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Sundance Directors Lab 2023 Diary: Dania Bdeir

Two young women with brown hair kneeling on a porch at night.Bdeir and actress Inde Navarrette at the Sundance Directors Lab. (Photo by Jonathan Hickerson, courtesy Sundance Institute)

This week Filmmaker is publishing three diaries from writers and directors who attended the 2023 Sundance Directors Lab. First up is writer/director Dania Bdeir, who traveled to the Lab with Pigeon Wars, a Lebanon-Canada-France production co-written by Bane Fakih. Here’s the description: “In the gritty world of Beirut’s pigeon wars, a relentless young woman and a dutiful young man form an unlikely alliance, challenging societal norms and political tensions while seeking redemption and self-discovery.” A complete list of Sundance Labs participants can be found here. — Editor

Tuesday 30th: So many more people this time around (as opposed to January’s Screenwriters Lab). It’s a bit overwhelming. So many giants have graced these halls before and have been part of this lab. 

First orientation meeting hit me like a tidal wave: How are we going to do all of this in only two weeks? How can I take the most advantage of this amazing opportunity?

Wednesday 31st:  I feel like I need to get un-film-schooled and embrace a more playful and explorative approach. I’m too structured and worried about delivering good, solid and correct work. That’s not the point of this Lab.

The nature is so beautiful here. It always looks like it’s snowing but it’s just floating pollen with a soundtrack of rushing rivers.

Thursday June 1st: Had my first meeting with my DP, Laura [Merians Gonçalves]. Feeling pressured to have the answers to all her questions about how we’ll be shooting the Osso Bucco scene1 or my two scenes. But I don’t have any answers yet. The script is a work in progress, and I had no time to prep. 

June 2nd: For the second meeting with Laura we decided to go on the chairlift. Surrounded by breathtaking mountain views, the atmosphere felt more relaxed and inspiring. We settled on using a circle dolly for the Osso Bucco scene, envisioning a single mesmerizing take. 

Later, we visited the location where we’ll be shooting my first scene and reality started to set in: “We’re definitely not in Lebanon and none of the props are ready yet. This might look really wonky. Also, there was absolutely no time to spend time on location to shotlist.” How the hell am I supposed to go into this blind?

When we came back to the resort, we found out that we didn’t even have a circular dolly. Laura started suggesting other ideas in our shooting location (a big black room). I started getting overwhelmed, and doubt and anxiety crept in. I couldn’t help but question my place among the other fellows. Fear of judgment swirled in my mind, anticipating the disappointment of everyone who will watch my work thinking “What is she doing here?”

I told Laura that I needed some time to think.

In the evening, there was a screening of the fellows’ shorts. Everyone loved mine. 

More pressure. More expectations. More panic.

I went up to my room and took a breather, then I forced myself to let go and have fun with it. I let my imagination run wild and came up with an idea. 

June 3rd: Osso Bucco shoot: Wow! What a magical experience. We just played and had a blast on set. I really felt how much these people were my people: misfits and film lovers. Everyone here is an amazing, creative artist with an open energy. They all come together for this limited amount of time in this magical place. It’s basically like Burning Man for film. If you know, you know. Here too, the mountain provides. 

Tonight’s Osso Bucco screenings were amazing. It reminded us all of our joint love for playing pretend. The afterparty was also great because film people really know how to throw a party. The gaffers made sure we had super cool lighting. The sound peeps made sure we had a good sound system. The production peeps made sure all the logistics, snacks, alcohol and transportation were taken care of. Everyone else danced and let out their inner performer in this beautiful non-judgmental place. Maybe in the real world, we’re told that we’re extra…but not here. Here, surrounded by other freaks, we’re right at home.

June 4th:  Excitement filled the air as the actors for my scenes arrived. They exuded the same energy and essence as the characters in my script!

When we did the meeting with everyone, I sat way in the front. As Michelle Satter [Sundance Institute Founding Senior Director, Artist Programs] spoke about the meaning of Sundance and of this lab, as [Sundance Institute Artistic Director] Gyula Gazdag spoke, as Ilyse McKimmie [Deputy Director, Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program]  spoke, I started feeling the pressure rising again—pressure and gratitude. An overwhelming feeling of “I’m so lucky to be here” mixed with “All these people are here for me. What if I disappoint?” and tears started pouring down my face. This is clearly a very special place with a special energy. It’s been happening for years and only select people are invited to be part of it. 

The blessing ceremony that followed was nothing short of extraordinary. Against the backdrop of a vivid blue sky and lush green meadows, we formed a wide circle. [Ute spiritual leader Larry Cesspooch] shared wisdom from his tribe, connecting our creative pursuit with nature and ourselves. He passed along wisdom from his tribe and said that he was going to pray for each and every one of us to help us find our own voice. Little did I know that this was going to be the theme of my internal journey that I’m currently on and just now actively beginning. He started with a song accompanied by percussion. It was beautiful and both his voice and his instrument resonated in the circle we had created. I filmed it—not because I want to disrespect anyone, nor because I wanted to post it, but because I have a bit of a memory problem and didn’t want to forget the rhythm, the melody, the spirituality of this moment. Clouds came and went while he sang, bathing us in sunlight at times and in shadows at others. It felt like the earth was on pause and that this prayer was creating a portal for us all to traverse. He then came around to give us our individual prayers. We stood there for two to three hours while we waited. It was weird for me, to be honest. I’m not used to staying so long with my thoughts, without my phone, without social interaction. I tried meditating in the beginning, hoping I’d do that for the whole time—and I did it for longer than I’ve ever done, but at some point I stopped. I opened my eyes. I wanted to see the nature around me. I started noticing these incredible trees with vibrating leaves. They were dancing intensely as though they were welcoming us, applauding and celebrating us. I noticed the sounds of every bird flying from tree to tree, singing and communicating. 

