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Sabine Khawaji Film Music Director

How director Sabine Kahwaji, a film school reject, turned her dreams into reality

Sabine Kahwaji is Lebanese-Canadian Music Video Director, Editor and Film Producer.

She began her professional career when she produced, directed, wrote, and edited her first independent film which was selected at 5 festivals including a screening in Manchester (more on that later).

Her directorial debut for “Don’t Believe In” won Best Music Video at the Global Music Awards, New Jersey Film Awards, and Paris Cinema Awards.

Here she discusses getting a low budget movie into film festivals, guerilla filmmaking and the crossovers between making music videos and the film industry.

Film school rejection didn’t stop Sabine Kahwaji

Do you want to tell us a little bit about your background in filmmaking?

SK: I started filmmaking when I was 14 as a hobby, just filming and editing small projects. It wasn’t until I was 19 that I took a pivotal turn and said ‘Okay, I want to take this hobby and make it into a career’. Prior to that it hadn’t seemed viable. I wasn’t accepted into film school, and I was told this was something you just do for fun – not a career.

When I was 19, though, I had a big switch up and decided it was time to do something about it instead of just dreaming about it.

Now I work full time in the music industry and the film industry.

Sabine Kahwaji Director Producer
Sabine Kahwaji, Director & Producer of Film & Music

FF: What was your first project?

SK: A short film called Seventeen (2017). It was a passion project, but in retrospect that’s where everything started for me, and it boosted my confidence in a lot of ways. It was a project I began writing when I was 18, but after I got rejected from film school I threw it to one side and didn’t look at it. But I said to myself ‘I want to start saving up and fund my own independent short film, and I definitely want to make it good’.

I started working and meeting with different people. Then, when I released it, we got into some festivals. I thought ‘OK there’s potential here to make something out of film. It doesn’t have to be just a hobby!’

I had some downtime, I was in Lebanon the summer following that, and I had time there to ask myself ‘What am I going to do with this? How am I gonna make this happen?’ I mapped out the whole thing in my head, and then just started working non stop.

FF: So when you were 19 you just decided that you were going to produce this film that you had been working on. Fantastic!

Making a lot with a little means getting the right person for the job

Can I ask what was your budget for the film?

SK: It was $700. It wasn’t much.

FF: I wouldn’t have guessed it was only $700. It looks like it has higher production value. Can you tell us some of the things that you did in order to achieve that look on such a short on such a small budget?

SK: Multiple things. I was very specific about every single shot I wanted – I made a storyboard and shot list for the GOP. Everything was laid out, our method wasn’t run-and-gun. I did several interviews with different DOP’s to find someone who suited the style that I was looking for; that was important, finding the right team.

At the time I knew how to edit; nothing crazy, but I knew how to piece together a story. What I knew well was directing and script writing. I knew ‘Okay, I can take care of this stuff. I don’t need to be compensated for this. So why don’t I just put the funds towards a good director of photography who can help bring it to life?’

After a couple of interviews I came across a DOP named Lon Gross. He had done work similar to what I was trying to get out of Seventeen (2017), and I reached out to him. He enjoyed the script and soon enough he was on board. We actually filmed it all in a single day – we started in the morning and finished that night.

I got the footage and started editing it. I was driven; it was such a passion project and the funds all went towards getting the right DOP to bring it to life. We shot on a Sony and it was super flat. That was the first time I had heard of color grading. It was a massive learning experience.

The tools of the trade

FF: What particular Sony was it?

SK: I think it was a Sony A7S, I believe we also had a Sony 6500, but our main one was the A7S. A lot of filming was with a gimbal, and we got some handheld footage in the car, but I definitely wasn’t qualified at the time to film it myself. I said ‘Let’s get someone who can, someone who can do it right’.

FF: Did he come with his own equipment? Was that included in your price for him?

SK: Yeah, he came with his own equipment. He actually also found the actresses as well. He said ‘I know these three girls, trust me on this’. He took care of all the technical stuff. He owns the equipment, so there was no equipment rental. It was his own gimbal, his own lens, his own camera, everything.

We just went at it, and he understood at the time that I was 18 and I was just starting. He gave me a chance by trusting me, and I trusted him in bringing it to life. It was my first big project! I didn’t know how anything worked, and even after that it was continuously a learning experience. I was meticulous about storyboarding, the shot list and the meaning behind it. I put a lot of emphasis on that. He knew exactly what I wanted and executed it very well.

Make sure you get it in writing

FF: Did you go to the level of contracting him? Or was it just a verbal agreement that you guys had?

SK: We made two contracts, actually. I started on Google, just finding different templates.

FF: I wanted to ask that question primarily because I know many young filmmakers, especially when they’re first starting out. They just take people at their word – which is lovely when people deliver what they say they’re going to deliver, but unfortunately that doesn’t always happen, especially when people are not being paid highly or sometimes not being paid at all.

Sometimes things will go wrong. I have personally been on projects where a DOP has decided to withhold footage because there’s been an issue. I always recommend contracting, even if it’s unpaid, as there should always be an agreement between you over who’s going to deliver what and if there will be any compensation.

