In memory of my friend and mentor, Antonia Bird, who passed away on October 25, 2013.
I pushed back the tears as I sat on a bench next to the lounging camel soaking in the sunrays. All the other screenwriter fellows were sitting with their mentors, under the Bedouin tent, or on chairs in the sand, plunged into deep discussions in their four-hour screenplay feedback session.
Antonia walked up to me: “What are you doing? Why aren’t you with your mentor?!”
The tears gushed out. It was my first screenwriter’s lab, added to that it was a Sundance one, which is a big deal for little screenwriters like me. The lab was being held in middle of the Jordan desert at an Ecolodge, in partnership with the Royal Jordanian Film Commission.
Antonia sat next to me on the bench and put her wing around me. I pushed out the words as I described my first mentoring session: “She said my script was nothing but a catalogue of Israeli atrocities and that I might as well just go do a documentary. And that her daughter is half-Jewish.” This mentor had nothing else to say to me and I had about 3 hours and 45 minutes remaining to sit there and feel sorry for myself.
Antonia never looked away from my eyes as I spoke. She waited until I was finished and plainly said:
“Let me tell you something: She’s a fucker. Don’t listen to her.”
Antonia was the Artistic Director, the head honcho of all the mentors at the lab. And this was the start of my mentoring under the passionate, globally-esteemed screenwriter and director, which would last for the next seven years.
“I’m serious,” she went on. “Your screenplay is the best one here. Let this moment prepare you, Nicole. Because when your film is made, you’re going to get a lot of this. ” She told me to be strong. And she let me know right there, she’d have my back. She understood what I was trying to say in my story and she believed in it. Her words made me sit up straight.
The next day, mentors who were willing to talk to me about my script were generous in sincerity to help. They were noted screenwriters from Hollywood and Europe. My script was the story of a Jewish boy who moved to the West Bank town of Hebron with his settler parents. One mentor confessed to me that he had a hard time with my script too; that he was afraid the Jewish settler characters might set off a bad stereotype.
It was personal for him too, but he was honest enough though to tell me the story of the mentors’ first morning meeting. Many thought it too controversial or offensive. Although they had agreed to come to Jordan, many of the mentors were ideologically attached to Israel. The mentor then told me that the debate had gotten so heated that Antonia yelled out: “If Nicole would let me, I would direct this film myself!”
It seems there’s nothing but exclamation points in the things of the world Antonia supported, inclusive of the case for Bradley Manning:
“Don’t I remember Obama defending the role of the Whistleblower during his election campaign????
If I wasn’t sick I’d be out there… Fury!”
Or something as simple as a good proposal:
“I love your finance plan! You rock girl! (that sounds very naff, sorry but I am impressed).”
Being American, I had to look up what “naff” meant as well as a “damp squib”, a term featured in another one of Antonia’s bouts of hilarious eloquence.
Antonia was also the mentor of my friend and Iraqi filmmaker Mohammad Daradji, whom she also met during our lab in the Jordan desert. Antonia served as the Executive Producer for his film, Son of Babylon, which was selected as Iraq’s entry for the Oscar race. Antonia supported and worked on this film from its inception as a 10-page treatment throughout its release and award wins.
Antonia also helped new filmmakers at home, being a mentor for BAFTA’s Youth Mentoring Programme.
It seems that Antonia would kick someone’s ass for you if she believed in what you’re doing – which is usually telling the tale of a human story that hasn’t been told, controversial or not. She herself did make some of the best cinema on this premise.
Antonia directed the Hamburg Cell, which was a story she brought forward a few years after 9/11, about Ziad Jarrah of Al Qaeda and how he was pulled from secularism to extremism. Screenings of this film opened up dialogue around the world that had now presented the subject on a human level, rather than the political or religious one.
Audiences not only admire Antonia but thank her for her film, Priest. Antonia’s heart and soul was evidently bared directing the story of a gay priest who comes to a religious struggle with the church. It is an honest film for our time, in all our struggles with religion and spirituality.
Many people on the social networks are calling to watch Ravenous in honor of Antonia this Halloween and it is one of the films that stepped up her fandom, adding the lovers of horror. Very different from her usual style, carrying the theme of cannibalism, the film tells the story of Captain John Boyd, which posed a more philosophical question about human beings(or maybe just Americans?): “the more he eats, the more he wants, and the stronger he will become, with death the only escape from the madness. “
Ever since I met Antonia I have known her to be constantly working on a project, whether director or writer for television or film. And even though she had won BAFTAs and multiple international awards, she still had to pound the pavement like new filmmakers do, having to deal with the antics of it all:
“5 different financiers wanting 5 completely different re-writes of the script - which incidentally they ‘love’.”
And regardless of the pile of work she had on her plate every morning, Antonia still took the time out to read so many of my rewrites and new scripts and give me feedback, wrote so many letters of recommendation for my lab script for other labs, for jobs, and for film funds. Just her moral support was what often kept me doggy-paddling when all I would get were waves of rejections. No matter how many years went by, she believed my film should and will be made.
Antonia is a nurturer. She told me that she didn’t have kids because “I wouldn’t have been able to do all the things I have done til now.” I don’t think Antonia realized she had a lot of very needy kids and she gave to us all selflessly; a true Mamabird.
A turn in Antonia’s life came only a few years ago when she had to take care of her mother who was ill. Antonia was by her side, taking care of her until her death.
Today I’m not really able to realize that Antonia’s gone. I don’t know who I’ll turn to when I need my Mamabird, but I’ll always have this message to read and re-read for the rest of the course:
“I know exactly how you feel. I have been in this situation SO MANY TIMES…
I am also sure that they are not the same as yours, they can’t be because your writing is particular and personal to you. It’s really just another illustration of how incredibly difficult it is to get anything made at all, ever.
Keep the faith and keep going and dont let the bastards grind you down.”
Here’s a video of our auditions that highlights a few of the awesome, hilarious and talented kids in Hebron. With the help of our Casting Director, Mirna, the kids were either terrified or had a blast.
Old City of Hebron Street. Shot by Hallgrim Haug (DP) during our Location Scout, July 2011