35mm from Beirut: Phillipe Aractingi

Philippe Aractingi is a French-Lebanese director and producer, with over 30 years of experience in the film industry. Through his beginnings in war photography, he began recording the world around him, directing his first documentary at age 21. He has filmed subjects across the globe; from giraffes in South Africa to archeology in Sri Lanka.
Aractingi’s feature films, Bosta (2005), Under the Bombs (2008) and Héritages (2013) earned the director critical acclaim. His latest, Listen (2017), has just been released and explores the lighter themes of sound and love.

Listen, your latest feature film based in Lebanon, is out in cinemas now. What can you tell us about it?

It is a poetic story about love, fidelity and sound. I purposely chose this subject because we are surrounded by hatred and war; it is a form of resistance to speak of love in the current Lebanese and Middle Eastern climate.

I discovered that writing innocent stories was hard. Boris Cyrulnik once said: “La poésie est désuète pour ceux qui sont gavés, mais quand le réel est insupportable, elle prend la valeur d’une arme de survie” – which translates to, “Poetry is obsolete for those who are satiated, but when reality becomes unbearable, it becomes a survival weapon.” I shot this film having that quote in mind, because I believe we need to solve our problems through love stories.
Listen is also about the senses, particularly hearing. We are in a country where there is a lot of vertical communication, but little horizontal connection. People are shouting from on top of their churches and mosques, but they are not listening to each other.
It’s also a story about a coma, and we often say that Lebanon has not yet woken up from its stupor.
These are the metaphors behind the film, but it is also a normal story that people can go, see and enjoy.

You were the producer and director of Listen, how do you balance between those two roles?

It is completely schizophrenic to be both. I don’t like the fact that I am a producer, I’d rather be a director. But I’m someone who doesn’t take no for an answer. I had to become a producer because they refused my first feature film, Bosta, 18 times. When it came to distributing it, they said a Lebanese film wouldn’t work; I had to do it myself, and it was a huge success with 140,000 tickets sold.
Lebanon has no public funding. If you want to make films, you need to produce them yourself. You can’t always rely on funding from Western donors as they are often more open to weighty stories coming from the Middle East, and as I said Listen is an innocent story.
We are working on getting funding from the region but that still hasn’t materialized. I also got $10,000 from the Ministry of Culture, which was good, but certainly not enough for a $1.1m budget film.
Distribution is tough as well, because you are competing with American films in a country that doesn’t necessarily protect or control Lebanese productions.

You began your career as a documentary filmmaker. What drew you to that medium?

I had always wanted to do fiction, but reality was harsher. I was growing up in a country that was going through unimaginable circumstances; you can’t create fiction in the middle of chaos. Chaos is far more incongruous than anything you could imagine.
I started expressing myself through the camera of documentary and enjoyed it very much. But it has always been a fight between reality, poetry and fiction. I have always tried to go toward my initial goal, which was to create films that made people dream.
With Listen, which was different from my other feature films, I got closer to that.

How has the experience of doing feature films in Lebanon differed from what you have done before?

I didn’t produce feature films outside of Lebanon, so I can’t truly compare. But I can tell you that Bosta was one of the first successful post-war commercial films; it reunited the Lebanese audience with their cinema, allowing them to trust it again. The number of ticket sales attest to that.
When I filmed Bosta the production crew was only experienced in short films or TV commercials; they were not accustomed to 30 to 40 days of shooting. We shot for 55 days, which is enormous.
Currently we have excellent production teams in Lebanon; I enjoyed shooting Listen with Ginger Beirut because everybody was very professional on set.
What we still lack, though, are good scriptwriters, funding, and a healthy distribution system.

What projects do you have lined up for the future?

I am a little skeptical about making films in Lebanon, because it has become harder and the end result has changed. Films don’t stay in theatres as long as they should; we need major changes in the distribution law to protect quality Lebanese films.
If we don’t come up with these laws, or find grants that provide funds to produce films, I’m not sure I want to keep trying in the same way.
I have projects and new ideas every single day. But I have my doubts about whether it is still feasible to do Lebanese films. The Lebanese public doesn’t trust its cinema anymore, and they aren’t necessarily wrong since there have been a lot of low quality films.

What can be done to change the situation?

I plan to promote change by influencing politicians towards change. We need to have laws that protect Lebanese films and that, of course, fund them. You can’t make a good film for less than a million dollars, and you won’t get anything back if you rely on the Lebanese market.
Usually, the French count on their local productions, and international films are just additional profit; the Americans do the same. However, it is the complete opposite in Lebanon, which makes it very hard to make money through the local market alone.

A version of this interview first appeared on 35mm from Beirut on March 27, 2017.

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