Lessons I’ll Use for the Rest of My Career: My Fulbright Summer as a Filmmaker in Los Angeles

As part of my program in film making, I am expected to spend half the summer semester working on five films and attend lectures and editing labs. One of the five films was written and directed by me, while I crewed on the other four. These are all meant to be Year 1 or Year 2 thesis films, all shot in different locations across Los Angeles with crews made up other students and professionals. Every shoot comes with its own ups and downs, but I got to work with different people from very different backgrounds who all share the same love of filmmaking.

I met people from all over the western and far-eastern world on these sets- artists and creatives all of them. They were very happy to meet and work with a Bahraini filmmaker from a standup comedy background.-Very few of them had ever been exposed to my culture, yet after a few days working together, it didn’t matter where we were from, how old we were or what our backgrounds were. We were all there for the love of film and storytelling.

Shooting my own short-film was a completely different experience than working on other students’ films. On my film, I was the decision maker and most of my energy and time early in the semester was spent in pre-production. In some areas I’ve succeeded but in others, I didn’t get what I needed at first. The experience of scouring Los Angeles to build a crew and shoot the film on a very tight schedule was an experience that I feel I will be drawing back from for the rest of my career.

My film’s titled The Familiar. Even though I come from a stand-up comedy background, I chose not to write a comedy, but used the opportunity of being in film school and being able to workshop my ideas, to experiment with a genre that always fascinated me, fantasy. I wanted to play with visual effects and special effects makeup. I love Guillermo Del Toro films and I wanted to try my hand at creating something somewhat mythical. So I wrote a film about a materialistic debt collector who stumbles upon a mystical object while on a latest assignment of collecting the past dues of an antique shop-owner. The object unleashes his ”familiar”, an ultra-dimensional version of himself that is responsible for his intuition and “6th sense” feelings.

Writing the script and researching the concepts was a beautiful experience. And during the prep stage of the production I felt I was as prepared as can be, but then production happened and I realized just how ambitious my script was and how much more I needed in order to bring my full vision to the screen. Since I was producing this film on my own and with a minimal budget, I could not afford more than three days of production. I also had to put together a crew made up of students and professionals whom have never worked together before, not realizing that it might cost me production time and we might run into communication barriers. At some point on the last day of production, I realized I had to re-write the film if I was to have a finished one.. This forced me to further re-write in the editing process, which was a different experience all together. This process resulted in a film that is not quite what I originally wrote, but somehow stems from it. I think I’ve learned a lot from the experience.

A part of me was very upset about the outcome after all the adversity, but after screening it and seeing it presented with music in a theatre to an audience, I couldn’t help but feel proud of myself and my crew for having pulled it off. I feel that the very issues and obstacles that I ran into are the things that will ultimately make me a better filmmaker. My respect for the filmmakers who I grew up watching is personal now.

Every single production I crewed on felt like applying for a new job, in a totally different environment and pact, yet headed towards the same goal: to tell a great story. The films I crewed on were all written and directed by people from different backgrounds. One film was shot in South Los Angeles, written and directed by an American classmate of mine. Another film was shot between North Hollywood and a mansion in Beverly Hills, this was a student from China’s thesis. A third film I worked on was for an Indian student in my program, and we shot that on a sound stage in Burbank. The beauty of working on these films was that they all carried different feelings and vibes because of who ran the ship. It was truly one of the best summers I’ve spent.

In sharing our experiences and stories as we worked together on these films, we felt closer to each other than to our own next door neighbors in our countries and home-towns. We all had an urge to tell stories in the medium of film, and we were all driven by previous obstacles and setbacks that we’ve mostly used to propel us forward in our journey.

The biggest impact working on these sets had on me was that it exposed me to people that have come to LA from all over the world to follow their passion. It made me see myself in a different light and believe that I’m on the right path to achieve my potential. I want to one day have my own motion picture company and produce original cinematic narrative content from the Arabian Gulf. I believe that the region I come from has countless stories that very few people have heard before and I am to present them in character driven films. Studying in Los Angeles has exposed me to Hollywood and the Hollywood standard of filmmaking. I can’t wait to return home and build my own crew and train them in that standard to produce our films.

Ali is studying MFA in Filmmaking at New York Film Academy. He is from Bahrain.

Fulbright Foreign Student Program in MENA blog. Sponsored by U.S. Dept of State. https://www.amideast.org/our-work/find-a-scholarship/graduate-study/fulbright