema has helped bring Palestine into the hearts and minds of people around the world,” comments Masri.
3000 Nights will be theatrically released in Palestine and Jordan in mid-December, and then in several other countries around the world.