I know I am back in the Middle East when my lips touch the rim of the cup, and I can smell and the cardamon in the coffee before I taste it. I’m once again welcomed back to Beirut with open arms, a hospitality that always makes me question my own kindness and values. I've had great success filming in this part of the world, but this article is actually not about that at all but rather my most recent failure and more importantly what I gained from it rather than what I lost.
My last trip here was 3 weeks long in January- 2 weeks in Jordan and 1 in Lebanon. I had prepared the best I could seeking permissions in advance and sharing the concepts of the films I was looking to make. The Middle East, like many places I work in, is a place where preparations are not nearly as welcome as you are- once you are on the ground the real work can begin. But rightfully so in the holy land, the timing and pace is left to Allah.
Over my decade in the film industry, I have worked under all kinds of conditions which usually all result in being overly prepared that can border on the edge of controlling. This approach I have learned is best served in fiction or narrative filmmaking. In documentaries I have found a different approach is needed. I could plan, plot, and project every possible outcome for a documentary film and that would leave me in a mental and emotional state unfit to film. I have learned to let go a bit, be flexible, and make myself ready for whatever comes my way.
When I was preparing to go Jordan in January, I wasn’t concerned about the lack of emails detailing preparations or plans. I have learned that is normal. Once I was on the ground, things would be different and all would fall into place if I prepared best I could-I took Arabic lessons, I gave myself enough days on the ground, I had all the right contacts and I had done this before. What I was unprepared for was the only thing that actually fell into place-Amman got hit with a snowstorm twice while I was there.
Aside from the storm, it unfolded over my two weeks there that preparations weren’t made prior to my arrival. I felt days behind schedule even upon arrival, waiting for each next permission and step with time running out before my flight was due to depart to Lebanon. I boarded my flight to Beirut feeling defeated having only captured 2 interviews with a huge weight of regret in my carry on luggage.
Had I done all I could?
Could I have done any more than wait out the entire 2 weeks until nothing developed?
What could I have done differently?
This has never happened to me where I went on a trip to film and came back empty handed. I realised in that moment that was the hard lesson I was meant to learn.
I spent the last week in Lebanon trying desperately to catch up, aided with the support of a good friend from my days in Oxford. My storylines kept changing and time was against me again as my departure to London grew closer. I came away with some good interviews but more importantly strong connections to the people on the ground. It was not until my last few hours before making my flight that I realised I had been asking the wrong questions and expecting the wrong answers.
My preparations were not wrong, just misplaced.
I had asked to film with a pregnant woman. Instead of sharing my concept and expecting others to find me a woman before I arrived and waiting until they found it I should have done what I do best and spent time with the medical staff. I should have asked if I could spend time with the staff and in the antenatal clinic. I was so focused on the character I lost sight of my own usual process. The patients trust their doctors and if the doctors trust me, it makes it easier for the patients to trust me and to share their stories.
While it was hard and humbling, I was grateful for my failure who I eventually welcomed in the seat next to me on the flight home. It reminded me to trust myself and my process more and most importantly to slow down. My work is moving very quickly now since January and I needed to be reminded how to approach each project I am balancing with the same care.
The midday call to prayer is now echoing as I reach the dregs of my coffee sitting here in the antenatal clinic. I’ve spoken with a few staff and shared my previous work with them and with two women who are interested in allowing me to share their stories. In this one morning I feel I’ve found more success than I did in all of January. Failure is not a member of my crew I willingly hire, but a necessary one that will only quit if I learn from it.
Lauren Anders Brown is currently co-directing a feature length documentary with Ali Alibrahim titled ‘Anonymous Syria.’ Her last short documentary ‘Six Year Old Fears’ won one award and screened at 6 festivals but her most important screening was the highlight of her trip to Jordan in January- being able to share it with Sara and Dua who she filmed with. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter@LABCollaborate.