Pierre is deeply involved in the very fabric of the Lebanese film industry; He’s a member of Fondation Liban Cinéma, and teaches production at ALBA (Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts).
Some of Sarraf’s producer credits include, Circumstance (2011 Sundance Audience Award), Go Home (starring Golshifeh Farahani), Tombé du Ciel (2016 Cannes ACID 2016), and Insyriated (2017 Berlinale Panorama Audience Award).
Tombé du Ciel was screened last May at the Cannes Film Festival and garnered quite the positive response. When can we expect to see it here in Lebanon?We’re working on the release details as we speak; distribution for this kind of film can be a little tricky. But we’re hoping to have the film out in theaters towards the end of May in Beirut. It’ll be a modest release – on about two screens – with a very targeted marketing campaign since it appeals to a rather niche, festival-friendly audience.
Your academic background is in biochemistry and business management. How exactly did you get your start in the film industry?It’s actually not that atypical, especially in our field. There are countless numbers of bankers or corporate employees who leave their jobs to open restaurants, little cafés, or pursue careers in film. When it comes to feature-film directors in Lebanon, only a small minority have actually gone to film school. What that means is that people who get into this business do it out of passion more than anything else.
I’m part of the “end-of-war” generation, a time where getting a degree in film wasn’t exactly reassuring. I studied business and science, and even worked in the pharmaceutical Industry for quite some time, but then I had to make a choice: Did I really want to spend the rest of my life in corporate America, or did I want to pick a path that offered more freedom and fulfillment? In the end, I chose freedom.
Can you tell us about the early days of né à Beyrouth, and how things have changed since it was founded?When I came back in 2003, Lebanon was going through a sort of economic boom. Granted, it was artificial, but a boom nonetheless. It was a period where a lot of people were returning, and I was one of them. We founded né à Beyrouth in 2004, but in 2005 and 2006, things took a turn for the worst.
When we launched in 2004, we were the first “new” production house in quite a long time. There was a status quo for about twenty years where a small handful of production houses dominated the market, and it was mostly in the realm of advertising and music videos. There weren’t really any production houses specializing in film at that time; each film was its own venture. Since then, there have been about fifty new production houses, some of which specialize in feature-length films, and they’ve completely transformed the industry’s landscape.
In our work today, we’re still juggling film and advertising. The film aspect is really volatile and takes plenty of time to develop. We’re involved in the production process on all levels; from script development, to securing funding, all the way to shooting and post-production. It’s a difficult endeavor, but it gives us personal and intellectual satisfaction. But film doesn’t sustain us from a financial standpoint, so we’ve never let go of the lucrative side of our business, which is advertising. We have a foot in both industries, and I think that’s a healthy thing.
In 2001, we created the Lebanese Film Festival, which is still around to this day. It’s a great platform for Lebanese films as well as foreign films. Plenty of international festivals draw from our festival because they know that they’ll find a great selection of films that represent what we can offer as an industry. The festival has also helped launch a number of careers, something we’re very proud of.
What have been some of the major challenges of filming in Lebanon?Deciding to make a film is a challenge within itself. There’s a lot of uncertainty: a script’s quality, the actors, funding, distribution, etc., and sometimes we jokingly ask ourselves why we even bother. Will festivals pick up our film? Will people want to watch it in a theater?
From a commercial point of view, our model is an anomaly. But there are codes and rules, and you need to know how to work around them to try and minimize that insecurity. We have to keep pushing and producing great content. Despite the challenge, every production provides valuable lessons that we can apply in future projects. The goal is to find a balance between the movies that we want to make and the movies that the market asks for.
What can be done to smooth out some of those speed bumps?There has been a long-standing weakness in script quality, specifically stories anchored in actuality. I’ve always believed that a great script will have no problem getting funding or finding distribution if it’s based on some kind of reality that audiences can connect to.
We just wrapped production on a film called Insyriated, which is the first work of fiction based on the ongoing conflict in Syria. It won the Panorama Audience Award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival. A part of the reason that the film struck a chord with audiences is its subject matter; We’re talking about something real, while steering clear of traditional media channels, which is what people want to see more of.
There have a been a lot of great initiatives to help curb our dilemma with scripts. You’ll find a lot of seminars and workshops focused on script-writing. It’s now up to writers and directors to bring forth their best ideas and package them in the best possible scripts. Our role as producers would be to complement the talent by perhaps hiring a script doctor and putting together a team to polish the script to be the best it can be.
In terms of financing, we need more success stories, more people like Nadine Labaki. We need to be able to convince investors that a well-produced, well-calibrated and aptly prepared film can find an audience and be financially successful.
The biggest challenge remains distribution. We need to keep sensitizing distributors not to treat Lebanese films the same way they treat Western productions. They’re different beasts, so the same logic doesn’t – and shouldn’t – apply to both.
What makes Lebanon an attractive destination for foreign productions?Lebanon definitely presents a set of advantages, whether it’s climate or the fact that our producers and technical crews are fluent in multiple languages. This means that when a foreign production team comes here to shoot, they don’t experience a huge culture shock. If they were to go to countries like Egypt, Iraq, or Syria, it’s a slightly different story.
We also have experienced teams who know the system inside and out. The vast majority of films that are shot here are co-productions, so foreign partners can find credible interlocutors who are easy to work with.
Can you give us a bit of insight into what we can expect to see from you and né à Beyrouth in the future?We’re working on the release of Tombé du Ciel and Insyriated, so keep an eye out for those. As I mentioned, we’re aiming to release Tombé du Ciel in a limited run near the end of May of 2017, and Insyriated should be getting a wide release in October or December of this year. It’s a film with wide reach potential, so we’re excited to share it with the world.
Personally, I’ve been working with Nadine Labaki on her third feature film. It’s a collaboration I’m very proud of, and I strongly believe it’s going to be another masterpiece and will put things back in order in our domain. Other than that, we have a number of other projects in development, but it’s still too early to delve into any details.
by Anthony Sargon