Chadi Zeneddine has got his pulse on Arab film - so much so that Disney has picked him to direct its first-ever Arabic feature film.
Living the fairy tale
Chadi Zeneddine is a young Lebanese film director. To date, he has only one feature film under his belt, a poetic festival hit from 2007 called Falling From Earth. His next film, for which the cast and budget are still being ironed out, sounds like a breakout indie success in the making. But the one he makes after that ought to make Zeneddine the most discussed filmmaker in the Islamic world. This artsy, auteurish talent has been hired to make the first-ever Disney film in Arabic. He's writing it, directing it, and from what he says, the studio is letting him go his own way.
"It's a fairy tale," Zeneddine says. He's describing the plot of his Disney project, though he might as well be talking about how he got the job in the first place. "At Sundance last year I met a woman, Rachel Gandin, who read my script and she loved the project. Later, we became friends. Two months later, she called and said: 'I have a meeting at Disney tomorrow and they want to do their first Arabic picture. Can I pitch your project?' She got the job herself, and it's her first producer job ever. And I got the job too. So for both of us it's a fairy tale."
There's no denying that he got a lucky break. But Zeneddine has a way of making his own luck. This year, at 30 years old, he attended his fifth Cannes Film Festival in a decade. The manner in which he got into his first is instructive. "I was telling my parents I want to go to Cannes, I want to go to Cannes, and I was trying to book, and there was no place left," he remembers. "And in Lebanon, they were doing this award kind of thing, like if you buy I don't know how many packs of cigarettes, you can win the lottery." The lottery, in this case, being an all expenses-paid trip to the festival.
Zeneddine didn't win the competition, but he called the organisers anyway to see if there was something they could do. They told him that one of the winners had turned the prize down. "So I called the guy," he says, "and we met, and he sold me everything for $500. Five hundred! It's nothing." He was on his way. Subsequent obstacles he despatched without a thought. "The guy from the hotel at reception, he told me: 'Your name is not registered. You were not supposed to come any more.' I said: 'What? How come I'm not supposed to come?' I made like this clamour - come on, you cannot do that. So they gave me a presidential suite. For 10 days!" he says, laughing again.
Zeneddine doesn't look like a force of nature. Slight, elegantly dressed with an neat goatee, he cuts a gentle, if slightly dandyish, figure. He's excitable and candidly emotional. During a recent visit to Hiroshima, he says: "I was crying for an hour and half." He sees his current career as an outgrowth of the games he used to play as a child. "I used to bring other kids from the building or the neighbourhood and make them dance," he tells me. "I didn't know I would become a filmmaker. I always knew I would do something related to arts."
The breakthrough came when his brother returned from Paris to the family home in Gabon, West Africa (Zeneddine moved to Beirut when he was 17). "He's a wannabe actor," Zeneddine explains, "so he brought a camera with him. He was like: 'Shoot me, shoot me. Shoot me dying, shoot me crying' - you know? And then I got used to it. And then we used to watch like four films in a row, and I was like: 'Oh my God, that's it, that's it.' It was there, just in front of me. And that's how I decided to go and do filmmaking."
If cinema hadn't got to him first, it seems likely that any of his other possible careers would have announced his sensitive temperament even more loudly. At various times, Zeneddine considered becoming: "A writer, a choreographer - I used to love to dance - a poet - I used to write poems - painting, too. It was always art. It was always: how can I express myself and make it a better work?" I suggest that film might represent a synthesis of the other art forms he dabbled in, combining, as it does, elements of writing and painting, poetry and dance. Zeneddine erupts: "That's right! Oh my God, this is it. You can merge all of them in one. And it's still, I think, the most influential medium that we have."
Indeed, his sense of the power of movies is unusually pronounced. During another account of his route into cinema, Zeneddine says: "Since I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to change the world. Gandhi and Mandela were my idols." His response to the horror of Hiroshima: "We're going to do a short film about it." He intends to tell the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was poisoned by radiation when the first nuclear bomb struck Japan. During her years of illness, she was inspired by a Japanese proverb which said that if she could make 1,000 origami birds, she would be granted a wish.
