Q&A with Pierre Mouzannar, dir. An Arabian Night - Clermont 2020 award winner
Monday 9 March 2020, by , ,
Spending his last night as a civilian in his dream-like local tennis club, Michael, a young British soldier confronts a glimpse of the near future waiting for him on the other side of the night.
Video interview to come...
An Arabian Night is a dreamy huit-clos with an out-of-time quality reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth. Through the tale of this improbable encounter, much like in the Arabian Nights, the writer seeks to explore the reality of two worlds colliding, and the wider themes at stake of racism, colonialism, migration, and loneliness. Avoiding didacticism, Mouzannar skilfully throw us straight into this developing relationship that subtly oscillates between matey banter and awkward tension, allowing us to reflect on the injustice and power balance at its heart.
Can you tell us a bit about your background as a filmmaker? And more specifically as a Lebanese filmmaker shooting a film in the UK?
I arrived in London when I was 17 and studied filmmaking there. An Arabian Night gathers in one film many aspects of my Londoner life, and I think it fully represents the way I see the city. Like the tennis club in the film, London is a place you can make your own, but where you’re ultimately very much alone. In the film, the two characters almost never fill the frame, they always take up a very small part of it, even when we only need to see their faces. Empty space is always more dominant in the frame than the part they occupy, because like all Londoners, they are tiny, unimportant and lonely atoms in this gigantic space that is London – and this is true for everyone, whether they’re foreigners or British. Moreover, London is the world’s undisputed arena for international encounters. No city is as cosmopolitan. As a Lebanese student and immigrant, this dynamic was very prevalent in my stay there, while my home country, Lebanon, could also be considered a main gate between eastern and western cultures. The multi-faced encounters, stand-offs or dialogues between these two cultures have always fascinated me. Throughout history, the relationship between the Arab world and Europe has been very decisive for the world, and the perpetual incomprehension between the two has caused continuous unrest. While the dynamic between the two has never been worse than in the last decades, I now sense a promising change happening, at the turn of the next decade. The way these two cultures feel about each other is changing day after day, and there is an unspoken effort to settle their shared past and differences. As I do not feel entirely part of either of these cultures, having instead a bit of both in me, An Arabian Night was an attempt at creating an honest dialog between these two worlds of mine, and reconcile them to start from anew.
What gave you the idea of filming this unlikely friendship between these two characters?
Like the name might indicate it, I see this story like a night-time fable. It is specifically the unlikeliness of this friendship that attracted me in writing it. I think there are two kinds of films with social or political messages: you can either show, with a critical eye, something that happens around the world, or on the contrary, you can show something that never happens, and should happen more often. I find the second option somehow truer. We live in the age of viral images where we are aware of all the social and political problems around the world. I think that if a piece of art wants to target these topics, it can’t do it explicitly or directly anymore because the real images circulating on the internet are always going to be more impactful. It is another route that art has to undertake, one that lies with sensitivity and poetry and the beauty of ambiguous feelings rather than blunt denunciation. One of the main points this story tries to make, is its unlikeliness. The plot itself, with its coincidences and timings, is highly unlikely. And this is further heightened by the oneiric feel that is present during the film. While the daytime, exterior and shaky scenes could show “reality”, the heart of the film, inside the tennis club at night-time, mostly comprises milky and composed shots, giving it some kind of unrealistic feel, as if to say that this friendship could only exist in a dream. This for me, is the saddest part of the film.
The two characters’ interactions centre a lot around filming and filmmaking. What was the importance of this to you?
Filming, in the case of my film, is not so much about filmmaking than it is about sight. What I’m interested in is the eye, or the act of seeing in general. A camera is of course used for artistic goals, but it can also simply be a device that can record sight. You can capture moments that you lived through and show them to someone years later while conserving the lived moment in its entirety. In that case this person will live through, once again, a moment that is long gone. This film is a lot about arguing. The characters try, throughout the film, to show each other their points of view. And I think the best way to argue is to show and not speak. What Michael ends up doing during the whole night – and specifically when he watches Omar’s videos – is living through a day in Omar’s Iraq, before actually going over there. And that’s what makes him understand it all.
Music plays a particularly important part in the film. Can you tell us your choice of tracks?
The choice of music echoes the main theme of the film which is the encounter of cultures, and the friendly steps taken by the east and the west towards each other. There is an Oriental version of an Erik Satie piece, while it’s being followed by a foreign version of legendary Arab singer, Asmahan’s “Ya Habibi Ta’ala”. I always found cross-culture variations beautifully respectful and the most touching homage a musician can make to a foreign culture. Moreover, music has always been, for me, an indicator of knowledge, and curiosity. People who love travelling the world through music, always give me the impression of being hungry for experiences and emotions. I feel like they understand the deep richness of life and their uncompromising passion touches me. In the film, the music is usually diegetic, as Omar plays it on the club’s speakers. Omar is one of these ambitious people. He is very cultured and capable, but life made him an overqualified janitor that sadly rots in this big empty club, in a foreign land. The abundance of music might suggest that he’s not given up yet, that he still sees life with hunger and longing. In the meantime, putting music on the loud speakers is also a way to assert his power over the club. Protecting his pride, he makes himself feel like he can turn the club into his home.
How did you cast the two characters?
I held a casting session, and out of the many actors that showed up, only two came unprepared. Because of some kind of mix-up, they did not know a single word of the scene we were supposed to rehearse. Ironically, they both ended up making the film with me. I instantly saw something in their eyes, in the way they moved their hands, in their shyness or eccentricity. They were both humanoid versions of the paper characters I had written. We had to rehearse a scene while hitting a shuttlecock with Ping-Pong rackets and having a conversation at the same time. I found it very effective in neutralising the normally tense and unreliable atmosphere of auditions. I got to see the person who was in front of me for what he really was. In my opinion, experience and professionalism matter less than personality traits that I and the film could benefit from. Haris’s and Murat’s personalities were both unbelievably designed for these characters, and after having followed my risky but sensed intuition, I later discovered that their life experience resembled a lot the lives of my characters. No one else than them could have fitted the roles more perfectly.
Would you say that the short film format has given you any particular freedom?
I haven’t made a feature film yet so it’s difficult to compare both experiences, but it is true that I embraced a particular freedom while making this film. I think that life is made up by moments. It is within individual moments that emotions appear, that beauty exists, and that life starts to make sense. I see films in the same way, where the richness of each scene is, for me, way more important than the overall story arc. It is within its scenes and moments that a film can touch me to my core. While making An Arabian Night, I embraced this way of seeing cinema, and I put all my attention in each scene as a separate entity which goal is to create some sort of meaningful interaction with the viewer, instead of only taking the story forward. I’m sure that the short film format helped in many ways in following this approach to storytelling. But it is an approach that I will always try to develop, even in future feature work.
You can find more of Pierre’s work on his Vimeo page.