I’m glad that you took that initiative to go out and find some templates, because it’s easy to do! We have the internet at our fingertips, there’s no reason for us not to follow some processes.

SK: Exactly. When doing faster shoots, when things are rushed, it’s a life-saver. I realised how important they are. It’s something we can just find on Google and use.

FF: You need written agreements, a verbal agreement won’t suffice because there’s always interpretation. The thing that a lot of people don’t realise is whoever shoots the actual film owns the copyright.

If it’s shot on their equipment, by their hand, they own the copyright unless there’s a contract between you that says that on completion it belongs to you. I’ve been on projects where everything just goes in the bin at the end.

Just because you’ve written it, or organised it, doesn’t mean that you own it. When you’re bringing people on to collaborate you do need to be careful of that, making sure that you still keep your rights to everything.

Making a festival-ready film for $700

In terms of advising people to shoot on a low budget, $700, that’s maybe about £500ish? The biggest thing was you directed all of your money into the main area of weakness, correct?

SK: Correct.

FF: You also made sure that he came with his own equipment, and that you didn’t have extra overheads there. You had volunteers for your cast via him too, and together you sorted out your locations as well… which were quite minimal, right?

SK: Yeah. We ensured everything was filmed around the same area and in downtown Vancouver. I was basically dropped off as I couldn’t drive at the time. We were all in the same car, and we just drove around the same area. We didn’t have to do anything crazy. We were careful with transportation fees too.

FF: Guerilla filmmaking is a popular topic right now, because technology is right at our fingertips. We can get editing software on our home laptops, we can shoot things in 4k with our phones,if we want to; there’s all these different options. It’s interesting to hear just how you actually did that!

Applying for festivals and getting your work seen

So, it’s one thing to make a short film, but then you did more with it when you put it into film festivals, which is amazing in itself. You got into some good ones!

Could you tell us a little bit about your process of whittling down which festivals you were going to go for, and how you budgeted for that? That can be quite pricey.

SK: Oh, that was actually something I learned. I didn’t realise how pricey submission fees are.

Initially I was looking at free submission film festivals, which are very hard to find. It’s hard to find credible ones that you can just submit to for free.

I started searching and I made an account on FilmFreeway, and uploaded the video. Then I just started searching multiple festivals that catered to the genre. Ours was a short film, drama, experimental, a mix of that. I set aside a budget of $500 just for film submissions, because at that time I’d landed my first editing job. I was able to say ‘I can save this much for this, and this much for that’.

The early bird gets into film festivals cheaper

We got into some good ones, and we had virtual streams of the film. It got a lot of good feedback as well! The festival process was interesting, because I couldn’t travel to L.A. or Manchester. I couldn’t go to these places to be at the film festival. I had to experience it virtually, which is crazy now, because with COVID a lot of festivals have been virtual!

FF: So how much would you say you spent in total then on your festival submissions?

SK: Probably a little over $500, because I did submit it to quite a few. If they’re later deadlines, you have an early bird deadline, it’s a lower price. If you’re late, the prices increase.

There are a lot I didn’t get into as well. Applying to a lot and not getting in, it was easy to think ‘Oh my money is gone!’ I guess that wasn’t my mentality though. I just wanted to see what festivals my film would resonate with.

The ones it did get into were great. It’s always good to set aside a budget for that. That’s something you have to think about, especially for short film documentaries. Now I’m starting to think about it for music videos, if it has the potential for that, then in your head you have to set aside a budget. It doesn’t have to be $500, it could be $100.

 

Director Sabine Kahwaji
Director Sabine Kahwaji

FF: $500 is a pretty fair number. You spent $700 on the film in total in making it, but obviously there’s no point making something if no one sees it right? Roughly what was your success rate with submissions? Would you get into say 20% of those that you applied for?

SK: I would say maybe 15%?

FF: I think the average is 5% – 10%, so, you did quite well!

SK: Oh nice.

FF: For a short film that I was in, A Clockwork Heart (2020), we did a crowdfunding campaign to get the budget because the director and producer had put his own money and his own equipment into it. The film looks great, but he didn’t have a budget set aside for film festivals – because he wasn’t originally expecting to make a film for festivals.

He was just trying to learn, but when I and a couple of others watched it, we said ‘This is film festival ready!’, so we did a crowdfunding campaign and we raised £600. After fees it works out to around £500 pounds, or about $700. I really do think that no matter how cheaply you make a film that it’s a good idea to put it out there.

Just because your work isn’t on screen doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be there

Of course not every film is going to be festival worthy; some should go on a VOD channel, or YouTube or something, if only to get some feedback and interest. What’s your opinion on that subject?

SK: I think it’s crucial – if you have this gut feeling when you see a project, and know that ‘This is festival worthy’ – to go for it. It’s a great networking opportunity to submit to these festivals. Even if you don’t get in you’re still invited to attend. Whether you win, whether you get nominated or not, film festivals are a crucial way to meet new creatives and get your name out there.

