Novel graphics

Fatenah breaks new ground in both movie-making and representation of the troubled Palestinian territory of Gaza.

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Dar Films is an unassuming studio tucked away in a subterranean apartment on the outskirts of Ramallah's sprawling urban landscape. It is also where one of the Occupied Palestinian Territories' most ambitious cultural endeavours has just been produced, in the form of a 3D animated film entitled Fatenah. Saed Andoni, 37, produced and edited the movie with the assistance of Ahmad Habash, 33, the project's director and animator. It tells the story of Fatenah, a woman from Gaza who discovers she has breast cancer. Her struggle for survival brings the audience into the painful and humiliating journey of those who suffer from terminal illnesses in the context of Israel's debilitating siege.

Though the film is unavoidably sullen in plot, the story of its production is markedly more inspiring. It is a testament to the resourcefulness of its creators and the evolving quest among Palestinian artists and filmmakers to find the best means to express their contemporary condition. "We didn't want to deal with slogans and we didn't want to address the 'Palestinian cause,'" notes Andoni, as he rolls a cigarette before split-screen computer-editing equipment. "What we care about is the individual, her life and her story."

Indeed Fatenah's novelty is its ability to tell a personal story that reverses more classical Palestinian approaches to film, which tend to put their politics front and centre. Instead it relies upon subtle yet telling background details that speak volumes about the conditions Gazans live in. During a simple dinner scene, the electricity suddenly shuts off - a regular occurrence in Gaza due to Israel's policy of preventing much-needed fuel from entering the strip. The staccato sound of machine-gun fire pierces the conversation of another scene, acting as a reminder of Gaza's perpetual instability and danger, but also of how Gazans have simply become accustomed to such conditions. Politics indelibly colours Fatenah's setting, but it is deliberately muffled to bring out a more personal and humanising account.

Instead viewers witness the lead character's love for a colleague in the small sewing workshop where she is employed and the tormenting nightmares she has of her illness. The engaging personal storyline pulls the viewer through the film's 30 minutes, building a sense of injustice and cruelty, and climaxing in a final wrenching scene at an Israeli checkpoint. Fatenah is based upon the true-life story of a Gazan woman whose identity Andoni and his colleagues have chosen to keep secret. (Fatenah is not her real name.) He became aware of her case in November 2007 when exploring ways to cover the medical crisis resulting from Israel's siege of the Gaza Strip with his friend and script co-author Ambrogio Manenti, the former director of the World Health Organization in Jerusalem. The duo, who had worked together on documentary film projects, came upon a report by Physicians for Human Rights, an Israeli organisation that focuses on trying to assist Palestinians in securing adequate health care.

"The story was incredible because when you read it, it read like a movie," recalls Andoni. He soon contacted Habash, who had recently returned from completing his master's degree in 3D animation at Bournemouth University in the UK, recruiting him to the project. The team set about writing the script, incorporating fictional elements to even out the storyline and characters. From the outset, the team faced complicated challenges related to a shoestring budget ($60,000), insufficient manpower and the never distant political situation. These constraints characterise and often cause the underdevelopment of Palestinian cultural production, forcing the team to creatively adapt or quite simply overwork themselves.

"For a year and a half I worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week," recalls Habash, the film's sole animator, with a half-shaven look that still bears the marks of fatigue. "I definitely overdid it, but it was the only way it was going to get done." Neither Andoni nor Habash had set foot in Gaza for more than 10 years and both were prevented from entering due to Israeli military orders that restrict movement of people between the West Bank and Gaza. Their answer was to use the existing resources at their disposal. Andoni commissioned a local photographer by phone to shoot images of some of the film's most distinctly Gazan imagery - its refugee camps, its sea, its streets. The team also shot images in the West Bank of more generic settings, such as those inside hospitals. To complete the aesthetic, Andoni spent "hundreds of hours" mining the internet for additional shots of everything from the Israeli army insignia to basic office furniture.

The images were key to the animation style that Habash and Andoni chose to reflect life in Gaza. "We didn't just want the film to bring the viewer into a virtual reality," notes Andoni. "We wanted to ground it on earth." The team experimented by taking their collection of still images from Gaza and using them as two-dimensional backgrounds upon which the three-dimensional animation was superimposed. The effect is a blend of reality and fiction.

