INTERVIEW WITH MARYANNE ZEHIL (PRODUCER/DIRECTOR/SCRIPTWRITER)
It has been thirty years since the massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, in Lebanon. Why did you decide to set this story in the aftermath of that event?
In Belgium in 2001, there was an attempt to prosecute the criminals. But circumstances and political pressure won out, and this terrible crime has gone completely unpunished. At the time I felt profoundly indignant about this injustice, and that outrage quickly mutated into a deep sense of duty to preserve the memory. At the same time, I wanted to put the society in which I live at the centre of that historical event. So, over the course of the film, Marie, a fairly jaded Quebecer, becomes the witness to a tragedy that results directly from the massacre that happened 30 years earlier. Feeling helpless when faced with such suffering, she still becomes emotionally invested and eventually finds meaning in her life that had always eluded her.
How does she end up getting involved?
Marie is a publisher who receives an anonymous memoir by a survivor of the massacres. She is instantly gripped by the story, which comes to her in short pieces. Through the writings, she is transported into the mind of a little boy who survived genocide, and that intimate perspective gives her a burning desire to understand. The memoir shows a side of a tragedy that we normally don’t get to see.
Why choose to look at a massacre perpetrated by Lebanese Christians, when there are other crimes by Muslims, Palestinians, etc. Are you Christian?
It’s precisely because I was born a Christian that I felt free to delve into crimes and injustices committed by my “group.” I hope other people will do the same with their own people’s atrocities! If everyone could expose the horrors perpetrated by members of their own group – be it political, religious or ethnic – maybe we could have real dialogue, rather than getting mired in denial and the blame game.
Even so, the angle you chose for telling your story is surprising: the responsibility of mothers for their children’s destinies.
I wanted to tell this story through the prism of maternal responsibility. Massacres are a universal subject, and it seemed to me that this angle allowed me to appropriate the topic, because it was a link between my own obsessions and an event much, much larger than me.
Speaking of obsessions, it seems that in both La Vallée des larmes and your previous film, you show no mercy to mothers, whether Québécoise or Palestinian.
Generally speaking, the role of mother is held sacred in every society. And yet their important role in raising their children – a nearly exclusive responsibility in some cultures – lets them inculcate values and teachings that will form the basis for their adult selves. That gives them a great deal of power, bordering on absolute power. In Quebec, of course most mothers aren’t transmitting war-related discourses of hatred, violence and bloodshed, but in their own way, with their own society’s discourses, they are also capable of doing a lot of damage to the world around them. As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is a need on both sides, Arab and Israeli, to make mothers accountable, to stop them from instilling the desire for revenge in their children. In my opinion, this is part of the solution, and La Vallée des larmes is an attempt to open the door to it.
In La Vallée des larmes, you talk about the Lebanese-Palestinian conflict, an offshoot of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Aren’t you afraid that people will get confused by all these very complex conflicts?
The Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975 because of the presence of Palestinian refugees in the country. The refugees had been entering Lebanon since the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, as well as a wave after the 1967 war. This information is given in the film. It isn’t necessary to know anything more in order to follow and understand the story, because at heart it is more a personal than a political drama. Of course, if La Vallée des larmes inspires some people to learn more about these conflicts, I will be as happy as a filmmaker can be.
How is your personal experience of Lebanon reflected in La Vallée des larmes?
I was a journalist in Lebanon for a long time, and I’ve interviewed both victims and executioners. I’ve lived through unspeakably bloody events, and I’ve seen the dust settle. I’ve seen indifference amidst horror, and pain amidst peace. I have also heard discourses – like talk of revenge – that make your hair stand on end, and other discourses that leave people indifferent – like talk of forgiveness, which isn’t based on any kind of justice. My humble hope is that the way my experience informs this story will help people unravel the complexity of this conflict.
Listening to you talk about Montreal and Lebanon, it’s hard not to think about Wajdi Mouawad and the film Incendies, directed by Denis Villeneuve… Are your works at all comparable?
Wajdi Mouawad left Lebanon at the age of 8 and will tell you himself that the Lebanon he describes is an imagined country. On the other hand, I have lived much of my life there and was there for major events that traumatized the country. My vision is necessarily very different from his, even when we both refer to the same historical events. He is a playwright and poet, and I make movies. We do come from the same scarred country, and we both live in Montreal, but I think any resemblance stops there.
Ari Folman Waltz with Bashir tells the story of the past coming back to haunt a former Israeli soldier, grappling with memories of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Are there parallels between this story and yours?
Waltz with Bashir explores the trauma and sense of guilt felt by Israeli soldiers, who gradually come to accept some responsibility as witnesses to the violence against Palestinians by the Lebanese Christian militias. But in the film, the Palestinian victims are anonymous. In La Vallée des larmes I tried to give a voice and a life to a fictional Palestinian family that survived the massacres. So the two films are in a sense complementary.
We rarely see Quebec films shot in Lebanon. The film’s cinematography depicts some strikingly beautiful landscapes, and almost divine light. Is it Lebanon that inspired you?
It is Lebanon seen through my emotions, but captured by the cinematographer, Pierre Mignot. He worked on this project with disarming simplicity and generosity of spirit, and that gave me a real creative spark. We were on the same wavelength, and I didn’t need to say much for him to understand my emotion. I gave him some guidelines, but being a great artist he could immediately see where I wanted to go. Working with him was definitely one of the greatest pleasures of doing this project.
Your casting choices are very convincing. Why did you choose each of the actors?
I am very proud of what Nathalie Coupal accomplished in La Vallée des larmes, especially since in real life she’s nothing like Marie. After a somewhat tentative start, she succeeded in mastering her character so organically, with so much truth, that she had completely won me over by the end of the film. She is a great actress because she’s a strong listener and she’s very flexible. Joseph Antaki really moved me with his restraint and his aura of mystery. I find him very poignant. As for Wafa Tarabey, she’s the most respected “villainess” in the Arab world. She used to scare me when I was little, and that wasn’t easy! Why them specifically? It’s all about feeling right…
The score is spectacularly good, especially when you consider that it was Nathalie Coupal’s first. I also noticed Loreena McKennitt’s name in the credits …
Intense, magical and extremely creative: those are the words that best describe the days we spent working on the music under an almost impossible deadline. But she pulled it off! Nathalie Coupal is a generous, multi-talented woman! I think her involvement in various facets of the film was very intense, and it shows. As for Loreena McKennitt, she’s a superb musician, and I feel privileged and honoured to have acquired the rights to use two of her pieces in the film. There’s also a piece by Hossam Ramzy that I’m particularly fond of.
There is an impressive number of prestigious names on the credits for a film that didn’t receive any public funding. What’s your secret?
Stubbornness and a great script! Everyone signed on as soon as they read the script. There are also some people I’ve been working with forever. Without such an extraordinary crew, the film would not have been possible! I love working with each and every one of them for their respectfulness, ingenuity, experience, creativity, talent and great senses of humour. We had many memorable moments in Lebanon and Montreal. The flipside is that I won’t ever be able to make another film without a Quebec-based crew!
Why didn’t the funding institutions sign on?
That’s a tough question. Maybe because I’m a woman? Or an immigrant? Because I’m the writer, director and producer, and that’s intimidating? Maybe they’re not very interested in “different” scripts? Or maybe it’s simply that it’s a hard business, and there are too many applicants for too little money? Let’s hope that this second feature film will inspire the institutions to develop some openness to the kinds of films I make. Films that I consider, in my humble opinion, to be essential, because they open Canada to the rest of the world, in this case the Middle East. On that note, it might be interesting to ask why it’s so rare in the French-language film community to have a producer coming from another country…