Rita El Hachem’s is a name familiar to most with experience of shooting in the Middle East. Her company, Stoked, has been making films in the region for seven years (almost to the day), and she has over two decades of production experience.
But her journey hasn’t been a straightforward one. Growing up during the Lebanese Civil War, Rita was always obsessed with film, but had to work through stints in medical school and translation before self-funding her masters degree in filmmaking.
Since then she hasn’t looked back, and has produced some of the most memorable work to come out of the region, for clients such as Nike, Ford, Mercedes and Emirates Airlines.
To talk though it all, Rita spoke to LBB’s Adam Bennett.
LBB> First of all, where did you grow up and what kind of kid were you?
Rita> I grew up in Lebanon, in a remote and stunning mountainous village called Akoura, where it’s said that its people are as tough as its rocky scenery. Although the remoteness of our village sheltered us from most of the atrocities of the Lebanese Civil War, we still had to endure it at times when it spilled across the country. What I remember from my childhood is that we lived day by day, played a lot outdoors in nature in summer and stayed indoors reading a lot in winter.
LBB> And at what point did you really know that you wanted to work in film?
Rita> I was probably about 10 years old. I was absolutely fascinated by films, every book I read I would imagine as a film. That being said, my family did not encourage me to take this direction. They pushed me towards medical studies, but it took just one year in med school to realise I hated that! They kept fighting my wish to pursue a career in production, so I studied translation and living languages. Once I graduated and worked and became financially independent, I went back to film school and paid for my studies. I was clear I wanted to be a producer, so I got a masters degree in production.
LBB> Can you tell us what motivated you to start up Stoked in 2013? Was it something you'd been wanting to do for some time?
Rita> By then, I had been executive producer and managing partner at Joy in Dubai and Beirut. It was kind of a normal progression. My husband, who is also my partner at Stoked, was the main drive behind the decision. The most important advantage for me now is the freedom to choose the projects we want to be involved in. When you run your own business, you become more free creatively, and you are no longer bound by financial liabilities towards your partners.
LBB> You can look back on an array of award-winning work at Stoked - but is there one specific project that stands out as being especially significant for you guys as a company?
Rita> In the past six years we won at Stoked a total of 70 international awards for Diageo, Nissan, ICRC and Greenpeace. But personally, my favorite is ‘Keep the Flame Alive’ for Johnnie Walker. It was the first award-winning campaign we worked on as Stoked. We produced the full campaign, the film, print and the digital media live campaign that spanned over 20 nights.
The concept is universal and timeless. It is about the power of the human spirit that’s never defeated. In the film, it’s represented by the flame inside each one of us that keeps on burning despite all the storms in life. Back in 2014, there was a feeling of desperation in Lebanon, perhaps quite similar to the one we feel today. Back then, we invited people to write messages with #keepwalkinglebanon and at night for 20 nights we would go around Lebanon and draw the messages in fire against the beautiful Lebanese landscapes and cityscapes. As the days went by, people became more engaged and I think it did change the conversation.
Above: A selection of images from the #keepwalkinglebanon campaign
LBB> And given what's happening in the country at the moment, do you think a similar cultural moment is needed today? And do you think there's any creative work out there that could provide it?
Rita> Since the protests started in October, there have been different cultural moments but mainly by the protesters, political parties, NGOs, the banks... In fact, the scene exploded with cultural moments from graffiti, to installations, to human chains, to films, you name it. But there hasn't been a cultural moment that can transcend the current divisions in the country and unify its people, give them the hope, determination and drive needed to carry on. But my feeling is that right now we need more than an engaging campaign, we need a miracle.
LBB> Do you think that the production scene in the Middle East has changed in the years since you started? If so, in what way?
Rita> It has quite a lot, in the same way it has transformed globally. We see more fast, low-budget online content being requested. The advent of affordable digital cameras “democratised” the industry in a way. It gave a chance to emerging talent to break in. In the past three years, shrinking budgets and slowing economies have obviously affected the production scene. But now, we see more brands going back to the normal budget productions and supporting the creatives to make good work that stands out.
You ask about the change since I started - I am not specifically nostalgic for the film era, especially for that surge of anxiety you feel when you get an early call from the lab to inform you of a defect in your rolls. With time, digital cameras have come a long way and combined with the right lenses they are giving cinematographers the tools to create stunning imagery.
In the region, production is now as developed as it is in Europe, both in terms of crew experience, discipline and technical equipment. We have now great directors coming out of the region and going international in the same way we have access easily to collaborate with the best international talent.
LBB> And what advice would you give to someone looking to shoot in the region?
Rita> To come and shoot more in the region, especially in Beirut. The rates are competitive, the crew are experienced and rental companies carry all the equipment you can think of. And more importantly we have a wide array of varied locations to mimic any place. Lebanon also has great weather, even in winter time more than half our days are sunny!
The UAE, on the other hand, is more expensive but it offers great modern cityscapes, deserts, and an unparalleled road network for car commercials. Oman and Jordan have unique locations but we still fly in most of the equipment and crew from Beirut and Dubai.
LBB> Looking at your own career, is there a piece of advice that you wish you had heard sooner?
Rita> To be more patient. Looking back, I could be at times a bit impatient. With time, I have learned how important that is in our industry.
LBB> Which films were influential to you in your own production career?
Rita> No film was per se influential in my career, but my favorite film is ‘The Lives Of Others’ and how masterfully it is written and executed. I love human stories.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
Rita> The Lebanese poet and writer Mikhail Naimy, as he delves deep into the human psyche. And John Irving, as his novels are amazingly plotted and can find a lightness in the gravest of situations.
Alejandro González Iñárritu as director, as again he is a great storyteller about the human condition.
LBB> Finally, what do you like to do in your spare time? Any current obsessions?
Rita> Currently, I’m taking writing classes. I try to be as committed to them as possible, but my spare time is scarce between work and my family. It is tough but it gives me great pleasure.