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Arts and culture

Yasmine Ghorayeb about Lebanese cinema: "Lebanese people could tell so many fascinating stories"

BEIRUT | - June 19, 2012, 10h54
Par Louise Wernvik
Yasmine Ghorayeb at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. Photo from Yasmine Ghorayeb's Facebook page.
The Cannes International film festival ended on May 27 after with a Palme d'Or to Hanneke's Amour. Young Lebanese director Yasmine Ghorayeb's short film Saudade was shown during the festival at the Short Film Corner. On this occasion, she told us about her passion for cinema, the story behind Saudade and about this experience in Cannes.
The Lebanese Yasmine Ghorayeb is a student at McGill University in Canada. She is also a young director that has shown her very first short film, Saudade, at the Cannes Film Festival last May.

"Cannes is even more than what I expected it to be," she told us. "A gigantic industry, a bee hive. So many things to do, from networking to watching movies to attending workshops ... The Short Film Corner is a platform where business and art merge together, and allows you to sharpen your business acumen and marketing skills in a very steep curve. You really have to put forward your differentiating factor in order to distinguish yourself and try to attract distributors, buyers or industry professionals that would be interested in distributing your current project or financing your next one. It was for me an amazing opportunity, since it enabled me to meet so many great filmmakers from all around the globe, to promote my film among elite distributors, agencies and television chains, to pitch my ideas to producers there and to attend a wide range of master classes and conferences. One of the most interesting one in my opinion was the conference given by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the winner of the Palme d'Or in 2010 for "Uncle Boonmee"." Tell us a bit about yourself
Yasmine Ghorayeb: For as long as I can recall, I have been attracted to the world of cinema in all its forms. An interest that probably stems from my father, a cinephile and eternal dreamer who quickly opened my eyes to the richness of this art.

From a very young age, I would avidly watch film after film from the huge movie library that my father had very carefully built in the living room. I used to follow the journeys of Anita Ekberg, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart or Cary Grant, at first with curiosity and later with insatiable passion. This thirst to learn more was partially quenched by the fascinating stories told by my father who used to read more about cinema than actually watching movies, thus making me more and more intrigued by such directors as Hitchcock, Fellini, or Godard, to name a few.

In 2006, I moved to Montreal to pursue studies in Biology in a canadian university. However, my deep passion for cinema never left me, so I took film aesthetics, critique and history courses at Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema in Concordia, attended directing workshops at University of Montreal, and acting classes at Montreal School of Performing Arts (MSOPA). I also learned by myself in filmmaking books, by watching eagerly movies and attending film festivals. In addition, I participated in a few student shoots as a production manager or actress. The learning process was very steep. In 2010, I started a Masters in Pharmacology program at McGill, and around that time started writing my first short film “Saudade”, in collaboration with my father who gave me a lot of ideas. It was a tribute to a relative who was fighting cancer and passed away from it. In summer 2011, I directed and produced the movie in Lebanon, and it was recently selected at the Short Film Corner - Cannes Festival 2012. I have always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, but never dared to take the leap because in my mind cinema was an unreachable goal done by extraordinary people with extraordinary talent.

Is this your first movie?

Yes it is. Making my first film was certainly a very challenging experience, and I took a lot of learning lessons from it. It was also a wonderful experience, I was so thrilled to participate in every step of the process and eager to learn everything. Seeing your script taking form and taking life on screen was a magical feeling. I was also surrounded by wonderful people, and who all put so much effort and heart in the project, and the nice end product is certainly the result of this teamwork. The learning process was very steep for me, because all the crew members were experts in their field, and hence aught me a lot of things.

