Photo
A scene from “The Long Season,” about Bedouins living in a Lebanese refugee camp. The sculptor and designer Ramia Suleiman was enlisted to shoot any moments involving only women. Credit Pieter van Huystee

The Dutch documentarian Leonard Retel Helmrich is a bit of a mad scientist of cinematography, inventing tools, improvising equipment from household appliances, hanging cameras off fishing poles and making shots that seem to defy the laws of physics.

The laws of Islam, however, cannot be MacGyvered.

So in shooting “The Long Season,” his documentary about the daily life of Syrians in a Lebanese refugee camp, he tried something even more innovative, at least for him: handing the camera off to someone else. And someone who’d never made a film.

Ramia Suleiman is a sculptor, designer and Syrian ex-pat who met Mr. Helmrich two years ago during a workshop in Beirut. In making his new film, “The Long Season,” about the daily life of Bedouins in a Lebanese refugee camp, Mr. Helmrich found himself barred from shooting scenes involving only women. But his instincts were sound.

“She is a very quick learner,” he said of Ms. Suleiman last December in Amsterdam, where he and his team were editing the film (and where it recently had its premiere.) “She managed to become my cameraperson in no time. Especially for the scenes among woman, which would be impossible to film for me as a man, she managed to capture incredible revealing and intimate moments.”

Less than two months after he spoke, Mr. Helmrich suffered cardiac arrest. He spent eight days in a coma and several months in a near-vegetative state, said the film’s producer, Pieter van Huystee. Mr. Helmrich’s sister, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, said her brother’s condition had improved dramatically in recent months. He was moved recently to a rehabilitation center.

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Ms. Suleiman, meanwhile, found herself at the center of a project, and a drama, she couldn’t have anticipated. “I was with him from the beginning, so it made sense,” she said modestly. “We did our best.”

Photo
Ms. Suleiman at work on the film. She learned to shoot on the job. Credit Genevieve Kim

Ms. Suleiman, 41, grew up in Tartus, Syria, was educated in Damascus and left her country before the war. “I always wanted to leave Syria,” she said. “I liked to travel, especially to Europe; I didn’t feel that Syria was my place.”

After moving to Beirut, she met Mr. Helmrich when he held a workshop there on his “single-shot” techniques, his style of continuous, very intimate cinematography.

“At the time, in Beirut, a friend and I were producing home products, décor, lamps, things made of recycled material,” Ms. Suleiman recalled. “So we were working with our hands and inventing things, and Leonard saw we had something in common, because he also works with his hands, creates his own tools for the shooting.”

Mr. Helmrich asked if she’d be interested in learning his technique and joining the film. She said yes.

“You keep filming inside the action,” Ms. Suleiman said, explaining single-shot cinema. “You try to capture as much as you can of what’s going on without cutting.” For a scene involving a fight between two wives of the same Bedouin man, she said, “I shot for an hour without stopping.”

While lengthy shooting isn’t atypical in documentary making, Mr. Helmrich follows the action where his instincts lead, regardless of physical impediments, which has led to innovations such as the SteadyWing, a camera mount with handlebars that provide extraordinary stability and maneuverability. (“I want to have complete freedom in how I move the camera,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “When you start thinking that way, you come up with shots that are never done before.”)

Ms. Suleiman became part of what Mr. van Huystee described as a “ballet” with Mr. Helmrich, something that’s evident in a close viewing of the film: The camera is passed from one set of unseen hands to another, through spaces too small for a human body — or certainly a body with a camera.

In another shot, the camera swoops from a boy on the ground to a man 15 or 20 feet up who’s appropriating electricity from a power pole; it’s a movement too swift for a crane. “It’s a fishing rod,” Ms. Suleiman said. “We put the camera on top of it.”

And then there was what Mr. van Huystee called “this idiot idea about the balloons.”

Photo
The director Leonard Retel Helmrich came up with one shot involving a camera attached to balloons. Credit Ramia Suleiman

In the final moments of “The Long Season,” as the camp school is closing for the season, celebratory balloons are released into the sky. But the viewer sees the balloons from a vantage point above them. “I got what he wanted to do,” Mr. van Huystee said, “send up the camera first on a bunch of balloons and have it shoot down. But how do you get the camera back?”

Ms. Suleiman explained the complicated trick, step by step: 1) attach the camera to one bunch of balloons; 2) connect the first bunch to a second via a nylon line; 3) affix burning cigarettes to the line; 4) let them burn down, melting the line and separating the two bunches 5) allow the weight of the camera to return it to earth. (A third bunch, the celebratory one, wasn’t released till the camera was aloft.)

When shooting ended, Ms. Suleiman became part of the team deciding what to do with the film in the wake of Mr. Helmrich’s illness.

“We discussed it a lot, then we decided to finish the film,” Ms. Suleiman said. “We thought it would be good for Leonard.” There was no indication he could do it himself? “At that time no, because he was not responding.”

Mr. van Huystee invited Ms. Suleiman to the Netherlands, where she continues to live, and said her input into the editing process was invaluable — not only because of her fluency in Syrian Arabic dialects but also because of her cultural acuity. Sometimes, an issue in the cutting might involve delicate nuances of Arab culture; sometimes not. “If you see someone living in a tent, you might think, ‘That’s not a nice circumstance to be in,’” Mr. van Huystee said. “But she would say, ‘Pieter, don’t forget, till 10 years ago these people all lived in tents.’ So I thought to myself: Ah, true. And some of those tents are bigger than apartments in Holland.”

