Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview and each was sent the same questions.
Jocelyne Saab directed “Kiss Me Not on the Eyes,” screening in the World Cinema Competition: Dramatic section at the ’06 Sundance Film Festival.
Please give us information on your background, and what were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I was born and raised in Beirut in the ’50s, the golden age of a Lebanon in “dolce vita mode.” I started my career hosting a pop music program on the national Lebanese radio that I called “Marsipulami got blue eyes” and from there moved on to become a newsreader for television. When the notorious Lebanese civil war took place , I started working on various independent documentaries until I landed the job of second unit director on Volker Schlondorff’s movie on the Lebanese civil war, “Circle of Deceit” in 1981. I continued covering the events of the war as a reporter and filmmaker until I lost everything I had in Beirut, material and not: friends, family, house. I then moved to Paris, France and continued, while being based there, my coverage of conflicts in the Arab world and the Middle East.
Today I live between Paris and Cairo where I wrote, directed and produced the feature film selected for Sundance, “Kiss Me Not on the Eyes” (original title “Dunia”). I learned everything I know about filmmaking on the field. I wrote and directed all of my films, except my first feature film “A Suspended Life,” written by Gerard Brach. I studied economics in college, even for my graduate studies, but in parallel, I built a “film culture” due to watching as many films as possible, from the American classics, to the nouvelle vague.
Having reported and witnessed some of the most violent conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century I became extremely concerned with human rights, a theme that I carried with me through my fiction work, and which remains the focus of my latest fiction feature.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
About seven years ago, I conducted a study on youth sexuality in Egypt. The idea came to me through similar studies conducted in France and I initially thought that my findings would make a good basis for a three-hour documentary on the topic. As my research progressed though, the findings became harrowing by Arab cultural and moral standards, so much so, that the person in charge of typing the findings refused to do so. Actually it was pretty “out there” by any standard, so I realized that it was impossible to get any of the people interviewed to disclose this information for the camera.
I [then] let it go. I left Egypt for Vietnam, and shot a documentary called “The Lady from Saigon.” Yet, as I was sitting there one day, one particular anecdote came back to me… I could not forget this girl, what she talked about and how, framing her head with her hands, the source of many of her pleasures. And I remembered a quote from one of the 14th century Arab poets, “Pleasure is a small death.” And I started revisiting these texts, that praised freedom, love and their politics as a way of being, a way of dying, a cultural heritage that we seem to have forgotten.
This led to a new perspective, a potential fiction from all these witness accounts. The stories surrounding FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and its repercussion on the sex life, and sensuality of women , was my second starting point, and I conducted fresh research with the help of international organizations about the [topic] itself and its related traumatic effects. [Combined with a lot of other] research down the line (concerning the architecture of Cairo, Arab poetry and dance), and the script was awarded the special jury prize for best screenplay at the annual screenplay competition organized by the French National Cinema Centre.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The challenges in making my film… Where to begin..? The struggles and difficulties surrounding the making of “Kiss Me Not on the Eyes” were unfortunately of epic proportions. It would take pages and pages just to headline each one of them. Suffice it to say though that my main challenges were: To obtain permission to shoot the film on location in Cairo, Egypt as the censorship body fought the scenario fiercely… Considering it to be pornographic. [After the] permission was obtained, the next challenge was to set up production, which usually is quite a task, and being weighed down by such controversy only made it harder.
Then came finding actors, who had to be convinced of assuming responsibilities for their roles. It was a long and hard process as all [the actors were] concerned about their reputation and also their safety. Once casting [was completed], the challenge of having them work in an acting methodology that steers away from the melodramatic school that [dominates] Egyptian cinema is deserving of a headline itself.
Then came post-production. When the controversy first arose before the shoot, our Arab backers walked out on us with all the money [earmarked] for post-production. Finishing the film was only possible due to the help of many people and institutions who believed in the potential and importance of the work.
