Interviews with Nadia Eliewat and Sophie Boutros
MAHBAS – Solitaire is a tragicomic tale of the engagement-gone-wrong between a young Lebanese woman and her Syrian suitor. Samer and his parents travel to the provincial Lebanese village home of sweetheart Ghada, to formally ask for her hand in marriage. Haunted by the memory of her brother – who died 20 years ago at the hands of a Syrian bomb – the bride-to-be’s mother Therese is unashamedly racist towards her regional neighbors. Therese’s Machiavellian flair takes the movie into increasingly farcical turns as she makes outlandish attempts to thwart the union. See MAHBAS – Solitaire at the LOS ANGELES Opening Night on Friday, October 27 at Harmony Gold. The film will begin at 8 pm, preceded by reception at 7 pm. Get your tickets here!
Sophie Boutros is the director and co-writer of MAHBAS – Solitaire. She was born and raised in Lebanon and currently resides in the UAE where she is the Manager of Student Affairs and Communication at the Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication at the American University of Dubai. She holds a Bachelor’s in Directing for TV and Film from the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts, Lebanon. She started her career in television and music videos. She is known for directing videos for well-known Arab singers such as Julia Boutros, Rashid El Majid and Nancy Ajram. We had the chance to ask her a few questions about her career and the journey of creating this film.
Arab Film and Media Insitute: Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
Sophie Boutros: The story of MAHBAS – Solitaire is nothing personal or even close, but it is a wide observation of a shaken relationship, the love/hate between Syria and Lebanon that transferred from the political to the social. The years of war held a lot of ugliness and this had to create prejudice, intolerance and often hatred. It is a theme worth tackling, Nadia and I thought, and so we wrote about it.
AFMI: What was it like co-writing the screenplay? Do you find strength in working with a partner? Are there any difficulties that come along with it?
SB: Writing MAHBAS – Solitaire was my first screenwriting experience. I couldn’t have imagined writing alone. Having a partner, and especially someone you get along with, you work on the same wavelength with, makes the process of writing an enjoyable one. You say your ideas out loud and by hearing yourself, you criticize, you eliminate, your even praise your creativity sometimes. Plus when you share your passion for a particular story with a co-writer, you end up pushing each other forward, because writing a feature film can be quite demoralizing sometimes, especially when leading a full life like ours, with family and a full-time job.
AFMI: How do you think this film will engage viewers with their own prejudices? What do you hope people will take away from the film?
SB: The film has already been released in several Arab countries, in addition to a worldwide tour in festivals since the beginning of the year. We had a goal while writing MAHBAS – Solitaire, to avoid preaching people about their mistakes. We wanted our idea to reach them, to touch them but in a subtle way, and from the feedback of different audiences, I believe we succeeded. Lebanese and Syrians, to whom the story is directly related, took it very well. People got to laugh about their own imperfections and they understood that the film only means well. I like to leave it up to the audience to carry whatever message they find in the film, I don’t like to frame it in a few words.
AFMI: What made you decide to become a filmmaker?
SB: To be honest, it was not an overnight decision, nor a clear cut one. I always loved watching films as this was my only entertainment during the years of war; to rent a couple of films every weekend and watch them with my sister. But I never thought this was going to be my career, I didn’t even dare to think that way when there were some expectations from a girl who does very well in her scientific courses ☺ But I decided to go to the creative side and what I studied was still a very new major back then. I am happy I did that shift, it changed my life.
AFMI: This is your first feature film, what was it like to transition from shorts and music videos to a full length film?
SB: This is actually my first film ever, I did music videos for almost 9 years. Music videos were the only way to work on something that resembles film-making or storytelling. I took this big adventure of a feature film step by step, and I made sure to study my steps very carefully, the last thing I wanted is to fail in my first attempt. The biggest challenge was to be able to carry this project with the same strength, motivation, passion, perseverance and vision throughout the years of making it.
AFMI: What advice do you have for aspiring Arab filmmakers?
SB: Focus on the story. Write stories about worlds that you know, that you live in. Create living characters. Be real and genuine, don’t copy cinema that is not culturally related to you. And be patient, this is a long journey once you take the first step.
Nadia Eliewat is the producer and co-writer of MAHBAS – Solitaire. Nadia is originally Palestinian, raised in Jordan and currently residing in the UAE. She works alongside Sophie at the American University of Dubai as an Associate Professor of screenwriting and production. After experimenting with short films for a number of years, Nadia produced her first feature entitled When Monliza Smiled, which premiered at Dubai International Film Festival 2012 and won a number of awards at the Oran International Film Festival 2013. Nadia also is the founder of a Jordanian production company called Screen Project. We had the opportunity to sit down with Nadia and find out more about why she became a filmmaker and her experiences making Solitaire.
Arab Film and Media Institute: This is the first feature length film for Sophie. Is it your first as well?
Nadia Eliewat: No. It’s Sophie’s first feature, it’s her debut feature, it’s my second feature. In 2012 I produced a Jordanian feature for Fadi Haddad called When Monaliza Smiled. It’s a romantic comedy. I also did A Dead Well but it’s a smaller film, budget and cast and all of that. That was in 2012. So MAHBAS – Solitaire is my second feature. For Monaliza I only produced but for this one I’m a co-writer as well.
AFF: Where did the inspiration for this story come from? Was it an idea that you came up with together or did one person come to the table with the concept that was then expanded on together?
