Art & Culture
A Lebanese Film Director With an Artist’s Wand
By Christina Foerch
October 30, 2004
New Lebanese hope for cinema…Arab Tarantino…these are but a few nicknames given to the Lebanese film director, Ziad Doueiri. Despite these glamorous titles, Doueiri has been distancing himself from such national and regional identities for the sole reason of humbly claiming the title ‘artist’.
Today’s Outlook met with this rising ‘artist’ over a cup of coffee at Le Coffee Shop in Monot. It could not have been a better day than a sunny morning in October where Doueiri’s achievements and appearance intertwined to add a new sparkle to the halo of ‘artist’.
With long curly hair, silver rings, bracelets, denim overalls, a packet of Drum tobacco, an empty film box for his belongings, and a CD with photographs of his latest production, Doueiri quietly sat down to order an espresso and talk about his latest film, Lila Dit Ça (Lila Says).
Lila Says is about adolescence and awakening love, raging hormones and machismo among young, disadvantaged Arab immigrants living in a run-down suburb in Marseille, Southern France.
At the center of the story is Lila (Vahina Giocante) “a mysterious woman who says all these strange things and nobody knows why,” explained Doueiri. She bewitches Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), a young man of Arab descent, who falls in love with her. As their relationship grows and she reveals her secret thoughts, her erotic fantasies and her sexual preferences, Chimo finds himself completely puzzled, yet all the more fascinated and attracted. His pursuance of Lila is hampered by his best friend who also has an eye for the blonde. Inevitably the two companions engage in a bittersweet rivalry leading to tragedy.
“It’s a love story, but an unusual one,” said Doueiri. Unusual are the underlying tensions that arise between the friends because of the mysterious and provocative appearance of this bewitching woman. “There are many subtle things in this movie, it’s very psychological. And it’s very erotic, even semi-pornographic.”
Although the mysterious girl likes to talk dirty in public, the visual eroticism is reminiscent of teenage years -- that sweet mix of knowledge with the desire to know more, want more, yet remain innocent. Lila possesses a strong, overbearing desire to experiment physically with the man held dear to her heart. She is curious without being vulgar and that’s exactly what makes her lovable.
Lila Says is based on a novel with the same title by an anonymous author. “I simply liked the book,” said Doueiri, “and I felt that it could become a great film.”
Although Doueiri has spent most of his life overseas, he still has many bonds with his homeland; the strongest of which is his friends and family. Accordingly, Doueiri opted to come home for a few months to co-write the script with his girlfriend, Joelle Touma, also a professional of the film world.
The Lebanese public had the chance to view Lila Says at the special pre-screening sessions in Beirut. These pre-screenings, which attracted a large crowd, were a welcome opportunity for Doueiri to present his newest “gift” to friends and family as well as to assess the public’s reaction to the film. The Lebanese public had much to celebrate with Carmen Lebbos, a Lebanese lead actress.
Before coming to Beirut, the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in Canada and after the pre-screenings in Beirut, it will compete in the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the US and will also appear in the London Film Festival. Release dates for European cinemas is set for January 2005, and shortly after it will be officially released in Lebanon.
The 39-year-old cinematographer studied the seventh art at the reputable University of Cinematography in Los Angeles, where many of the big stars of international cinema studied. Doueiri worked as cameraman on three of Quentin Tarantino’s films and had his very first breakthrough in 1999 with his UCLA graduation film West Beirut.
Although several films have been made on the Lebanese civil war, West Beirut is considered the best. Doueiri used the setting of the civil war to portray Lebanese adolescents growing up in the crossfire. A cross between Welcome to Sarajevo and Saturday Night Fever, it’s as much a film about war as about youngsters searching for love and their first experiences with alcohol, sex, freedom and politics.
The film is actually a depiction of Doueiri’s own story while living in Muslim West Beirut before his family migrated to the US. In fact, many aspects of the film were taken directly from his personal life experiences: in the movie, as in his own teenage life, teenagers experienced a great deal of freedom prevalent in leftist families during the war in the seventies. The characters in West Beirut as well as the teenager Doueiri both cherished their love for cinema and super 8 cameras. Even the liberal and courageous mother running a pirate radio station is autobiographical. Doueiri’s younger brother, Rami, played the lead role.
West Beirut received worldwide recognition and crowned Doueiri with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. The success of this film can be primarily attributed to the dynamic drive of the story, the intense feel for teenage life, and the idea that life, love and freedom is possible even in a city divided by war zones and torn by rivaling fractions. All in all, West Beirut pays homage to teenagers and their lust for life.
With Lila Says, it may initially seem that Doueiri has taken a different path in his choice of story lines, but this is not the case. His previous project, which was also written by Doueiri in Lebanon but has not yet come to life, was a political film about secret negotiations between Arabs, Israelis and Americans to resolve the Middle East conflict.
“I wanted to present the conflict in a lighter way,” admitted Doueiri. However, for the time being, this remains wishful thinking. He already had one third of the budget financed, when the tragedy of September 11 took place. “I had even been to the US for the casting,” he recalled. But after this horrific attack, American financiers were reluctant to fund an Arab film project, let alone a political film. Subsequently, this project has been put on hold. “I like political films, but I am done with the Lebanese civil war,” the director stated. “I have done my part already.”
His next project deals with the mysterious appearance of Virgin Mary during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1531. “I go wherever my projects take me,” and this one is taking him to Mexico.
With the last sip of his espresso, Doueiri shared a secret -- about a woman, of course. He hopes that the French actress Sandrine Bonnaire will star in the lead role as the Virgin Mary. But till then, we will be watching out for the release date for Lila Says, and looking forward to another coffee with Ziad Doueiri, the man who has given weight and height back to the Lebanese presence in the international film arena.
Lila Dit Ça (Lila Says); directed by Ziad Doueiri, scenario: Ziad Doueiri & Joelle Touma, adapted from the novel LILA SAYS by Chimo (Plon). Starring Vahina Giocante, Mohammed Khouas, Carmen Lebbos, Karim Ben Haddou, and Lotfi Chakri.