Today, a new wave of violence and controversy is surrounding the film, [in which] polarized Egyptian public opinion [is resulting in] a love or hate stance and propelling debates concerning freedom of speech and FGM into the public sphere. This whole frenzy culminated with an article recently condemning me to death for tarnishing Egypt’s reputation.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I was busy preparing for the premiere of the film in Egypt at the Cairo International Film Festival. I woke up this one fateful morning and sat on the balcony of a friend’s houseboat where I stay during my Cairo trips. I was sipping my coffee and staring at the Nile. The sun was shinning, and that instant coffee just tasted better, as I was asking myself, ‘why is everything so hard?’
I had been working on this film for over five years now, and every moment had been a struggle. I put an end to my reverie and dragged myself back to the computer screen. I started by checking my mail, and I opened the letter addressed to me by Sundance’s Caroline Libresco informing me of my selection. I stared at the screen in disbelief and after a few seconds of utter shock I started banging on the table and screaming. My excitement was beyond words. I was being fought by everyone for daring to dream and realizing this film, and all of a sudden, the best thing that could ever happen to me, happened — professional recognition by the beacon festival of independent cinema.
My friend came running, asking if I was okay and I could not speak, instead I started banging on the table again simulating the percussion music of my film. I closed the email and kept this a secret for three days. I needed to savor it alone for a while — to allow it to heal some of the wounds the fight for this film had inflicted upon me. Then I shared it with my crew who had long supported me and believed in this film. Their joy was out of this world. Our efforts and the love that went into making this movie were finally recognized.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
I want to watch all the movies. To be honest this is what excites me most about the prospect of being invited to the festival… the chance to screen and listen to all the experiences of the other filmmakers that found their way into the Sundance family. I am also dying to meet Robert Redford in person. He’s always been a favorite of mine. Of course I do hope that my own movie will be well-received, and sold and distributed internationally — an Arab movie breaking into the international market for its artistic and cinematic value. Maybe the graceful look I carry from the east, beyond the veil of cliches that usually stigmatizes the occidental point-of-view, will allow the orient to be restored in its just and rightful place and value. But all said and done, I still want to watch all the movies and meet everyone above everything else.
What is your definition of independent film?
An independent film is an audiovisual creative process that escapes the norms and boundaries imposed by the industry aspect of filmmaking. It is a film that gets funding from various sources, enough to have it exist, but never to impose any creative decisions. And this is what I tried to achieve with “Kiss Me Not on the Eyes”– primarily, creative freedom and choice. Of course it wasn’t easy
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
Ten million dollars in the Arab world… That would be five movies if I took my latest film as the bar. In the states, ten million is a pretty tight budget though… from what I hear at least. I would have to find the right story for it. But ultimately, with such money I would love to write and direct a modern, highly stylized and political musical, based on the paradigms of Western and Arabic musicals — modernized, combined, with artists from both worlds singing together.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
My New Year’s resolution is two fold. One of which is a bit unrealistic, but they do not call them resolutions for nothing. I want to finish a film in 18-months. A brand new one written and directed [by me] but certainly not produced. And, I want to be surrounded by an excellent crew. I already have the core of it and I wish to [maintain] that feeling of creative bonding.
What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2005?
Some of my favorite films : Robert Altman’s “Shortcuts” because I love its narrative lines and character constructions, this feeling of having to surrender to his world to “get it ” ; Kim ki duk’s “The Isle” is a masterpiece of love and death ; “La regle du jeu” by Renoir. I love how he perceives a film as a work-in-progress until the last minute; “In the Mood for Love” by Wong Kar-wai for the sensuality [and] his use of movement and repetition [and] the music the colors, I just love this film. “Seven Samurai” is my favorite epic.
“L’eclise” by Antonioni. For few people have been able to put in images like he has a metapysical feeling of alienation ; Fellini’s ” La dolce vita ” for his portrayal of a Mediterranean lust for life; Kieslowsky’s “Thou shall not Kill. Godard… anything by Godard. Don’t ask why he just does it for me. [And], “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” is the most entertaining and aesthetically fulfilling film I have seen recently.