Known for his prolific commercial output with TAGHeuer, Audi, Adidas and Mercedez, Director Arne Totz has turned his attention towards the unique journey of blind boxer Bashir Ramathan. In his slick and concise short documentary Dear Enemy: The Journey of Bashir, Totz tells the story of Bashir’s life with a raw sense of empathy and depth. It’s the work of a filmmaker who is confident in his craft and one who commits to shining the light on an important figure. DN spoke with Totz about shooting in the slums of Uganda and committing to your vision.
How did you first hear about Bashir?
Four years ago I randomly stumbled across a picture of Bashir and I was instantly intrigued by this man and his story. I was eager to learn more about this blind boxer living in Uganda. I Googled for a while and finally found an old TV report about him on YouTube. Learning more about him through the short TV clip further intrigued me. I knew I had to shoot a film about him. Due to my work on commercials, it took me about a year to find the time to do the research and work on a proper storyboard.
What creative decisions did you come to when approaching how to tell his story?
From the beginning I knew I wanted to create a short, fast-paced and abstract film. At the same time it was important for me to keep the viewer guessing as to what the film is centered around, and to not start the film immediately showing Bashir’s blindness. While I wrote and brainstormed the concept for Dear Enemy, I saw Jacob Frey’s The Present and I absolutely loved the twist at the end. So, I wanted to challenge myself by only revealing his blindness at the very end. It was pretty much the biggest hurdle for the entire shoot and edit process. How do you set up a connection to your main character if you’re not able to show his face? How do you transport emotions? Believe me, it was a struggle and I’m still far from being happy with my solution.
How did you come to work with Paul Meyers?
He was one of the DPs that I’ve always wanted to work with. I just didn’t think I would have a chance of working with him. But at one point I just decided what’s stopping me from trying? So, I sent him the treatment and it turned out he was interested! It was a great experience working with him, especially since he taught me to hold out for my vision and that magic can happen if you persevere and refuse to compromise.
Despite the conciseness of the film, you get a really good sense of Bashir’s journey, but I’m curious to know if there are any scenes or ideas that didn’t make it into the film?
We pretty much used every scene we shot in the final edit. We were lucky to be able to shoot everything we imagined or wanted, even if it meant we had to blow our budget, ha!
Magic can happen if you persevere and refuse to compromise.
I’m interested to know about the production process behind the boxing scenes, how much preparation went into those moments, and what were they like to execute?
To be honest, the boxing scenes weren’t the hardest ones, our art department brought the original ring from the boxing gym to a location that was big enough to fit the lights, crew and 60 extras. The only hurdle was the communication and coordination of all the extras since there aren’t many film shoots in Uganda, there aren’t many professional extras or people with experience of film.
Our service production managed to source people through the boxing gym and the local community and as soon as they understood what we had planned and wanted them to do, everything went well. A bit hectic, as it usually is when organizing so many people, but super smooth. For the boxing itself, we just went for two to three different versions of the choreography and they would play through over and over again. So, that was pretty straightforward.
What challenges did you face shooting in a slum?
During our scout, Paul Meyers found this amazing little alley in the middle of one of Kampala’s slums for us to shoot in. At first, I wasn’t sure if we could pull it off due to the lack of infrastructure needed. For example, we wanted to shoot at night but there was no electricity so our gaffer Emmanuel Gashumba had a pretty tough job. As I mentioned before there aren’t many film shoots in Uganda, so a lot of the community wanted to come and speak with us when they saw we were filming. Most of them wanted to help and get involved which was great but it took a lot of time to then organise the actual shooting. Trying to keep the framing clear was pretty difficult.
Since all of the scenes in the slum were with the kids, I found it super difficult to direct them when I couldn’t speak their language. Especially as they had to act aggressively towards our hero kid and it was tough to direct nonverbally. I had a translator who helped a lot, but I still found it tough to communicate the needed emotions.
At this point I have to thank Derrick, Sam and Paul from our service production, Talking Film Uganda, as they did an outstanding job organising and coordinating everyone and everything. I’d also like to say thank you to the community in Naguru for their enthusiasm and support.
Were there any safety issues?
Not at all! The slum is part of the boxing gyms neighborhood so everyone knew what we were doing. Everyone respects the work of the boxing gym owners Hassan and Hussein so everyone tried to help and support our vision.
Could you talk about the responsibility in creating work based on someone’s reality? What advice would you give other filmmakers creating work based on true stories?
My advice to other filmmakers creating work based on a true story is to always get in contact with whoever’s story inspired you. I only had very limited information about his story so together with my producer Tommy I flew down to Kampala to find Bashir and his coach. The first thing I did was contact the boxing gym and Bashir to speak directly. We talked with them about our idea of shooting a film about Bashir and his story. I then told him my concept for the film and Bashir was immediately on board.
We had similar goals for the film, I wanted to create a more abstract film based on the powerful story of Bashir’s life that could inspire others, and Bashir wanted to spread the word about blind boxers and raise awareness. I’d say being as open as possible with your ideas to the person whose true story you’re basing the film on is crucial to working responsibly and ethically correct.
My advice to other filmmakers creating work based on a true story is to always get in contact with whoever’s story inspired you.
I’m curious to know what Bashir has made of a film being created about himself.
Before we even started the pre-production process, myself and Bashir had planned out exactly how the film should look and feel. He was involved from the beginning and approved the direction it was heading.
Are you working on anything new at the moment?
I have a few ideas next to my everyday commercial work but they need some time to brew. I’ll keep you posted.