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French Version

Ziad says: There is life after 'West Beyrouth'

Lebanese director talks about 'Lila Says,' and the film he wanted to make

Talking with Ziad Doueri about film is quite unlike the conversation you might have with any of his Lebanese contemporaries. It's virtually a different dialect.

Take the film he's scripting now. "It's set in Mexico," he begins, while you struggle with the tape recorder. "There are no Lebanese characters, no Lebanese actors.

The only reference to the Middle East is a passing reference to the Vatican's concerns about the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

"Yeah, I'm moving further from home ... filmmaking is related to geography not your passport ... you go. You come back. But I don't feel I'm bound by nationality. More than half my life I lived in the U.S., 18 years. Obviously ... there's an American side to me."

Doueri's dialect is surprising since his credentials - the number of films he's made, his financial backers - don't look much different from those of Ghassan Salhab, Randa Sabbagh et al.

It might be the years Doueri (said to be 41) has spent in LA knocking around with the likes of Quentin Tarantino - Doueri shot all of Tarantino's films before "Kill Bill" - that gives him a palpable air of confidence. Perhaps it comes from having written and directed "West Beyrouth," the most-watched Lebanese feature of the last decade.

In its accents and intonations Doueri's dialect might be mistaken for arrogance. But the longer he talks the more it is possible to distinguish traces of frustration, humility and admiration - those other components of the creative process.

The director is speaking a few days after the Beirut premier of his second feature, "Lila Says." Earlier that day Doueri was told the Sundance Film Festival had chosen his film for its "World Cinema Dramatic Competition" - which ends on Sunday.

Unlike "West Beyrouth," which Doueri penned himself, "Lila Says" is an adaptation of the novel by French author Chimo. Doueri re-worked it for the screen with Joelle Touma - the director concentrating on Chimo's character while Touma focussed on that of Lila. He doesn't see much difference between adaptation and writing.

"From 'West Beyrouth' I learned how to listen to structures and to develop themes ... The novel ["Lila Says"] had no structure and half of it we had to discard because it talks about the Paris suburbs.

"The Paris suburbs don't concern me and it's been over-exploited in French movies. The book was released in 1996 and its problematique is a little old today. So when we adapted 'Lila Says' we changed the setting and had to dump half the book. We had to create characters that didn't exist."

Geographically, at least, "Lila Says" falls about half-way between West Beirut and Mexico. Set in France's Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, it's a coming-of-age story focussing on the relationship between Chimo (Mohammed Khouas), an aspiring writer of Arab decent, his best friend Mouloud (Karim Ben Haddou) and the neighborhood's free-spirited newcomer, Lila (Vahina Giocante).

Critics tempted to see a logical career arc from "West Beyrouth" to "Lila Says" will be surprised to learn that for the three-and-a-half years between these two films Doueri was trying to get another, very different, film produced.

"Man in the Middle" is a political comedy set in the years after America's first invasion of Iraq. Moving between Washington and the Middle East, it centers on Henry - a State Department envoy from the first Bush administration assigned the impossible task of bringing peace to the Middle East without talking to the Palestinians. Doueri wrote the part for Bill Murray, who apparently expressed great interest in the role.

"It took me a couple of years to write that screenplay," Doueri says. "We had partial funding from France [$4 million] but the French company couldn't pull the full $15 million we needed. We needed a French-American co-production. It seemed like things were starting to happen. Then," his fist hits the tabletop, "Sept. 11.

"After that nobody wanted to take the risk. Murray didn't say 'no,' he just said 'I have to think about it.' I just discovered a couple of months ago he's still interested." He picks up his mobile. "This is why I'm carrying this French mobile around with me."

The premise of "Lila Says" might be reminiscent of "West Beyrouth," but Doueri insists the two projects are very different from one another.

"I wasn't trying to copy 'West Beyrouth,'" he says. "The superficial similarities are pure coincidence.

"Maybe some similarities come from casting Carmen Lebbos [who plays the mother in both films], a terrific actress [whose role is not in the book]. The other similarity is the way I picked the streets. I picked a Mediterranean town, Marseilles, and they live in a quarter that's a little impoverished. It's not like West Beirut but it's similar - you have the laundry hanging and the people on the street - but that worked within the setting of the film.

"'Lila' is a very sexual film ... I've wanted to do an erotic tale for quite a few years now. [When I read] the book ... I thought: 'Now I can do something light, something not related to the Middle East,' Somehow you always end up injecting some of your past into it ... But if the characters are the same it's pure coincidence."

He takes a drag off his smoke. "As a filmmaker you always leave a thumbprint in your works. People recognize your pen or your painting. Even though the content changes, you always leave a mark."

One of the relative luxuries Doueri enjoyed in making this film was budgetary, which shows most strikingly in the cinematography.

"'Lila Says' had almost four-times the budget of 'West Beyrouth,'" he says. "I had time to stage difficult scenes. Scenes you ordinarily do in two days, I did in five. I had a great cameraman. I had more confidence in myself, too. In 'West Beyrouth' I couldn't pull punches. On this one I did."

Doueri has a strong commercial cinema sense, which reveals itself as he discusses the need to create the character of Wouloud - who doesn't exist in the novel.

"There's really no antagonist. In the novel you can allow yourself not to develop certain characters because the reader can compensate. In a novel you can run scenes out of sequence because the mind of the reader can compensate. He can rebuild the puzzle in his head. In film you can't do any of that.

"In film you take your audience for a trip for one-and-a-half hours and he wants you to guide him. He doesn't have a lot of time for analysis. Most of the time the viewer sits and wants to understand his character without having to over-interpret things.

"We have a paper, it's a formula. It tells you what you should do in act I, in act II, kaza. We followed a formula many filmmakers follow. You've got to have structure in the picture."

His views might come as a bit of a surprise to those who follow his work with Tarantino. "Pulp Fiction," for instance, defies many conventions of narrative chronology and was still a huge box-office hit. Asked if he'd ever consider making an edgier, more demanding film, Doueri's response is even more surprising.

"I think this is something that will come with further experience," he says to the tabletop. "I'm still learning the process. With a third and a forth project I'll learn the craft better and be able to manipulate it more. Right now I can't go ahead of myself." He pauses to pull on his cigarette. "I like to tell stories. I don't like to have things that are intellectual.

"One of the films that's influenced me most is called 'LŽolo' [by the late Jean-Claude Lauzon, 1992]. It was a very powerful film because he plays so much with the temporality. He did it flawlessly ... I've seen it, seriously, at least 20 times. I'm fascinated by how he juggles with time and it's flawless. You never lose track of the story it holds you so well.

"When I was invited to Montreal for 'West Beyrouth' I was talking about 'Leolo' and the festival director shipped a copy of the 35-millimeter print to my home. Then last year somebody knocks on my door with a box from UPS and says: 'Sign.' I say: 'What's this?' He repeats: 'Sign.' I open it and it's another copy of 'Leolo' from Quentin who knew I liked the film. He made a present of it. I'm the only person in the world who has two 35-millimeter copies of 'Leolo.'

"I feel today I simply don't have the experience to do a film like 'Leolo.' It's so complex and so lyrical. But I'm working on it."

Beirut,01 31 2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star
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