As part of 37th Moscow International Film Festival I spoke to the young Lebanese filmmaker Rana Salem whose first feature film, The Road (“El-Tariq”), premiered in the competition section of the festival and was honoured with the FIPRESCI Award. We discussed life as reflected in her films. Sharofat Arabova: You make your films on women, but they tend to be unhappy...
Rana Salem: The reasons behind the unhappiness of my short film heroine and the feature film character are different. But I understand there is a common path. Maybe it is the same woman but ten years later when she is maturing. I think we should speak about loneliness rather than unhappiness. They are two different ideas and I have always been attracted to what loneliness is and what it means; why it is a common feeling to all human beings. I think unhappiness and loneliness are the result of knowing that everything changes, that everyone will finally die. And no matter what you do, times will pass.
In my short film First Floor to the Right (2004) the reason for the heroine’s “unhappiness” is much simpler: the main idea is her struggle with pain resulting from love. The Road starts from a turning point in life when the heroine quits her job. She is looking for her identity. Who am I? That’s why she takes pictures of herself - as when we look into a mirror and don’t recognize ourselves in the reflection. She is more lost than unhappy. I think every person who decides to change something in his or her life will go through this kind of questioning of his existence. As a woman I don’t tend to overstate gender because my father brought me up to believe that everything was possible for me; he never made me feel that I was different from a man in terms of my possibilities in life. The heroine of The Road fears something unknown. People don’t dare to change their lives because they are afraid of what lies beyond their knowledge. When there is the possibility that anything may happen, it’s difficult to stay free.
S.A.: Interestingly, in the film you don’t provide much information on your characters... R.S.: I like my characters to be open to interpretation. Everyone who watches my films will have his own interpretation depending on their background. My heroine is unhappy because she is discovering herself and this quest can be long and full of doubt. I think we spend most of our lives trying to understand who we really are and it is a big mystery.
S.A.: How autobiographical is the film? R.S.: We discussed how autobiographical the film was while we were making it. It’s a mix of documentary and fiction. The heroine is played by me and the hero is my real partner in life. We also shot it in our house. But the heroine is not exactly me. Perhaps it is a hidden part of me. She is very different and when we would discuss this character I always referred to her as “she” and never called her “me”. It is also autobiographical because the hero cultivates land in the film. He is the one who quit his job in real life and decided to do something else. So I mixed the feminine and the masculine. The idea is rooted deep inside me. A couple of years ago when I was preparing for the film I wanted very much to stop everything. Perhaps I somehow recreated that part of me in the film.
S.A.: What is “El-Tariq” for you? R.S.: The Arabic title of the film is “El-Tariq” translates exactly as “the road”. It was really important for me to have this title in Arabic. Usually I never have a title in advance. Indeed “The Road” was a working title, but after thinking over, it became clear that it was the one I wanted. The choice behind this title was that “El-Tariq” means “the road” or “one road” and not just “a road”. The idea for me is that there isn’t just one path. Even though the characters in the film travel to a certain place, the road is quite symbolic. There is His road, Her road, Their roads together, and there is the real road they travel on. But the main idea was “the road” in the sense of searching for your own path. There is no one path, there are many paths that we can take and change. We don’t have to stay on the same road our whole life.
S.A.: The film is optimistic referring to several ways… R.S.: Maybe I can be a bit dramatic in my vision of life but I think there is something that I can’t ignore – it’s hope. I tend to be a mix between a realist and an idealist… A difficult mix most of the time.
S.A.: I noticed the old houses being the leitmotif of your films. R.S.: I was always fascinated by a certain type of architecture because there are a lot of very old houses in Beirut. Whenever I used to visit old structures, I always felt there was history behind those walls, I could feel the different stories in the house. Every time I went inside them I got a sense of energy from the past. In the short film I created three different spaces of the old house to help me understand my characters. The house in the mountains used in The Road was built in 1920 by the great grandfather of the main actor. It’s a very old and touching house, so when you enter it you get a feeling of nostalgia. Thus, a part of the film is related to memory.
S.A.: The principal hero being an audio-visual artist is also a gardener, who leaves for the old house in countryside…Is it an escape? R.S.: Yes, you can say so. I also think it’s a big question for me on a personal level. When a person is young he asks himself whether he would like to stay in the city or leave. In a sense it is also a metaphor. The idea of “leaving” itself is relevant in Lebanon. But Lebanon is a very small country and if you want to leave (the city) then you have to leave the country. Everything is congested and the countryside is not very far from the city. The city also expands towards the countryside, affecting it. They keep destroying old houses and building new ones, thus erasing history. The idea behind the characters of The Road going to this ancestral house relates to “leaving” and “coming back”. We had lived this way all our life. We unite and separate again and again. Friends, family and the people we loved had to go abroad and live somewhere else.
S.A.: The “handwriting” of your short film and your feature film is different... R.S.: There is a gap of ten years between my short film and the feature film. I think I have matured in my vision and my work since then. I wanted to have a very realistic look in The Road so we used handheld Canon 5D to make it look like a documentary on a couple. That was my main idea. We edited those shots with beautiful images of nature that resembled postcards, i.e. they were not very real. The line between different genres is merged today and personally I don’t like to put things in boxes. When I’m not sure about the shape of things, then it makes them more open in my mind.
S.A.: You mentioned you started shooting in 2012, but the film was completed in 2015. R.S.: My producer Christel Salem and I produced this film. The crew members were very generous and they didn’t charge anything for the work. In spite of finalizing the shoot in 2012, we shot in parts because I needed different seasons. After completing it I couldn’t start postproduction immediately. But when I did get started, it took very long because there were so many possibilities of editing this film. Christel was very encouraging and has been supporting this film at all levels since the beginning.
S.A.: How is the status of cinema in Lebanon? R.S.: There is no a film industry as such. There are almost no government funds. That’s why most filmmakers look for international co-productions. But for us it was very important to make a Lebanese film from A to Z. Overall, more films are being produced in the country. But when we say more it means about five films on an average every year, and that’s clearly not enough. But the attention Lebanese films now get at the film festivals round the world changes the perception of cinema and attracts more funding.
by Dr. Sharofat Arabova, served in the NETPAC Jury at 37th Moscow International Film Festival.