Bassem Breche is an acclaimed writer and director who has worked on groundbreaking web dramas such as Shankaboot (2010) and Fasateen (2012). He has also made a name for himself thanks to his critically-lauded short, Both (2007). His latest script, The Maiden’s Pond, was selected by The Doha Film Institute to be part of Qumra 2017. It was also selected by L’institut Français for Fabrique Cinéma at Cannes 2017.
You started your career as an actor but then made the switch to writer/director. What pushed you in that direction?I had studied theater at the Lebanese University, and I remember watching Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention; I left the cinema with the realization that I didn’t want to act anymore…I wanted to direct. That was a major shift in my life. I never thought that I would be in film: I come from a little village and lacked any film knowledge or culture. Growing up I watched Egyptian cinema and Lebanese B-movies, but that film really changed my life. I went to England and acted in a couple of movies, and then I started studying film.
My university actually rejected the script for my first short, Both, so I decided to produce the film myself, and it ended up being selected for Cannes’ International Critics Week. My mentors kept telling me it wouldn’t work, so I learned to listen to my gut.
My acting gigs at the time were far from inspirational; I was always getting cast as a terrorist or a stereotypical Mediterranean man, so the success of Both gave me a great push.
I never stopped writing in the meantime. In 2009, they were looking for writers for Shankaboot, which I got hired for. By the second season, I was promoted to lead writer, and that helped put me on another level. Between Shankaboot and Fasateen, I did a lot of heavy writing between 2009 and 2014. I’ve worked on seven web dramas since 2010, and I also wrote a few features and directed my second short, Free Range.
I like behind-the-scenes work because I can do my own thing; my kind of cinema isn’t “fast food” cinema. To me, film should make you think, it should raise questions instead of always giving you answers. It’s what’s between the lines that really matters, not the actual dialogue.
You’ve done some award-winning work when it comes to web content, and also broke new ground with Shankaboot, which was the first of its kind as an interactive Arabic web drama series. What led you to experiment with such a format?We had a long discussion about it. It was an original idea and we had no references. We knew that we had to keep people hooked after the first season. It wasn’t a traditional TV show, and people can leave us in ten seconds if the story doesn’t grab a hold of them. Our team wanted to give viewers more than just a story; we wanted to keep things fresh. So we thought long and hard about it.
Some things worked and some didn’t. We considered telling a story through a game, but it was too expensive. We then tried to ask people what they wanted to talk about, and we would write accordingly. People used to send us topics that they were interested in. One season focused on domestic workers for example. It was highly interactive on a social level. That’s what made it exciting, and people remember it for that reason. It spoke to everyone since you see genuine characters – people you can identify with. It felt real and authentic.
You’re the director of Scenario Beirut, a collective of screenwriters offering script consultancy. What made you want to take part of that collective?The best thing about Shankaboot is that it taught me how to work in a group and have a writing table. Writing can be a lot more fun and efficient within a group. Some people tend to get bored when writing alone, but in a group setting you can bounce ideas off of one another.
I was getting a lot of projects starting 2010, so I decided to put together a great team of writers and creators to work with anytime I had a job on the table. It helped take the weight off and made the writing process more interactive and collaborative. Most of my team is comprised of students of mine from ALBA or LAU, and we do a number of things like script doctoring, consulting, and even writing scripts from scratch.
What can we expect to see from you in the near future?I’m currently working on The Maiden’s Pond, which I wrote with my cinematic mentor and inspiration, Ghassan Salhab. My entire philosophy related to cinema matured after working with him. I’ll hopefully be shooting that next year; my entire team is on board, and we’re currently in the financing phase. It should be out by 2019 if everything goes according to plan. I already started working on my next feature since Pond will take two years to finish, so I’d like to get a head start. I’m also working on an animated web series, a live-action web series, as well as a feature film for a Lebanese director.
* Photo taken by Jean Boutros on the set of Free Range.
by Anthony Sargon