Once it’s in the can, getting it into as many cinemas as possible for people to see can be just as difficult.
One thing that can help with this strenuous process is a fancy award at the end, and the fancier the better.
Lebanese director Vatche Boulghourjian and his film “Tramontane” are in the running for a fancy award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival having secured a place in the prestigious selection for the International Critics Week. One of the longest running prizes at Cannes, it showcases either first or second feature films of directors and aims to discover new talent. Notable previous winners include Bernardo Bertolucci, Jacques Audiard and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
“Tramontane” follows the story of Rabih, a blind musician who is forced to travel across the country to discover who he is and where he comes from, after finding out that his identity papers were forged, having tried to apply for a passport in order to travel abroad with his choir.
Vatche stressed that “It is an existential crisis, but also a very real one, because he has to identify who his family is and where he comes from in order to issue papers, so it’s a very administrative search as well. It’s a duel search.”
The film examines ideas of identity, but also combines it with an exploratory look into history and memory. On his travels, the film’s protagonist finds a country that cannot agree on the basic facts of its own past: “when you’re part of a nation and you can’t agree on a common past, then who are you?”
In an instance of art imitating life, the lead role of the blind musician is played by Barakat Jabbour, a blind musician himself who can fluently play nine instruments and also sings. Vatche shared his concern about the challenge of working with a non-professional blind actor, but his fears where dispelled by Barakat’s unyielding understanding of the script and Vatche’s direction. “Barakat would ask me how to do something, and I would explain and he would do it immediately. In other words he listened and understood really well, and that for an actor is essential. It was sort of unparalleled.” The script was translated to braille, and although he read it, he learned it by listening in during rehearsals; in fact, he memorised the whole script, including the lines of all the other characters. Although Vatche did tests with sighted actors, he knew that he “didn’t want to work with a sighted actor trying to portray the complexities of living with blindness on a daily basis.”
Along with his music supervisor and composer Cynthia Zaven, Vatche met Barakat when they saw him sing as part of a church choir, and from that first meeting he was more than willing to perform, and over the course of production Vatche and Barakat have become close friends. Throughout the filmmaking process, both Vatche and Cynthia asked the actor for his input about the choice of songs, and he was able to draw on his deep knowledge and understanding of traditional Arabic music to find the right piece. The script’s early draft didn’t contain Arabic music, but rather featured a choir that sung western choral music. It was thanks to Barakat’s passion and expertise in traditional Arab music that lead to the change. “It actually made more sense this way” explained the director, “the film is about the land and this is a music coming from the land, so it [the process] was very organic.”
Capturing the Lebanese landscape visually was American cinematographer Jimmy Lee Phelan. Vatche and Jimmy met at New York University where they were both studying and became friends. It was when Vatche first started talking seriously to his producer, Caroline Oliveira, about making the project a reality, that Jimmy first came to mind. Prior to this film, Jimmy had shot films in many different locations, including Brazil and Europe, but had never been to Lebanon.
Jimmy’s unfamiliarity with the country, combined with his keen eye and sensitivity, worked in the films favour, as he was able to spot details that a Lebanese person had become numb to. “We usually overlook a lot of elements around us, may they be parts of a landscape or an indicative factor in a location; they become so common that we ignore them.”
The production team
The film was produced by a number of companies: Rebus Films Production, owned by Vatche, was joined by Abbout Productions with Georges Schoucair who he met at the Dubai Film Market, acting as an executive producer. During the production phase, Ginger Beirut Productions was also on the ground line producing.
For funding, “Tramontane” received private equity from private Lebanese investors, a production grant from the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC), as well as the Doha Film Institute, who were the first financial backers of the film. On top of this they received grants from CNC in France, the Sundance Institute, the World Cinema Fund Europe, ARTE, the Independent Filmmaker Project, and Enjaaz from the Dubai Film Market, to name but a few. Although the Lebanese state didn’t provide funding during production or post-production, Vatche says that the Lebanese Tourism Office in Paris was very supportive when it came to promoting the film in Cannes.
“Tramontane” will be screened on May 17 in Espace Miramar, as part of the International Critics Week Selection, and will be competing against six other films. The main prize is The Critics Week Grand Prize, with the winner being selected by journalists and film critics; alongside that is the SACD prize for the best screenplay and the France 4 Visionary Award which aims to reflect the cinephiles’ passion for young talent. A win for Vatche would obviously be wonderful, but first he is hoping that the audience enjoys his film. “I was just trying to create a familiar world; all these characters are part of my experience in Lebanon and the people that I have met…I wanted to make a film about the Lebanon that I know.”
by Hugo Goodridge