"Animation gives you another freedom," says Andoni. "You can still speak about reality, but you can also create another reality related to this reality, and play with both, coming up with something original and new." The imprints of his documentary film roots and the influence of his favourite school of documentary filmmaking - cinema vérité, or direct cinema, where directors employ a fly-on-the-wall minimalist approach - are all over Andoni's shot selection. But because of time constraints and the desire for a simplistic visual feel, almost all 700 shots in the film's 56 scenes are taken from a fixed camera position, as though from a tripod.

Technological advances in 3D graphics programs have made it possible to film with virtual cameras instead of real ones. Using the animation program Softimage, Habash would begin by composing each character based upon rough hand-drawn sketches that were transformed into 3D figures in a process known as "modelling". After first combining primitive objects such as cylinders and cubes into 3D figures, clothing, colour and texture are then added to make the figures look somewhat believable. A third stage called "rigging" is used to assign bone structure and the mechanics for how each character moves.

"We tried not to be hyper-realistic in their form, because 3D tends to build alienated characters that no one can believe if you try to be too lifelike," notes Habash. He credits the Palestinian artists Suleiman Mansour and Ismail Shamout for influencing his portrayal of the characters, particularly women. Once the characters were fully developed, the next stage involved placing them in make-believe settings and animating them so that they act out the script. All the indoor scenes are composed of 3D virtual environments Habash created, while the outdoor scenes are compound-two-dimensional stills collected during the team's research.

Finally the director assigns the placement of virtual cameras that are inserted inside each virtual scene, commanding them to film the action. The entire process needs to be well thought out in advance as animation is too costly and time-consuming to produce extra footage and scenery that will only later be cut. The flow of the film's storyboard - the shot by shot breakdown of the film, with each shot's accompanying script - is key to the aesthetic credibility of character movement. In the case of Fatenah, the storyboard was vital to Habash.

"When you are working on animation, after a few shots, the characters start acting by themselves. Now I believe that Fatenah exists somewhere." When the film was finally composed, Andoni took the initiative to contact the family whom the character of Fatenah was based on. "We told them, 'Listen. Watch this film and tell us what you think. This is not your daughter in the film but it is inspired from her story'."

After initial hesitancy, the family watched the film, then called Andoni back. "'It's brilliant,'" Andoni recalls the father telling him. "I would like to thank you for this film." The compliment "almost made me cry on the phone", relates Andoni. "I told him, 'These words mean the world to me.'" On July 1, Andoni, Habash and the small crew of volunteers who assisted with sound, music and voiceovers, gathered at the Kasaba theatre in Ramallah for the film's premiere. Andoni was shocked at the outpouring of interest. All 380 seats in the theatre were full, and dozens more members of the audience were seated in the aisles. Advertising had been restricted to a few select invitations to close friends and the posting of the event on Facebook.

The audience initially appeared to respond positively to the film, seemingly charmed by what was likely to have been their first experience watching a Palestinian setting portrayed through 3D animation. But as the film progressed, an uncomfortable silence filled the room, as Fatenah's struggle came to a depressing end. Not a few cheeks were wet with tears. Dima Murad, 26, an architect from Jerusalem, attended the Ramallah premiere and appreciated Fatenah's personalisation of the Palestinian condition.

"Palestinians are generally considered as numbers, as sheep," she said. "If hundreds of us die, it's not a problem. But behind each one of us is a big story and a big hassle." For Murad, the film addressed "everyday issues, that anyone might have to deal with - love, cancer, family. Through a personal story it gave the message about the whole situation here." Others in attendance noted the merits of animation that allowed the film to address issues harder to tackle in live action.

"I liked the fact that there was some subtle social criticism that addressed taboo subjects like shame," commented Nadim Khoury, a 28-year-old political philosophy PhD student at the University of Virginia, home for summer break. "How do you talk about breast cancer in a society where talking about breasts is not exactly something you do daily? The medium of animation allowed the director to do that much more easily."

The premiere's reception was a welcome rejoinder to the long and lonesome hours the filmmakers spent putting Fatenah together. Andoni hopes it is a good omen for the film, which has now been submitted to major international film festivals, including Toronto and Venice. If accepted by either, he believes it will put Palestine on the map in the animation world. The success of recent Middle Eastern-themed animation films such as the Israeli hit Waltz with Bashir, and the French-Iranian film Persepolis, will no doubt help open the door for more international attention to be given to the small but budding Palestinian animation sector.

"Animation has gained prestige in the world, as it has been shown that you can address hard topics and sensitive issues through it," notes Andoni optimistically. "This country is filled with stories, and life here is full of drama. I believe that the real stories that you get out of real people here are much stronger than anything that you can fictionalise."