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“Dreams Are Never Bound or Restricted by Austere Conditions”: DP Mahmoud Bashir on Captains of Zaatari

Captains of Zaatari

In his feature debut, Captains of Zaatari, Ali El Arabi turns his eye on the teenagers living in the world’s largest Syrian refugee camp. Unafraid to dream despite their bleak surroundings, Fawzi and Mahmoud hope to escape Zaatari and enter the world of professional soccer. DP Mahmoud Bashir discusses becoming friends with the boys at the center of the film and the importance of natural lighting.

Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?  

Bashir: I did shoot more than 30 documentaries before this project, along with another feature film. However, for this specific movie I felt that such experience wasn’t enough. Yet, the passion that struck me during the first visit to Zaatari Refugee Camp was my driving force. It was my first time stepping foot in that camp with the director of the movie, Ali El Arabi, when we were shooting a short video about the refugees. We saw some children playing soccer, a few of them were wearing t-shirts with the names of very famous soccer players on their backs. It was as if they were dreaming of being in their shoes one day. The director and I exchanged looks mixed between happiness, sadness and hope. We identified with them and decided to follow their lead of dreaming in a place that was void of hope, dreams or prospective.

Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?

Bashir: While shooting Captains of Zaatari, I had some objectives in mind. The most important of those was to highlight the fact that dreams are never bound or restricted by austere conditions; including the scarcity of water and electricity, poverty or alienation. However morbid the place was, it was not void of the beauty of dreams and seeking happiness, even in small details. Therefore, I put that beauty of dreams in my frames. For me, there was no better tool than the sun to project that, by mixing dark shadows and dark orange. I believe that such a mix did convey that conflict between dreams and reality through light and darkness. 

Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else? 

Bashir: I have always been influenced by events, moments and situations that happen spontaneously. I have never sought to philosophize things or insert anything that could strip those moments of  realism. I always focus on keeping enough distance between the camera and the characters to allow the events to run, as if the camera were a member of the group.

Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?

Bashir: It wasn’t always easy to enter the camp. We were allowed access from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. which caused problems for us for night filming. Most of the night scenes were hard to make; especially with tight security measures therein. In addition, we had to stay for more than 40 days without leaving the site in order to seize an opportunity to shoot at night since we were looking for certain moments to happen. When they did, they couldn’t be reshot from another angle and that was why we had to commit more than five cameras to achieve the desired effect. This caused production burdens on the budget of the movie.

Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?

Bashir: I used the Sony A7SII. It was the best for night scenes in the refugee camp in the absence of electricity. The camera is small and light with E-Mount to PL Mount Pro with a master prime lens to balance the quality that I could lose from the camera sensor. The reason for using the master prime was because I needed to have the maximum sharpest image, just like life in there.

Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.

Bashir: I used the sun, the moon and candles. I had to employ those three as a professional lighting crew. Any attempt to replicate any of those types of light, as is done with feature movies, would fail. In this case the situation was different because if we tried to use any lighting equipment, the reality and authenticity of the moment would be ruined. Our team had managed to establish a friendship with the boys and they got used to the camera; as if it was a cell phone camera that belonged to any of their friends. It was not easy to build that relationship, it took us weeks to achieve. We didn’t have space for another crew member that would need time to adapt right before an event or moment. We never knew when it would happen.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?

Bashir: We had no difficult scenes on the technical side. However, there were difficult scenes on the human level. These scenes included when the father was crying during the shooting; it was difficult for everyone. Another difficult and depressive scene was when the sports agency chose one of the heroes to travel and get out of the camp and overlooked the other; among many other scenes. There was no scene that we could set or prepare because we made things during each situation, as individuals of the camp. Thus, whatever was difficult for them we were affected by it and lived it with them.


Film Title: Captains of Zaatari 

Camera: Sony A7SII & Red Dragon

Lenses: Master Prime & Carl Zeiss & CP2

Color Grading: DaVinci

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