"The thing is I knew nothing about Middle East culture," says the Montreal-based director Denis Villeneuve. That's a big admission from the Canadian whose new film Incendies is largely set in Lebanon and deals with a story that spans generations, taking in the attack by Christian militia on Muslims in the 1980s as well as the present day tale of the Canadian twins, Jeanne and Simon, venturing to the Middle East to find out about their heritage after their mother dies.
Lack of familiarity notwithstanding, he has done such a good job of depicting this world that, fresh from winning prizes at the Toronto Film Festival, the film will be Canada's entry for the Oscars in the foreign language category. It is also showing at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, which begins this week. The Canadian chanced upon the story when he went to see a Wajdi Mouawad play in 2004 in a small theatre in Montreal. "I was astonished by the beauty of Wajdi's play. He is someone who has a very strong voice here in Canada, someone whom I respect a lot and when I did see his play I was totally astonished. I immediately decided to make a film out of it."
The 43-year-old was an acquaintance rather than a friend of the playwright before the start of his latest film project. Montreal is a small enough city for the artistic community to know of each other and see each other at events. Villenevue had also seen several of the playwright's earlier works and wasn't looking for a movie project when he sat down at the theatre. The first thing that the director, born in Gentilly, Quebec, had to do was to learn more about the Middle East. "I had been there for travelling and also for making small documentaries in Jordan, but I had never been to Lebanon. I know about it from the news, like everybody, and read some books, but that was it. When I decided to adapt the play we did a lot of research and also looked at the work of photojournalists whose pictures influenced the aesthetic of the film, and we did a lot of travelling in the area, making interviews and meeting people."
Villeneuve met Lebanese, Iraqi refugees, Jordanians and Palestinians and the stories he was told by them helped him to adapt the script for the big screen. One of the challenges faced by anyone adapting theatre is the question of how to give the story movement, but Villeneuve says that in this he was helped by the source material: "Already in the play there was a lot of evocation of travelling and so it was like a road movie in the play. It was static but they were talking about travelling a lot so I was not worried that it would look static, but of course, when you translate theatre to cinema there is always a lot of work on space and time."
The story was perfectly suited to the eyes of a newcomer to the region as it's partly about the landscape being discovered by Jeanne and Simon. The director uses the protagonists as conduits. "In order to make such a film, my door to enter into the story is the twins, because I can have the same glance, the same look on this world as them." As with Villeneuve's previous films, August 32nd on Earth, Maelström and Polytechnique, Incendies is a story dominated by women. Although the twins are a girl and a boy, it's Jeanne that makes all the discoveries and decides to venture into the family history. It's the mother whose story is told in flashback and her grandmother plays a big part in domestic life. Nearly everyone Jeanne meets in her mother's village to talk about the past is a woman.
When I broach the subject of his fascination with women, Villeneuve amusingly says: "That is a question that I decided not to think about. It was just that after my first two features I was a little surprised to find myself doing that, but it was my intuition and inspiration and after a few years when I made another film, Polytechnique, I found myself doing the same thing again. I think the truth is that I was raised in a matriarchal family, with a really strong grandmother who was a positive influence. But I don't think it's very interesting for other people to know why."
Whenever he refers to the Middle East, the director speaks about his fascination with the culture and the strong and positive traditions that he found here. Yet it's also a culture that he samples in his current hometown. "There are a lot of Lebanese people living here in Montreal and the script was read by several Lebanese journalists, writers or even people who were from Lebanon who gave me a lot of notes."
He obviously spoke to the right people, as he walks several tightropes with balance. As well as making sure that there was an authenticity on-screen about Arab life, he also had to deal with the subject of murder committed in the name of religion. "I think it was a dangerous topic, to talk about religion in this part of the world," explains the director. "I did try to keep a balance and I did try to keep it neutral, because the movie is about anger but it doesn't want to promote anger. It is so complex and the thing is that the goal of the film was at one point we want the audience to feel the complexity, but that they won't get lost in the script. There is a point of view and there are several truths and that is why there is a war, because there is too much truth clashing at the same time."
One thing for sure is that living in the region and making Incendies has only served to whet his appetite for Arabic stories. "I think I made a small step in this beautiful culture, I lived for five months thinking about Arabic culture every morning and it was such a beautiful trip and now I'm in grief. I have another project that will talk about the Middle East, but maybe this time it will be the Middle East in Canada."
Incendies is showing at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival on Friday at 5.30pm at the Emirates Palace and on Saturday at 9.45pm at Cinestar in Marina Mall. For more details see www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae.