Roof Knocking is the result of a two-year process of careful creative development and meticulous production strategy. The Kino Eyes program by Erasmus+ in which it was developed, provided the supervision of screen professionals from Portugal, Scotland, and Estonia. As a thesis short, it had to meet the regulations of the program; but at the same time, the ambition of the now-graduates from the first generation of the MA was to create something relevant, heartfelt and revealing, meant for an international audience.
The crew proudly presents in this section the highlights of the journey, as the situations that allowed the short film to exist are as relevant as the final product.
This film was made with hard work, luck, collaboration, stamina, and good intentions.
Our hope is to strip tragedy of its circumstances, conveying the human condition that resides at the core of war.
Screenwriting on war.
The idea behind the short film was born from a scrap of newspaper that vaguely described the war tactic in which Roof Knocking is based on.
What goes through your mind when everything you have is threatened? What is most important in those few minutes? These questions guided the development.
It took a great deal of research and consultation to get close to the topic. Talking to refugees and exchange students from Gaza broadened the crew's awareness about the conflict. The goal was to be as authentic as possible, starting from the family structure in the Arabic countries, the language and dialects, traditions, history, religion, politics, values, decoration, food and behaviour.
One thing that was certain from the beginning: the spectator would have as much time to process what is going on as the characters do. This created challenges that resulted in an uncomplicated, short but powerful text, which was translated to Palestinian Arabic by the actors themselves.
Personalities from the Arab film industry like Muhannad Halawani (Dégradé, 2015), Lana Haj Yahia (Last Days of Jerusalem, 2011), and Basil Khalil (Ave Maria, 2015) commented on early scripts to push the story's veracity forward.
And so, the story of Lana and her family was born.
Filming in Estonia.
The Kino Eyes European Movie Master takes filmmakers from around the world to create narrative films while visting three different universities in Portugal, Scotland and Estonia. The creative development phase was supervised by film professionals at Lusófona University in Lisbon and Screen Academy in Scotland, while the actual film would have to be shot at Baltic Film and Media School.
Preparing to shoot in a foreign country, fresh off the boat, was deeply challenging. Fortunately, the impressive state-of-the-art equipment and facilities provided by the university exponentiated the production value and put all the necessary toold in our hands. Even more encouraging was to find a well structured and committed film industry based on mutual respect and formality. The cultural heritage in carpentry and woodsmanship in Estonia played a big part in the building of the set. All film bachelor students receive a set-building workshop.
It took 15 builders and six days to build, paint, and decorate the Arabic-inspired flat, an unprecedented project taking place in one of the biggest studios in the city.
War on a micro-budget.
As part of the MA program, each of the teams received a base budget of €5,000 euros from the European Comission. Students were allowed to contact the university's alumni and teachers to compliment their projects.
Naturally, travelling to a Middle-Eastern country seemed like the most effective way to convey an atmosphere closer to reality. However, the nature of the script allowed the story to exist in a closed space that could be replicated. The premise attracted many contributors to the film, as well as sponsors that covered for catering, construction materials, transportation, and accomodation. Adding the schools' equipment and facilities, student contribution, and the pro-bono work of professionals, the estimated worth of the film exceeds €40,000 euros.
The biggest budget investment was transporting the audience to an Arabic home, through specially crafted production design.
A first workprint copy of Roof Knocking was put in place during the week of production. Each day, the footage was selected and ensambled to make sure the shots were done properly and the story was cohesive. Shortly after the wrap up, a first cut of the short film was presented, from which remains the core structure of the film.
The sound design included a mixture of folleys and stock tracks, as well as audios from online videos of bombings. The atmosphere had to reflect the inhabitants of the building that were not on screen, the size of the apartment, the hight of the building, it's position in the city, and the events happening near it. Above the acoustic reality, the continuos humming of drones was used as a subliminal sound, meant to keep the spectator alert. Adding more reverbe to the flashback scenes created a safer melancholic environment that contrasted with the agitated, rumbling present.
The color grading had to accentuate the life hiding in the darkness of a blackout. The expressions of the characters ha to be visible, but remain distant at the same time. The Estonian color grader Margus Voll, head of Icon Studios, took the work of the cinematographer to the next level, giving it a polished and cinematic appearance.
Finding a Palestinian family.
Putting the script on the right hands was as important as writing it truthfully. Our strategy to put the cast together was to hire professional actors for the main character, and use non-actors for the supporting roles. The best case scenario was to find actors who were second-generation Arabs in Europe, capable of speaking English and Arabic, and able to travel to Tallinn for the shooting. As for the non-actors, they would have to be members of society willing to expose themselves.
The casting process happened entirely through Facebook groups and video conference auditions. The response to the casting call was astonishing, getting the attention of Palestinian artists that offered their support in benefit of the cause.
Actress Sameera Asir was determined to play Lana, the anguished mother in the face of danger, and she was a perfect fit for the role: originally British-Jordanian, delivered a promising performance in the Cannes-recognized film Dégradé (2015).
Alaa Zubaydi, who plays the father figure Kareem, was working as an English teacher for refugees in Tartu at the time. Leila Ziyad, the daughter named Leila, was living in Estonia with her mother studying at Tallinn University. The cast was completed with editor and script supervisor Ahmed Abdelrazek, originally from Egypt, as The Agent.
The cast got together for the first time a few days before the shoot in snowy Tallinn, and family bonds naturally connected them.
Choreographing against time.
Time is essential to Lana. Transmitting a sense of urgency came with cinematography ambitions, including the use of the Steadycam to create a continuos long shot for the opening scene. The objective is to follow her while she makes the most important decision of ther life. Shooting rehearsals took place early in pre-production to estimate shots, timing, movement and lighting to map precise floor plans.
The image is crisp, with powerful colors that evoque the vitality that is at stake. Usually the outsider experiences the bombings from the distance, through smokey footage and cluttered sound. Roof Knocking is about being inside the experience, in all it's roughness. Beautiful imagery solidifies the clarity and specificity that is otherwise lost in the general concept of war.
The available resources molded the way of imagining the Middle East on screen
A Middle-Eastern home in the Baltic.
The apartment seen in the film is inspired by actual family pictures of Palestinian refugees and students who contributed with their anecdotes. Other works that served as reference are the films A Separation (2011) and Omar (2013), the series The Honorouable Woman (2014) and the books The 51 Day War & The Drone Eats With Me.
The Estonian Islamic Center provided most of the props and decoration seen in the film, incuding rugs, decorations, religious objects, and houseware. Reknown Estonian production designer Kristjan Suits guided the building process, assembling the pieces together and made a consistent significant space, with value on and off screen.
The result was striking images with a compelling pace, ready to be ensambled.