When Sh*t Hits the Fan: Making Your First Documentary in Morocco

Brianna Celestina’s documentary, Pikala Binatna, follows a young Moroccan named Jamal who pursues his lifelong interest in bicycling and becomes an avid mechanic and mentor. In his bicycling endeavors, he co-founds a project in his community called Pikala, created to destroy the social stigma associating the poor with bicycles.
To capture his story, Brianna and a team of filmmakers travel to Morocco where the documentary does not go as planned and Brianna is forced into new roles with little room for error. So what did it take to capture the subtle and obvious joy of the people of Marrakech in a short but poignant 10-minute documentary? According to the documentary’s director, Brianna Celestina, first and foremost, patience in a foreign land and patience among your team is a firm start.
I spoke with Brianna to learn more about how she helped create Pikala Binatna.

Michelle Biller: So first things first, what was going to Morocco to film a documentary like?
Brianna Celestina: Well, we started on this journey not knowing anyone or anything. So as you’re trying to understand this organization and research them, you’re also getting to know the strengths and limits of the crew to see how to approach filming week.

What did your production schedule look like? What did you have in terms of a crew?

The first two weeks was pre-production, then we shot the whole of the third week, edited all of the fourth [week], and had a “premiere” on the last Friday before we all flew out on Sunday. We made a 10ish minute documentary in four weeks, in crews of four, with two production supervisors to make sure we didn’t fall off track. There were three overall teams among all 12 of us.

Sure, so a smaller crew with just as tremendous of a challenge. What was it like to work with your crew? Were there any major shake-ups that changed the direction of the film?

Early on, we realized that the girl meant to lead our group, our director, really didn’t have any experience to put her in that position, and she agreed. So we now needed a director to front the film.

And you ended up being the director, right?

To be honest, I was not expecting it. I’m not the typical ‘director type.’ I’m not overly bossy or loud but I was determined to get shit done and to make this a kick-ass documentary. It was going to be my first film, and I needed to make sure it was as best as I could do at the time. I knew shit needed to get done, and since no one else was doing it, I was going to do it. So when they asked me to be the director. I was happy about it.
brianna celestina pikala binatna

And prior to directing, you were still working on set, right? And how did you end up becoming the director?

Yeah, I was a DP. As the first week went on, my group was pulled into private meetings one by one with the supervisors to, as I found out later, discuss their new suggestion for a director. In the meantime, I’m drafting outlines, shot lists, and interview questions because they were all due the next day. I got called in last and they told me they asked all the group members suggested that I take the reins as director.

How did that change how you worked on the film, besides the obvious managerial type roles?

All the work I was doing was going to get recognized and I could take more control of the film without feeling like I was stepping on anyone’s toes. Honestly, it was what I wanted after being in the environment.

What was the most taxing part of filming this documentary? I’m sure there was a multitude of moments, but any specifics?

I thought, “I’ve done all the heavy lifting the first three weeks of filming, and now I can relax and just come in and approve edits. It’ll be great!” Haha, no. Editing week was the most hectic, frustrating, self-doubting time of my life. Not to be dramatic or anything.

What happened in that editing room?

We realized that our film edits were about a full two days behind the rest of the groups. We had a daily showing and I knew what needed to be done. I could see the final product, but it just wasn’t ready for this showing, so I know there would be some critique. But we got way harsher criticism than I expected which was pretty demoralizing. In hindsight, it was good for me, because after it I was like “Fuck y’all. I’m gonna make this fucking incredible,” and it pushed me to the finish line. It was a good thing in the end.
brianna celestina pikala binatna

And you definitely did make it “fucking incredible” because you’re showing at festivals and shows now, how does that feel?

So far we’ve been selected for two shows, one festival and one a showing: Canon’s Short Night and Filmed By Bike Festival. For Canon’s event, I participated with my producer, Kyle O’Neill, and we got to talk about the film and our process, which was super cool. Filmed By Bike Festival begins May 4-6, 2018 in Portland, Oregon.
In terms of how it feels, I definitely left different than when I arrived, I pushed myself to my limits, I got emotional and thought I couldn’t do it, but I met the incredible people and had the most amazing time. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
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