Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is the embodiment of romance and the epitome of tragedy. A five hundred year-old play written by the greatest playwright of all time, and now it is being made into another movie, adapted into a modern, twenty-first century Palestinian context, and by a group of students, no less.It all started with our new English teacher, Mr. Doug Hart, at the beginning of our tenth grade school year in 2005. In his first lesson, Mr. Hart bade the students write down what they wanted to do with their lives and to give the papers to him at the end of class. When he read that a certain student, Yazan Nahhas, wanted to be a director, he and Yazan had a long discussion and they decided to work on making a movie. The next day, Mr. Hart invited all the students from tenth grade to brainstorm ideas for a movie.
Many of us were very cynical, thinking that we, a group of tenth grade students, most of whom had no filmmaking experience at all, would never be able to succeed in making a complete low-budget film. Nevertheless, thirty people turned up at the meeting, mainly just to check out what Mr. Hart proposed. During the meeting, we quickly came to agree that our greatest strength was in our Palestinian background, and that if we attempted to create a film that was basically the same idea as movies that are watched in America all the time, such a project would undoubtedly fail. No, if we were to make a movie that would warrant any notice it would have to be tied significantly to what we know the most: Palestine. That was one agreement amidst a multitude of disagreements. We couldn’t seem to decide exactly on what the film was actually going to be about. Ideas that some thought to be appealing were absurd to others, and the meeting ended with basically no unanimous vote.We attempted to meet a few times after, to somehow resolve the matter as to what the movie would be about. In short, those attempts failed. The meetings were complete pandemonium. No one had a chance to even complete a full sentence. Then the mid-term exams arrived, and most of us started to lose their enthusiasm
Coming back to school after a long Christmas vacation, the idea of making a student film had been forgotten by some but it had been inscribed in the minds of others. Mr. Hart decided to arrange another meeting for a select few of the students to see if they were still interested. They were only four: Yazan, the director, Najib, the main actor, and Faris and Tarik, the scriptwriters. Mr. Hart sat with us in a restaurant for an hour with a list of ideas that he had written down, which he would run by us. But first he asked us if we were serious about making a film, and that if we were it would take a great amount of commitment and responsibility. Once we all agreed to that, Mr. Hart revealed to us his idea: that we make a movie based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in a modern Palestinian setting, involving Palestinian teenagers. Our initial reaction to this proposition was one of disbelief.
Shakespeare? Romeo and Juliet? None of us knew anything about the topic, and the mere notion of having to deal with Old English was daunting and created doubts. But then Mr. Hart explained to us why he thought this a perfect idea for a movie.
We were Palestinian teenagers, and that fact alone gave us an edge, something that would draw attention from foreigners, but we needed a good story to fit with our Palestinian situation, a story that reciprocated Palestinian life and teenage Palestinian life—for, the purpose of making such a film would be to teach the world what it is to be Palestinian, to break down false stereotypes and inform people of who we really are. The plot of Romeo and Juliet, its themes, its morals, its characters, fits almost perfectly into the life a Palestinian. Wars between families, that certainly occurs in Palestinian life. Arranged marriages and marrying at a young age, also a prominent factor. Forbidden love, religious devotion, rebellious behavior, all of these factors and more are complimentary to our culture. When Mr. Hart explained all this, we began to understand his idea. Once it sank in, we realized that we had struck gold. We now knew that we had our topic.
And we also knew that a mountain of work lay ahead of us.
Since the only thing we knew about Romeo and Juliet was that it was a story about two lovers from opposing families who commit suicide in the end because they can’t be together, Mr. Hart began the long process of introducing us to the play. First thing he did was make us read a small booklet that summarized the entire play in a few pages. We read the thing to each other, one day in late January, over coffee and candies. Then he made us watch the modernized version of Romeo and Juliet, the one with Leonardo DeCaprio and Clair Danes, to see how they managed to fit a five-hour play into an hour and a half worth of filming: we were supposed to make it only fifty minutes—due to our small budget, of course.
But those were mere trifles compared to what came next. One day Mr. Hart gave us all copies of No Fear Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet, a book that translated every sentence of the play from Old English to modernly used English. The books helped immensely in understanding the plot of the play as well as the meanings of several obscure slangs, such as “fall backwards,” meaning to lose one’s virginity (compliments of the vulgar, yet sentimental Nurse). But the translations could only assist us so far, and we had to help each other understand a great deal of the play. To ensure that we would give it our all, Mr. Hart made our analysis a large part of our academic curriculum in English class, quizzing us on every single scene—from the opening brawl to the tragic ending—with worksheets that we came to call “primers.” Knowing that we would be graded on our work, we spent many hours poring over lines and making notes.
No Fear Shakespeare was not our only source of information, though. The scriptwriters and the director borrowed from Mr. Hart a book that was devoted to analyzing the entire play from start to finish, breaking it up into little segments comprised of explanations of characters and pivotal events. It was from this book that we discovered the entire plotline took place in the course of just four days. Halfway through our readings, in about mid February, we began to do some dry reading after school, although that wasn’t much of a success, given that our hearts just weren’t into it.
Besides analyzing the play and reading lines to each other, every once a week we would meet at the cinema room of our school and watch the modernized movie of Romeo and Juliet, as well as other film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays to get more used to the language. One movie was a crucial part of our project’s progress: Al Pachino’s Looking for Richard, a movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. It was a docu/drama, a combination of dramatic scenes and informative documentary pieces. When we saw it we decided to make our movie into a docu/drama form as well. This was because we were inexperienced actors and filmmakers, and despite the edge provided to us by our Palestinian background, we needed something else, an element that would tell the audience: “Hey, we know we’re not good at acting, but we’re doing it anyway because we want to teach you something.” Providing documentary segments between the dramatic parts would certainly help us there.
Finally, after extensive study and analysis, which took us all through January, February, March, April, and May, we had the entire play and all its elements memorized by heart. In our English final exam we wrote the events of every scene of the play, and passed with flying colours. Now, with the summer vacation giving us a large amount of free time, we were finally ready to write the script. But we needed some help, so Mr. Hart’s friend, John Decker, who was a filmmaker himself, flew in from America to help us out. Throughout the course of the summer the scriptwriters and the director completed the rough draft, which was no small feat, until school began once more in September. The directors and the scriptwriters still met with Mr. Hart every once a week after school to discuss changes in the script and new ideas.
By early December, we had it all done, the final draft of the script complete. We were ready for the auditions, which we held at the beginning of 2007 on January 4th and 6th. Not enough people showed, however, and now we are going to call people individually and ask them to audition for us.
So there you have it, our little project. So far, each and every one of us has worked a great deal to get where we are today. We are all proud of each other for making it this far, and we’re very excited that we’re soon to begin filming.
The Crew: Yazan Nahhas, Tarik Knorn, Faris Giacaman, Najib Hameedah, Dia Barghouthi, Joyce Kashou, Faiq Mari’i, Yousef Alem, Deema Bamieh, Mohammad Quazzaz, Haya Nasir
By: Faris and Yazan