By the time he made it to me, it’s weird how powerful it felt. I know this might sound cheesy but I think on some level all these experiences, one after the other, plus the vulnerability of humans and artists, just meant that by this time, your heart is so open and your intense feelings like fear, insecurity, gratitude, love and rawness rise up to the surface. So, when his hawk feather touched my skin, I couldn’t help but feel a transfer of energy. As he spoke his words, praying for me to find the strength within myself, the words resonated within me and I joined him in praying that for myself. He said, “You know this woman’s struggles. Help her and give her the strength to keep going. To fight through. Give her soul the power to believe in itself.” I kept that with me as I moved through the motions.

June 8th

I shot yesterday. The day before that, I had rehearsals. The reason why I didn’t write on those days is because they were out-of-body experiences. To spend two days in a dark room with two passionate actors who are giving their all for your script is a very special thing. They’re bringing so many different possible interpretations to every line, giving the scene a different life every time. After day one, I thought “That’s it. I got to the heart of the scene,” but then I had day two and that just opened up a whole new layer .

The shoot was a whole other out-of-body experience. It was so fun. Somehow the set came together and it felt great. Of course that feeling didn’t last long because we battled unpredictable weather and struggled with sound issues, adding to the mounting stress. As time dwindled, compromises had to be made, and I found myself sacrificing coverage of the male actor. However, amidst the chaos, the martini shot injected a much-needed dose of joy. Did I get everything I wanted? I don’t know, but after I wrapped, I had an evening of ignorant bliss drinking with some of the other fellows and crew members, and I enjoyed it.

I was feeling pretty confident with my first scene. I cut it exactly how it was written and we even had time to add some sound design. Then the advisors came in and we started getting feedback.

My editor Steven [Pristin] and I only had two hours. It was a race against the clock, and it wasn’t easy. It felt like we were frankensteining the scene and rewriting it in the edit room.

June 9th: The vulnerability of sharing my work with the advisors led to a wave of emotions. As feedback poured in, doubts consumed me, and I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. They got scared and started giving me compliments, but that’s not what I was looking for. I was just so emotional. Making a film is so hard, and there are so many things I messed up and so many things I missed, and that was the scene I was confident about. WTF was I supposed to do now before heading to my rehearsals with the actors? 

I felt like a failure, like a fragile marshmallow dwarfed by the immense challenges and expectations that lay ahead. After the meeting, I told the actors I needed time and took some time with Gina Prince-Bythewood, one of the advisors. We re-read the second scene and she really helped me break it down to its essence. I then went into the rehearsal and told the actors “Let’s figure this shit out.” We kept trying it a million different ways and looked for what felt right .

June 10th: The second scene shoot was so special. Laura knocked it out of the park and did an amazing job at changing everything and coming up with a last minute solution to my updated scene and new shooting strategy. We were in the same big black room, surrounded by camera equipment and with our limited crew, and yet when all our powers and energies came together, we were in an abandoned building overlooking the twinkling lights of Beirut. I felt transported and my actors did a beautiful job. It felt emotional on set and it was a world of difference compared to the first scene. It felt like this time was a true collaboration where every person on that set contributed to the emotion of that moment. 

By the end of the day, I was dead. We were all dead. The fellows and I had our last meeting with the advisors and we were sinking into our seats, almost asleep talking as we expressed our deepest gratitude and insecurities. What an unforgettable and transformative experience… 

We spent our last evening with our DPs, some advisors and actors around the fire of The Owl Bar sharing stories and battle scars.

June 11th: Once again with my wonderful editor Steven. This time, it was much more enjoyable to look at the footage and much more meaningful to put together the scene. It felt like a living, breathing, feeling organism. 

That evening, we screened our scenes and this time I was proud. Now I get it. Now I get what it means when people tell you that this Lab breaks you down and rebuilds you. It’s actually very beautiful because you feel exposed and raw but then you realize how safe the space is, how kind the community is. You feel held and are then able to be creative and let go of all ego, pride or insecurities.

After the screenings, we had a karaoke night.

Nuff said :)

June 12th: Our last day, and our only day off during this intense rollercoaster. I had my final meeting with the advisors, then I got to spend time with the fellows and some of the crew members. We rode up the chairlift, this time all the way up, and were surrounded by incredible mountains. We breathed. We looked at each other. We again said: “We’re so lucky.” Forever changed and reinvigorated with a love for filmmaking, for our own stories, for our new family: our community.

If there’s one thing I can say about the Sundance Directors Lab it’s that it is extremely well curated. Everyone hand-picked their team, so every human on the mountain was beautiful. It all starts with Michelle.

Like she said in our intro meeting; “Bring your most creative, most generous, your best self to the lab. That’s what the lab is about.”

1. It’s a three-page scene that everyone who’s been through the Sundance lab for the past 20 or so years has had to direct. It’s done in the beginning: half a day of shooting and half a day of editing and we screen them all that evening. We’re given the scenes with no context or explanation and we’re supposed to use local actors or members from the Sundance team and interpret it. The goal is to throw us in the ocean so we can learn to swim and basically get us to get acquainted with our crews and figure out a workflow in a fun, low stakes setting. It’s called ‘osso bucco’ because there’s a line of dialogue in there about someone ordering osso bucco and the other person not knowing what that means. Apparently it’s been done throughout the years and people have taken some wild liberties with it; from turning it into a Bollywood musical to a thriller or a Wes Anderson-esque scene or a horror scene. The creative director of Sundance Directors Lab, Gyula Gazdag, is the only one who has a copy of every Osso Bucco ever made, some of which have been made by some really notable directors.

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