"Sometimes I feel that human beings keep on constructing for greater destruction," Zeneddine muses. "That's so silly. And so I decided to do something against weapons - making weapons and stopping all those bombs being made." It would be cynical to reflect that a single short film seems like rather light ammunition to bring down game as big as the arms industry. Zeneddine's enthusiasm is too infectious for that.
In the meantime, he has the Disney film to work out. His plan is to create a modern adaptation of classic stories from the Arabian Nights - "Scheherezade, Ali Baba, Antar and Majnoon Laila," he says. Titled Last of the Storytellers, it will depict a young boy who travels to a forgotten city to find a master of storytelling. The film will be live action and most probably shot in Morocco, though Zeneddine stresses: "It's going to be a pan-Arab cast because this kid is going to travel to many different villages and cities. And even the dialect is going to change. So he's going to be in lots of different Arab lands."
The tone, Zeneddine says, will be fantastical, though in a subtle way: he doesn't want to use special effects. "In the Arab world, a fairy tale is a bit different," he says. "I'm doing something you call magical realism. I think it suits us more, for our culture. Of course we have things like djinns and the genie of the lamp and all that. But also, for us, we believe in facts and what you see." This seems as good a moment as any to ask what he thinks about Disney's intentions in broaching the Arabic market. The company has been experimenting with a localist approach for the past few years, developing the animated feature Roadside Romeo for Indian audiences last year and sounding out the Russian and Chinese markets for bespoke Disney productions. Zeneddine is pragmatic.
"Of course they are more interested in us, but they are also interested in the financial effect that it could have," he says. "It's cheaper to shoot in those countries... I think it's a good idea. Why not?" Still, he sympathises with those who fear an excessively exotic, outsider's take on Arabian culture, and he takes responsibility for the project. "I promise them," he says. "If it's exotic, it's for a reason."
Intriguingly, despite his relative youth and inexperience, it appears that Disney are giving him a fairly free hand with the picture. The only stipulation that Zeneddine mentions is that "they want a happy-ending". He's content with that. "I believe in happy endings," he says. All the same: "My happy ending is a very Arabic happy ending... It's a normal boy who goes on a journey. He will change himself and his surroundings, not the whole world."
Storytellers is scheduled to start shooting in the new year. Meanwhile, Zeneddine is working on Barbershop Trinity, a tragicomedy ("It's comedy with tough scenes - like real life," he says) set in a Ramallah hairdresser. The script, written by Bassem Nasir, tells the story of three Palestinian brothers who have to take over a barbershop when their father retires. "It's not at all a political film," the director says. "But you cannot but be political in such a situation. But it's said in a different way: a beautiful, simple way."
Zeneddine's debut, Falling from Earth, was a tone-poem of a film, a collection of narrative fragments bound together by the framing device of an old Lebanese man who collects lost photographs. It was lyrical rather than strictly lucid, and introduced a director with a flair for vivid imagery and dreamlike associations. This isn't the approach he'll be taking with his next film. "I'm not going that extreme, that symbolic or poetic," he says. "No no, I'm following my characters. Of course there will be beautiful shots; this is something that I like. I love to frame as much as I love character. But this film is going to be a narrative film, which is going to be a big challenge for me."
The details of the cast remain to be fixed, but it seems to be established that Saleh Bakri, last seen playing Elia Suleiman's father in the recent Cannes hit The Time That Remains, will take a central role. "It's a French co-production," Zeneddine explains. "It's going to be a Lebanese-French film, taking place in Palestine, being shot in Jordan, with actors from different countries." A cosmopolitan operation, in other words. And then there's the Disney film, with its imaginative tour of the Arab world. Next comes the Japanese short. Towards the end of our conversation, Zeneddine reflects: "It's been a year and a half that I haven't had a home... Once you travel a lot, there's no home any more. You want to be there and there and there and there - and there's so many beautiful things to share." It remains to be seen what the benefit to cinema will be of all this ecstatic wandering. But it should be interesting to find out.