FILMMAKER Cyril Aris joins us on Close-up Culture after his short film The President’s Visit won the Oscar-qualifying Grand Jury Prize at the 49th Nashville Film Festival.
Q: I am always amazed by filmmakers who can put together a story like The President’s Visit. Where do you dream up a story like this?
A: THE story was inspired with the absurdity of the political scene in my home country, Lebanon, and my desire to see this with humour rather than desperation.
We did not have a President for over 2 years (2014-2016), simply because our parliament couldn’t agree on a candidate. Stuck in a political limbo, the whole country was leaderless.
Yet the country continued to function, and soon after when we had a President it continued working the same way. It seemed that the country is equally as functional and dysfunctional as it is with or without a president. That makes you wonder why we argue and fight over political issues and political representation, and whether politics as a whole are actually any useful to the people.
In the plot of the film, the President is “on a cleansing campaign of the country against corruption, bribery and greed”. Of course, he needs soap for that. And whole lot of it. This is a metaphor taken literally, which is the source of comedy, and I think it reflects quite well the level of absurdity of living in Lebanon. I was interested in looking at it from a comedic vantage point, and just pushed the story as far as I could in its absurdity.
Q: Those are absurd circumstances. I am not surprised you leaned toward comedy.
A: JUST like Chaplin said “to truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it”.
The current absurdities happening in Lebanese politics (and to a certain extent, in most current political scenes) is something you cry at, play with… and eventually laugh at. I find it inherently Lebanese to play with contradictions, so adopting a contrasting tone to the subject matter is truthful to the place and identity. Comedy becomes a self-imposed remedy to make the situation more bearable. I also think comedy is a more powerful way to get a message across, as it not as flagrant and preachy as it would be with drama.
Q: This idea of a populace so intent on pleasing the powerful that they act to their own detriment is something we can all understand and have likely witnessed. Is this a commentary on events in the Lebanon or just a commentary about the human condition more generally?
A: BOTH, actually. It started with my own experience and viewpoint with Lebanese politics, but it is definitely more and more applicable to other countries.
Lebanon went through a civil war from 1975 to 1990, and all the warlords and politicians that were players at the time are still ruling over us today. After fighting each other for 15 years and turning their population into soldiers, killing each other sometimes even within the same family.
Then, with the end of the civil war, they all became “friends” again. In reality, the politicians did not necessarily become friends, they just cut the cake in an equitable way that seems to satisfy all different parties involved. And yet, the people continue to vote for these same political figures, blindly following the leader of their communities. Some weird opportunistic alliances get formed, and previous belligerents become allies in a snap of a finger. So in a way, one must truly wonder why we fought in the first place, and who benefited from that.
But overall, generally in the world, populations seem to follow blindly their leaders without too much critical thinking. Trump, for example, summed it up pretty well when he said during the election campaign that he could stand on 5th Avenue, shoot someone, and still get the votes.
Q: Can you tell us about the shoot for this film and where it was filmed?
A: THE film was shot in Northern Lebanon, in the beautiful coastal town of Enfeh. It’s quite a touristic town, and is not really as depicted in the film.
In our film, the town is dead, while in Enfeh, there’s a lot going on, especially during touristic seasons like in the summer. It did, however, provide the right locations for the film, like the house of Nino standing in the middle of the sea, with nothing surrounding it.
Most of the other exteriors were altered to fit our art direction theme, which was “Broken dreams”; everything had to look rusty and faded, yet charming and full of character. Locations were supposed to look as the ghost of what was once beautiful, which in their degradation retained some character and some charm.
We shot for 7 days, and the people were very welcoming of the shoot. They opened their houses to us, and we were using some of them as extras. Having worked with most key members on several other shoots in the past, it felt like being a bunch of friends passionately working on a film.
Q: Your film introduced me to the work of Fouad Yammine. What qualities did he bring to the project?
A: FOUAD Yammine is a talented actor, and is famous in Lebanon and in the Middle East. He’s acted in feature films like Ziad Doueiri’s Oscar-nominated The Insult, as well as Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now? and the hit dark comedy Very Big Shot. He’s also a prominent stage actor in Beirut, and does a lot of TV work, mostly satirical shows.
That being said, he is most often cast as a comedy actor, and is rarely featured with lead parts in dramas. Given the tone of the film, which swings between drama and comedy, I needed an actor who would embody this dichotomy. Fouad Yammine, with much experience in comedy, would be great for the comedic aspect of it. And I knew that directing him as if it were a drama would provide that interesting mix in tone we were looking for. He understood very quickly the thin line we were playing on, and was all game for finding that balance.
It’s always interesting to go against the type-cast, especially when it comes to acting comedic actors in dramatic parts, and that’s what we did with Fouad.
Q: Mounia Akl helped you write the film and also plays one of the only uncorrupted characters in the film. What can you tell us about your collaboration with Mounia?
A: YES, Mounia Akl’s character remains uncorrupted and embodies the role of an observer to the whole madness that enfolds. By the end of it, she also gets harmed, not necessarily by participating in the fighting, but because of her inaction. I see myself and my generation a lot in her. We inherited of a desperate situation, and there is some sense of apathy and desperation that led a lot of people in my generation to simple inaction.
Mounia Akl was the first person I ever collaborated with, in film. Back in 2009, we made a very amateurish and no-budget short Beirut I Love You (I Love You Not) that went viral and was picked up by Lebanon’s most-viewed TV channel, LBC. We developed 50+ mini episodes that revolved around the characters and the story of the short, which introduced both Mounia and I to Arab audiences. Fully aware of the amateur aspect and the limitations of our knowledge, we both ended up going to New York to study for our Master’s at Columbia University.
Ever since, we have kept collaborating; for example, I produced her short Submarine, which premiered in Cannes’ cinefondation, and played in over 100 festivals worldwide, including TIFF and SxSW. She co-wrote and co-edited The President’s Visit. We always edit for each other and I often producer her work, and we both read each other’s scripts.
She is definitely my closest collaborator and most honest critic, and I am fully aware how rare it is to find such a close collaborator, so we both work on maintaining this working relationship that we cherish.
Q: Lastly, your debut feature, The Swing, is currently showing at festivals. I believe it has a very different tone to The President’s Visit, what can you tell us about it?
A: YES, The Swing is my first feature documentary, so that’s quite different from the world of fiction, especially when presented in a stylised manner like in The President’s Visit.
The Swing premiered in competition at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July 2019, and its narrative revolves around a family tragedy, with the two protagonists being my 82-year-old grandmother and my 90-year old grandfather. It examines questions about mortality, and what remains by the end of life when we progressively lose our physical abilities and our memory. The story involves the sudden passing of my aunt, and the inability of my family to tell her father (i.e. my grandfather) the tragic news, as his heart was weak and could not handle any emotional pain.
I had never set out to make a documentary, but as the story was happening before my eyes, I felt the urge to document it. I had also always been very interested and intrigued with old age, and all the thoughts of emotions one has when reaching the finish line.
Q: What is next for you?
A: CURRENTLY, I am developing my first narrative work, and am still writing the script.