Pharmacologist by day, filmmaker by night: this is how Yasmine Ghorayeb mixes both of her passions.
This 24-year-old Lebanese, living in Montreal, has always been a fervent cinephile, an enthusiasm passed on by her father. While pursuing her Masters in pharmacology, she attended directing workshops, acting classes and went to several film festivals, eager to learn more. She directed her first short movie, “Saudade”, in the summer of 2011, soon after her uncle passed away because of cancer. It is in Arabic, with English subtitles, and was shot in Lebanon to keep a strong Lebanese identity to the short movie. And this first trial was a success: Saudade was selected to the 65th Cannes Festival’s Short Film Corner. It was premiered there, on May 20. Yasmine took the time to answer some questions with Mashallah News shortly after coming back from her trip to Cannes.
Saudade (n): a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent someone that one loves. It carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.
First, could you tell us what the movie is about?
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 which often feature two couples and their duality, like “Matchpoint” for instance.
I wanted to show the contrast between a functional and a dysfunctional couple. In the case of Hala and Kamal, how marriage and routine can sometimes destroy the harmony of a relationship because you feel tied down by a commitment through a piece of paper.
Conversely, the couple of Leila and Nabil, two rising actors full of dreams, represents 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 also wanted to emphasise the burden of an illness such as cancer and how it reinforces the bond between two individuals and recreates a complicity and solidarity that was once lost.
Why did you do it?
I have always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker and had this constant urge to create burning inside of me. I always refrained from taking the leap because in my mind film-making was an unreachable goal achieved by extraordinary people with amazing talent. I was encouraged by the sense of initiative and dynamism coming from young emerging talents. Furthermore, my uncle’s death triggered emotions of anger and melancholy which were at their paroxysm. So I thought it would be a catharsis to calm myself down. It worked, and I feel more at peace now.
When will your movie be made public?
The film just started to come to life. We are sending it to worldwide film festivals, including Lebanese ones of course. If selected there, people will be able to go watch it where the festivals are showing it. This process requires a certain exclusivity — this is why we did not post the movie online, for now at least. But this will be done eventually, although we cannot disclose an official date yet. We have also potential deals with some French television channels we met in Cannes that would show our movie for a year or so, so it might be available to watch on television as well.
How does it feel to be a woman director? Is it more difficult, are there more challenges?
I think there are only a few female directors because they might get a little bit intimidated by the technicality behind it. But it shouldn’t be a major caveat and it could be easily overcome. I believe that in filmmaking you need to have a sensitivity and vision, and then the rest flows by itself.
In the Arab world, it might be more difficult and challenging to be a woman filmmaker, since there is already censorship and lack of freedom of speech. We can take as an example the Iranian filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz, writer and director of “Circumstance.” This movie was set in Iran, and released with subtitled Persian dialogue but the film was actually shot in Lebanon because of the themes it explores [homosexuality and underground life]. They wouldn’t have had the leeway in Iran to do what they did in Beirut. We have relatively more freedom than other Arab countries — even though some of our movies get censored from time to time — so I think we should take advantage of that.
Did Saudade’s selection to the Cannes short film corner come as a surprise?
My executive producer found out the news first, as he checked his e-mails before me. It put a big smile on my face for the whole week, and I just could not control it. It came as a surprise and was totally unexpected. Having your first movie premiered at the Short Film Corner of the most prestigious festival in the world is wonderful news. 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.
We’ve seen a proliferation in short movies, made by young Lebanese talents. How do you explain this development?
I think our current generation is the creative generation which is why there is a young Lebanese cinematic movement emerging. Unfortunately, short films are often the poor relatives of the long feature film, and cannot really sustain themselves. It is an almost impossible task to make profit out of your short film, after reimbursing the production budget. This is why shorts are usually done in a non-profit state-of-mind.
This proliferation of short films that outweighs the long features could be explained by the lack of funding and financial support in Lebanon. Of course, a feature’s budget is not on the same scale as a short. Many young filmmakers in Lebanon just embark in low-budget short film projects by covering all the expenses with their own credit card. This is obviously not feasible realistically speaking in the case of a feature, and you have to reach out for sponsors, producers or even foreign funding resources, which is quite challenging.
What are your thoughts about the Lebanese movie scene?
Unfortunately, people think twice before attending a film festival in Lebanon. Many prefer to hang out in a bar or the recently opened rooftop nightclub. Screenings are, as a result, more targeted toward a “niche” audience who happen to be cinephiles or simply professionals in the field. In addition to that, we don’t have a cinema industry: there is a lack of funding, no real market and almost inexistent export of Lebanese movies.
I think Nadine Labaki in a way “educated” many in 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 for example with the French New Wave, the Neo-realistic Italian era, the German Expressionism or the Surrealist Cinema.
So I am very much optimistic in regards to the future of Lebanese cinema. I believe we have the right ingredients: emerging talents full of creativity, and a diversity of tales that are universal and close to the reality of human nature. I think more and more diverse movies are going to be made, since the traditional convention of making films about war has been broken, and people are fed up of this recurrent theme. So things can only move forward and evolve from there.
You recently created your production company “A Rosebud Productions”. Why this name?
I chose this name since I am a big fan of the movie “Citizen Kane” by Orson Welles. The whole movie is a quest of the real meaning carried behind “rosebud”, the last word uttered by the billionaire journalist Charles Foster Kane on his deathbed. Rosebud becomes the symbol of his youthful innocence, lost when he got adopted by a family of bankers. Money and the pursuit of wealth have robbed him of his humanity and left him isolated and lonely, vainly seeking happiness in an endless acquisition of material wealth.
This name was also chosen because it refers to something emerging, which also correlates with Citizen Kane, as this masterpiece was the budding of innovative filmmaking techniques and Welles was a pioneer in introducing them to the field (e.g. deep focus photography, low-angle shots, newsreel footage, flashbacks, multiple points-of-view, fluid camera movement). He created a new filmmaking aesthetic that remained influential to generations of directors.
This name therefore refers to the emergence of my personal work as a filmmaker, and my attempt to — hopefully — create something innovative.
Article edited by Katie Jackson.