This movie entitled Saudade is a personal project that was initiated in tribute to my uncle Micky Fakhry who fought courageously against cancer and passed away from it a year ago. This loss affected me a lot and triggered in me the desire to express myself through my favorite art medium: cinema. He was a true role model to me, a very inspirational person that guided me through life and always emphasized on the importance of family, values and equilibrium. He was also someone who was very much attracted to nature and appreciated its beauty and richness, and would often escape to remote areas such as Becharre and the Cedars when he was tired of the city and its noise. I have always admired his vision and singularity, and got inspired by it to build Kamal's personality trait (the main character of the film).

The main aim of the film is to raise awareness against cancer and the question of life choice, and to depict the inner drowning and overwhelming loneliness experienced by patients with this insidious disease.

Why did you make the film a love story?
The movie's main theme is cancer and the question of choice of life versus death. Its background is a love story, in order to lighten up the tone of the movie and contrast with the dramatic atmosphere. I got inspired by Woody Allen's movies that often feature two couples and their duality, like "Matchpoint" for instance.

I wanted to show the contrast between a functional versus a dysfunctional couple, and how marriage and routine in the case of Hala and Kamal can sometimes destroy the harmony of a relationship because you feel tied down by a public commitment through a piece of paper.

Conversely, the couple of Leila and Nabil represent the allegory of freedom, eagerness and thirst for life. They do not possess each other, but at the same time they simply cannot live without each other. Their fiery passion for cinema strengthens the bond between them. I wanted to emphasize also on the burden of an illness such as cancer that reinforces the bond between two individuals and recreates a complicity and solidarity that was once lost.

The theme of the sea is very important in your movie, what made you think of it?
There is indeed a leitmotiv of the sea that appears as a recurrent motif throughout the film. This was done on purpose since the main character is someone who is very much attracted to the sea, as his uncle was a sailor and used to take him to boat trips on the sea when he was a kid. I wanted the lead character to have a passion for the sea since this is a tribute to my uncle, and he was himself a person that used to appreciate a lot nature and would tend to escape to the Cedars or Becharre when he was tired of the city and its pollution. I built Kamal's character by getting inspired by my uncle's personality, although the story itself is not the same. There are a lot of elements of fiction.

How did you find out your movie was going to be shown at the Cannes festival?
My executive producer found out first the news, as he checked his e-mails before me. I was having an unpleasant day and was in a very bad mood, but as soon as I opened my mailbox it put a big smile on my face for the whole week, and I could just not control it.

Did it come as a shock to you?
It was certainly a shock as it was totally unexpected. Having your first movie to be premiered at the Short Film Corner of the most prestigious Festival in the world is certainly a beautiful surprise. It involved a mix of emotions. It was as if I was injected a shot of adrenaline, and it boosted my energy level in a split second.

Do you have any plans or ideas for future movies?
Yes, I do. I am currently in the pre-production phase of a short film to be shot in Montreal. It will examine the cosmopolitan and multi-cultural aspect of this beautiful city, and the integration of immigrants within the Canadian society. I am also writing a long feature film, but will be waiting to accumulate more experience before shooting it.

What other art forms are you interested in, music, painting, and writing?

I am fond of painting, photography and writing. I take on my mother who is a talented professional painter and who does a lot of exhibitions. And she inspires me in photography as well, as she has always been a passionate of photography, capturing and immortalizing every moment she can, especially when we are traveling. My work can be seen in the following website:

When is it coming out?

The film just started to come to life, with its premiere being held in the 65th Cannes Festival. We are sending it to numerous film festivals worldwide, including Lebanese ones of course, and they require certain exclusivity. This is why we did not post it online yet, but this will be done eventually. We also have potential deals with French television chains we met in Cannes that would diffuse our movie for a year or so, although we did not sign the contracts yet.