I was nominated for some stuff I didn’t win, but the selections helped with the engagement of the film. It helped me meet new people too. There’s a lot of benefits there. Even if you only get into one or two, you can say ‘Well at least now I’m going to meet these people’, and who knows who you’re going to see at this festival? You start to discover new films… It all becomes a big learning experience. It’s much more beneficial than people think, it’s about much more than just winning and being nominated.

There’s a beauty in the film community coming together at those festivals. I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of filmmakers growing up, and I didn’t have many creatives around me. Film festivals and those submissions allowed me to meet new people and get to know different creatives. It makes you feel like you belong to something.

FF: I totally understand that mentality. I got into film when I was about 18. Attending film festivals, even as an audience member, I would say, is brilliant, because you do get the opportunity to meet the filmmakers. You also get your eye on people who you would like to work with.

It’s important to show people what you can do if you want to ask them for any money in the future. If you can say ‘I’ve made a quality film that’s visually pleasing for $700, and it’s gotten some recognition at festivals, and that’s making it newsworthy etc.’ then people are going to start to think, ‘Well what could you do with $1,000? What could you do with $5,000?’

Seventeen Film by Director Sabine Kahwaji
SEVENTEEN by Director Sabine Kahwaji

I think those are important stepping stones for filmmakers. You should always try to make the best product that you possibly can, even if it is on a zero budget or a low budget, because you don’t know where those opportunities can lead to. People are watching you. They are paying attention to what you’re doing, and you’re networking, so it can lead to something else. Have you had anything come off the back of this film in terms of work?

SK: I would say it opened doors for editing jobs initially; I think I was taken a bit more seriously as an editor because editing narratives is a whole different feel from just editing. I was able to land more editing jobs after Seventeen (2017) because I didn’t film it. There was maybe a little drawback regarding people asking ‘Oh, can she actually film?’

That actually pushed me to get my own camera and start filming myself so I could say ‘I can also do what you see here’. It did open some doors but the interesting thing is I learned how long short films take.

I knew, ‘Ok, if I want to do this again, it’s probably gonna be another seven to eight months, so why don’t I start focusing on my craft and on how to improve my editing, my filming, and level it up from Seventeen (2017)?’. It opened doors, but overall it was a massive learning experience.

You always think it’s going to be rainbows and butterflies, and then you get on a film set or you start planning and you realise ‘Oh, it’s much more than you think’.

The crossover between the film and music industries

FF: The other thing that I wanted to talk about is your involvement in the music industry and creating music videos.

A music video can just be something that makes the singer look cool, but it can also be an amazing way to tell a story in regards to the lyrics, or if you have a certain deeper message that you want to portray.

Michael Jackson was the king of that. He was the first to do these long music videos that create such an in-depth story. Can you tell us a little bit about how your filmmaking journey impacted your work in music videos?

SK: It had a massive impact. I’ve always loved storytelling ever since I was a kid. I love narratives and short films, but then being in the music industry and being able to do music videos – where they’re often shot in a day – it’s not as long of a process as a short film would be.

I always try to put emphasis on having a narrative for the artist, or some deeper meaning that ties into a narrative. You get videos of an artist posing and these quick cuts and whatnot.

Tess Anderson Don't Believe in Music Video
Tess Anderson Don’t Believe in Music Video, directed by Sabine Kahwaji

The influence of Michael Jackson’s Thriller

When I first started I thought that’s what music videos were. Then I started studying older ones, as you saw with Michael Jackson as a kid. When I watched Thriller (1983), that was like a movie to me; I was blown away by it as a kid.

In one of my music videos, Distance (2021), I tried to put in a narrative, regardless of whether it worked or not.

I think there’s a beauty in music videos that feels like you’re not actually watching a music video, because you almost fall in love with the visuals and the song at the same time. I see the lyrics as a screenplay, and I’m bringing those to life in a movie. The artist is the author, I’m taking what they wrote and I’m gonna bring it to life. I think narratives add much more depth to what typical music videos are. A lot of them are just a performance space. Most of the time you can make it work.

FF: Absolutely. It’s good to have an artistic vision when you’re making something. A music video can have a huge impact, and it can influence the viewer. I find myself coming back again and again to the same music videos. This is America (2018), that tells such a story. It’s amazing from both a filmmaking and narrative point of view, it tells much more of a story than the lyrics alone convey. I think that to be a filmmaker involved in that type of storytelling would be amazing!

SK: The industry is changing drastically, particularly in the realm of music videos. I’ve found that a lot of people who started doing short films or movies, when getting into the music industry, are able to bring that background in and change the game. I remember watching This Is America (2018) and being blown away, thinking ‘This is the definition of bringing a video to life’.

I think having a storytelling background, just as I started doing short films and now I’m in the music industry, that helped because I was able to get that background in. I’m making little music videos feel like they’re more than just a music video, which is something I experienced watching growing up, and I want to give that to others.

Find out more by visiting sabinekahwaji.com

Credits

Editor: Ben Kelly
Second Editor, Headline & Artwork: Richard Williams