A chat with Salma Hayek and the creative minds behind Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet ahead of its Middle East debut
The cast and crew of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet are preparing for the Middle East premiere at the closing gala of Doha’s Ajyal Youth Film Festival, which runs from December 1 to 6.
The animated adaptation of The Prophet, the best-selling book of poetry by the Lebanese author and Renaissance man Kahlil Gibran, is divided into nine distinct parts, each by a different director, one of them the UAE’s Mohammed Saeed Harib.
Eight of the segments are interpretations of chapters from the 1923 book, bound together by the ninth – a framing story that is loosely based on Gibran’s life. The Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek, whose paternal grandfather was Lebanese, is a producer and also lent her voice to the film, while The Lion King’s Roger Allers is the director of the framing scenes.
The film was funded by the Doha Film Institute, a collaboration that began when Hayek appeared at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in 2010, says Fatma Al Remaihi, the DFI director and acting chief executive.
“We fell in love with the project,” says Al Remaihi. “It’s a story from the region, this amazing project that touched the lives of all these people around the world. It has everything in it about life and teaches a lot of lessons, and lessons we want our children to grow up with. And having someone like Mohammed [Harib] be part of it makes it even more exciting for us.”
The uniting force
The film’s main creative power is Allers, who put together the sequences set on the fictitious island of Orphalese, which tell the story of a troubled young girl, Almitra, who encounters a political prisoner, Mustafa (voiced by the Irish actor Liam Neeson), a storyteller who shares his tales with the people he encounters.
But although the framing story is inspired by Gibran, Mustafa is not exactly the author’s doppelgänger. Gibran was born in Lebanon in 1883, and at the age of 12 he moved to Boston in the United States with his mother and siblings after his father was jailed on embezzlement charges. He returned to his homeland three years later to improve his Arabic, soon after losing his mother to cancer and his siblings to tuberculosis.
After going back to the US, he met Mary Haskell in 1904, who became his editor and confidante, encouraging his writings and supporting him.
Gibran was schooled in the Symbolist tradition in Paris in 1908 and mixed with the intellectual elite living there, including W B Yeats, Carl Jung and Auguste Rodin. He published his first book in 1918.
What is remarkable is that when Gibran published The Prophet in 1923, it was critically slammed in the West for being simplistic, naive and lacking in substance.
But success came from the overwhelmingly positive public reaction. The Prophet has been translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 100 million copies.
Its heyday was in the 1930s, and in the 1960s it became popular in the counter-culture movement – Gibran’s prose inspired songs, fed political speeches and was read at weddings. The Beatles, John F Kennedy and Indira Gandhi are among the celebrities and public figures who named the book as an influence.
The filmmakers behind the movie are a prime example of how the book seems to infiltrate our minds from our teenage years and through university. Hayek says she jumped at the chance to lend her voice to the character Kamila (the mother of Almitra) because it enabled her to revel in her Arab heritage.
“It reminded me of my Lebanese grandfather, who died when I was 6,” she says. “He used to keep the book on his bedside table. He was the first person that I loved who died and you are marked by that.
“When I was 18 and in Mexico I saw the book and the cover was of a man, and for me that man was my grandfather. So when I read it, I thought it was my grandfather teaching me about life after he had died.”
Allers describes his first encounter with the book as strange.
“Somebody gave me the book and I had just moved into my own apartment for the first time,” he says. “I met a girl by the swimming pool and we went back to my apartment, but this story is not going where you think – we wound up lying on the floor reading The Prophet.
“It was so compelling and the longer we read, a very strange thing came over me, as we got towards the end of the book a profound change came over my mind and all of a sudden I started to feel so connected to everything, the bricks, the stars, it was so profound.
“So when they said that they were going to make The Prophet into an animated film, I thought I have to make it.”
An animator’s vision
The Emirati Harib, the brains behind the hugely successful UAE cartoon series Freej – the first CGI cartoon animation from the region – says one of the criteria for Gibran’s The Prophet was that the animation would be traditional in style, rather than fully CGI. It was a challenge that excited the 36-year-old.
“I was tempted to try something new,” says Harib. “I want to do 2-D. I love that art form. It’s within what we do at Freej but we only work that way during preproduction.
“So we thought about what could resemble the merging of 2-D [traditional] and 3-D [CGI] and we chose a style of watercolours that is called Aquarelle. The style is very loose and the premise is that you are diving into a painting and seeing a painting from different angles, which is something that is very complementary to Gibran’s world.”
Split nine ways
After starting work on a chapter about crime and punishment, Harib was instead tasked with animating the chapter On Good and Evil, which follows four women exploring the modern Arab world.
The roster of his fellow directors reads like an encyclopaedia of world animation. The Academy Award-nominee Tomm Moore made On Love; the Polish cartoonist Michal Socha directed On Freedom; the Oscar-winner Joan Gratz created On Work; the Annecy International Animated Film Festival winner Nina Paley helmed On Children; the double César award-winner Joann Sfar created On Marriage; the animation legend Bill Plympton came up with On Eating and Drinking; and the Brizzi brothers, Paul and Gaëtan, are behind On Death.
The Brizzis also worked on the animatic that tied the film together. “The animatic is the storyboard of the movie, based on the script,” Gaëtan says. “We made it in accordance with Roger and the first stage was making as many drawings as possible to describe the scene, what it’s going to be once it’s created.”
Plympton says one of the difficulties of adapting Eating and Drinking was that the book left a lot of room for interpretation. “It’s like two pages long,” he says. “How do you make an animated film out of five paragraphs of philosophy?”
For the most part, the directors were left to their own creative devices, bringing diversity to the film with their different styles.
Moore (whose new feature film, Song of the Sea is also screening at Ajyal) says: “I finished my part last November, but then in the spring of this year, while they were still working on the main part, they asked me to reanimate a bit at the end to transition more smoothly to the rest of the film.”
Gratz wonders if the film will introduce a whole new audience to Gibran’s work. “I know in the States, people of a certain age are familiar with it and attached to passages from The Prophet,” she says. “But sometimes you talk to people and they are totally unaware. So it will be interesting to see if it helps revive interest.”
Hayek says: “This book, when you read it, and then you read it again at some point later in life, you have a different understanding and also different chapters appeal to you in a different way.
“Like when I first read it, maybe it was the chapter on love, maybe in my 20s and 30s it was good and evil – now it’s the one on children.
“When I originally read the chapter on children I didn’t understand it, but now when I read that chapter I want to cry.”