What are some of your influences in the art world?
In filmmaking in general, I have many influences such as film directors of Italian neo-realism era, including Fellini, Antonioni and Rossellini. I also greatly admire those of the French New Wave (Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Jean-Luc Godard). My idol is Alfred Hitchcock, master of suspense. I also love Orson Welles, pioneer of innovative filmmaking techniques (Citizen kane, Touch of Evil), Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisentein (The Cuirassé Potempkine), Swedish Ingmar Bergman (Cries and Whispers, Wild Strawberries) and Korean Won Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love). More specifically, SAUDADE was inspired by films dealing with such themes as cancer, mourning, immortality and euthanasia: "Notorious" (Hitchcock), "The Fountain" (Darren Aronofsky), "Mar Adentro" (Alejandro Amenábar).

In photography, I am fond of Lara Zankoul's pieces. She is a Lebanese self-taught photographer who has a lot of talent and creativity. I admire all of her work, and love the conceptual ideas behind it. I have a particular preference for the underwater shots she has in her gallery, as they are truly enchanting and detain a mystic / mysterious atmosphere. They transport you to another world and make you think of mermaids and water nymphs floating in the depths of the ocean.

In writing I am a big fan of Baudelaire's poetry, especially "Les Fleurs du Mal". I also appreciate a lot Lebanese authors such as Amine Maalouf's "Les Identités meurtrières" and Gibran Khalil Gibran's "Broken Wings" and "The Prophet". The latter is an unalterable masterpiece full of wisdom and learning lessons.

In painting, I love the 19th-century Impressionist movement, from Degas to Monet to Renoir. I especially like it when two or more art media merge together, or get inspired from each other. For instance, filmmaker Jean Renoir, author of the famous "Rule of the Game", got inspired by his father Pierre-Auguste Renoir to compose a few scenes in his movies. He got married for example to Catherine Hessling, one of the models of Renoir the father, and became the lead actress in five of Jean Renoir's movies. She is present in several paintings by Auguste Renoir, in "Les Baigneuses" and "Le Concert", to name a few.

What do you think of the festival scene in Lebanon, compared to the one in other Arab countries?
I think the Lebanese festival scene is beautiful, but it is still shy and evolving modestly, compared to other Arab countries. The festivals that are really known in Lebanon are the Beirut International Film Festival (BIFF) organized by the "Beirut Film Foundation" and the Lebanese Film Festival organized by "Né àBeyrouth". I believe they always have magnificent selections with movies that are stunning by their creativity and sensitivity. In the Arab countries there are festivals that are of a higher scope, for example the Doha Tribeca Film Festival by the Doha Film Institute (DFI), or the Gulf Film Festival, the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Dubai International Film Festival, to name a few. I think they are more diverse in their selections and encompass movies from a wider range of countries, with a much wider target audience. Their large scale and success allows them to make interesting cultural partnerships with very prestigious international companies, such as the Tribeca Enterprises for example.

In Lebanon, people would think twice before going to attend a film festival, preferring to hang out in a bar or the rooftop nightclub that most recently opened its doors. This is unfortunately the society's most instinctive reflex, especially in our emerging generation. Projections are therefore more targeted toward a "niche" audience who happen to be cinephiles or intellectuals, or simply professionals in the field. This is the sad reality of Lebanon in regards to cultural receptiveness, however I am very optimistic that things will change in the near future since more and more people are becoming interested and opened to this art form. This is especially triggered by Nadine Labaki who in a way "educated" them on the richness this medium entails by creating innovative movies and initiating some sort of cinematic movement that was inexistent beforehand. Unlike other nations, Lebanese cinema has no real references historically speaking, and we cannot refer to a certain era or movement when debating about our own cinematic heritage- like we could do it for example with the French New Wave, the Neo-realistic Italian era, the German Expressionism or the Surrealist Cinema. So inevitably we are limited in our cultural baggage. There is no established cinema industry in Lebanon, the market being very limited and our movies are seldom exported. This makes it harder for us, as we do not detain a competitive advantage to start with. It is a pity because provided the right resources and tools to express themselves, I am sure people in our country could tell so many fascinating stories- having lived and witnessed so many different things in their lives.
#Yasmine_Ghorayeb, #Lebanese_cinema
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