Ms. Suleiman said she had been talking to Mr. van Huystee about making another film, following up with the refugee families, with whom she’s stayed in contact. “It still isn’t safe in Syria,” she said, “but they’re talking about going back.”

Continue reading the main story

The Dutch documentarian Leonard Retel Helmrich is a bit of a mad scientist of cinematography, inventing tools, improvising equipment from household appliances, hanging cameras off fishing poles and making shots that seem to defy the laws of physics.

The laws of Islam, however, cannot be MacGyvered.

So in shooting “The Long Season,” his documentary about the daily life of Syrians in a Lebanese refugee camp, he tried something even more innovative, at least for him: handing the camera off to someone else. And someone who’d never made a film.

Ramia Suleiman is a sculptor, designer and Syrian ex-pat who met Mr. Helmrich two years ago during a workshop in Beirut. In making his new film, “The Long Season,” about the daily life of Bedouins in a Lebanese refugee camp, Mr. Helmrich found himself barred from shooting scenes involving only women. But his instincts were sound.

“She is a very quick learner,” he said of Ms. Suleiman last December in Amsterdam, where he and his team were editing the film (and where it recently had its premiere.) “She managed to become my cameraperson in no time. Especially for the scenes among woman, which would be impossible to film for me as a man, she managed to capture incredible revealing and intimate moments.”

Less than two months after he spoke, Mr. Helmrich suffered cardiac arrest. He spent eight days in a coma and several months in a near-vegetative state, said the film’s producer, Pieter van Huystee. Mr. Helmrich’s sister, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, said her brother’s condition had improved dramatically in recent months. He was moved recently to a rehabilitation center.

Ms. Suleiman, meanwhile, found herself at the center of a project, and a drama, she couldn’t have anticipated. “I was with him from the beginning, so it made sense,” she said modestly. “We did our best.”

Ms. Suleiman, 41, grew up in Tartus, Syria, was educated in Damascus and left her country before the war. “I always wanted to leave Syria,” she said. “I liked to travel, especially to Europe; I didn’t feel that Syria was my place.”

After moving to Beirut, she met Mr. Helmrich when he held a workshop there on his “single-shot” techniques, his style of continuous, very intimate cinematography.

“At the time, in Beirut, a friend and I were producing home products, décor, lamps, things made of recycled material,” Ms. Suleiman recalled. “So we were working with our hands and inventing things, and Leonard saw we had something in common, because he also works with his hands, creates his own tools for the shooting.”

Mr. Helmrich asked if she’d be interested in learning his technique and joining the film. She said yes.

“You keep filming inside the action,” Ms. Suleiman said, explaining single-shot cinema. “You try to capture as much as you can of what’s going on without cutting.” For a scene involving a fight between two wives of the same Bedouin man, she said, “I shot for an hour without stopping.”

While lengthy shooting isn’t atypical in documentary making, Mr. Helmrich follows the action where his instincts lead, regardless of physical impediments, which has led to innovations such as the SteadyWing, a camera mount with handlebars that provide extraordinary stability and maneuverability. (“I want to have complete freedom in how I move the camera,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “When you start thinking that way, you come up with shots that are never done before.”)

Ms. Suleiman became part of what Mr. van Huystee described as a “ballet” with Mr. Helmrich, something that’s evident in a close viewing of the film: The camera is passed from one set of unseen hands to another, through spaces too small for a human body — or certainly a body with a camera.

In another shot, the camera swoops from a boy on the ground to a man 15 or 20 feet up who’s appropriating electricity from a power pole; it’s a movement too swift for a crane. “It’s a fishing rod,” Ms. Suleiman said. “We put the camera on top of it.”

And then there was what Mr. van Huystee called “this idiot idea about the balloons.”

In the final moments of “The Long Season,” as the camp school is closing for the season, celebratory balloons are released into the sky. But the viewer sees the balloons from a vantage point above them. “I got what he wanted to do,” Mr. van Huystee said, “send up the camera first on a bunch of balloons and have it shoot down. But how do you get the camera back?”

Ms. Suleiman explained the complicated trick, step by step: 1) attach the camera to one bunch of balloons; 2) connect the first bunch to a second via a nylon line; 3) affix burning cigarettes to the line; 4) let them burn down, melting the line and separating the two bunches 5) allow the weight of the camera to return it to earth. (A third bunch, the celebratory one, wasn’t released till the camera was aloft.)

When shooting ended, Ms. Suleiman became part of the team deciding what to do with the film in the wake of Mr. Helmrich’s illness.

“We discussed it a lot, then we decided to finish the film,” Ms. Suleiman said. “We thought it would be good for Leonard.” There was no indication he could do it himself? “At that time no, because he was not responding.”

Mr. van Huystee invited Ms. Suleiman to the Netherlands, where she continues to live, and said her input into the editing process was invaluable — not only because of her fluency in Syrian Arabic dialects but also because of her cultural acuity. Sometimes, an issue in the cutting might involve delicate nuances of Arab culture; sometimes not. “If you see someone living in a tent, you might think, ‘That’s not a nice circumstance to be in,’” Mr. van Huystee said. “But she would say, ‘Pieter, don’t forget, till 10 years ago these people all lived in tents.’ So I thought to myself: Ah, true. And some of those tents are bigger than apartments in Holland.”

Ms. Suleiman said she had been talking to Mr. van Huystee about making another film, following up with the refugee families, with whom she’s stayed in contact. “It still isn’t safe in Syria,” she said, “but they’re talking about going back.”

Nytimes

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