NE: Not quite. Sophie and I are actually friends, we used to work at the same institution together, the American University in Dubai. In 2012, we decided that we wanted to work on a film together. We started with an idea to do a short fiction film. We started thinking about the possibilities of different things we would like to do and at that time there was a personal story happening to someone we know. He was about to get engaged and that brought to the table some possibilities and we thought maybe we could make it into a short film because it was a funny story. From that point we started developing the idea together everyday. We eventually realized that the material that we had didn’t work for a short film anymore so we chose to expand it into a feature. Both of us were excited about this adventure so we decided to continue on the project together. So it was developed by us, together, from a totally unrelated story. The personal story was based on a small situation while he was about to go propose. During the early development process we also had a partner named Louay Khraish, he was developing the story with us. He helped us with the story and then he moved to the U.S. so Sophie and I continued on our own.
AFF: I really like that it came from a real life situation. It really makes it a film for the people.
NE: It does but the real life situation was actually not Syrian-Lebanese. You know how in Lebanon the electricity periodically cuts out? The story was that this person’s family wanted to go visit the family of his girlfriend so he could ask for her hand in marriage. They were trying to schedule the visit based on the electricity times! The family lived in a high-rise building and his parents couldn’t climb the stairs so they needed to make sure the elevators would be working. It was a funny, bizarre situation, thinking about how things like this would not matter in many other places in the world. So we started thinking, “What if? What if? What if?”, and then we thought, “What if a Syrian wants to propose to a Lebanese, who have a problem with the Syrians?” We started writing in 2013 when the situation in Syria and the war and all of that was really bad. There were a lot of refugees coming into Lebanon. So the idea didn’t come from nowhere. There were Syrians fleeing to Lebanon and a heavy past between the two countries and there were different ways people are dealing with that. It was a crisis story but we wanted to deal with it in a light-hearted way to make the past and the future easier to digest.
AFF: I was actually going to ask if it was an active choice to make this a comedy.
NE: Of course, 100%. The only way you can really tackle this love-hate relationship between the Syrians and Lebanese in a straightforward, honest way is through comedy. We want people to look at Therese and reflect. We hope the people who are like her see themselves in her or that people who aren’t like her can try to understand. We wanted everyone to relate to her in one way or another, regardless of their background or beliefs or what the Syrians mean to them, if they love them or hate them, whatever. We find that comedy is the best way to laugh at ourselves and make things easier to digest. Imagine this film in a drama format, it would’ve been super heavy and probably offensive.
AFF: It would’ve been hard to tackle sensitively as a drama. Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve been as strong.
NE: Yeah, we didn’t want that! We didn’t want to make drama of the Syrian-Lebanese history.
AFF: I think there is inherently humor in the situation anyway. The Lebanese and Syrians are so similar to each other, I mean, they’re next door neighbors. Sometimes it feels absurd that there is this hatred to begin with.
NE: Exactly! They are neighbors and they share the past as well as the future. It’s actually the same for the whole region when we talk about the Levant area. The past is shared, the future is shared and there is no way we can move forward until we really come to peace with our past and our differences.
AFF: So, how did you decide to become a filmmaker?
NE: I don’t think is a decision that a person makes. Maybe it is, but it wasn’t so clear cut for me. Since I was young, I was always drawn to theater and I wanted to study theater directing when I was still at school. I’m from Jordan, originally Palestinian, and the theater scene in Jordan wasn’t very encouraging for my parents. It wasn’t something you can make a career of. When I went to do my Bachelor’s degree due to all the pressure I had to change my path so I decided on visual arts. I went into general design but I also took many theater courses and I took acting, music, sculpture, painting, all different sorts of art. Then, for my graduation project, I decided to do a video installation, which was a new form that is still evolving. While I was doing this project, the Royal Commission in Jordan was hosting a wonderful filmmaking workshop from USC’s Cinematic Arts School every summer. I took this workshop and I think it changed my life. From that point on I felt more and more like this is something I want to do. Then from that point I went to study at the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, which was also a collaboration with USC’s Cinematic Arts School and some institutions in Jordan. I received an MFA in filmmaking with a concentration in screenwriting and producing. And, here I am today!
AFF: Yeah it sounds like you just fell into it!
NE: I was not far because I was already into the arts, it’s not like I did something completely different. My background in visual arts helped me a lot to have more of a broader background, as opposed to being limited to one form. I feel more well rounded.
AFF: Could you explain to us what your role as a producer looks like? Not many people are familiar with what the title actually means.
NE: The real job of the producer is someone who brings all the elements together and makes sure that the vision of the director is being translated with every single thing being made throughout the process. This person has to be the backbone of the project. They must bring everything together and make sure that, not only the financing is in place, but also that you have the best crew who is on the same page as the director, that the director’s vision is being translated properly and that there is a vision for where the film is going, especially in terms of audience. You have to understand your target audience from the very beginning and put together a strategic plan for the film’s release, distribution, and festival circuit. Even when you are doing the financing early on you have to put all these elements together. You have to figure out what kind of financing to need for the film, what you resources you have, what resources the director has, who would be interesting in supporting the director, what region or country, what are the possibilities for this film in terms of distribution, is there possibility for co-production…and then you follow up on its release. You have to try to release it as widely as possible. You have to follow up on marketing. Try to recoup the money that was invested and pay people back. So basically you follow the project from when it’s maybe just an idea until it’s out there in the hands of the audience.
AFF: The producer’s definitely don’t get enough credit for all the work they do!
NE: Yeah, usually it’s the director and the actors but that’s fine. That’s the nature of the business and everyone who is a producer knows that. You don’t become a producer if you like the spotlight. It’s not the right place for it.
AFF: So, you also have a production company of your own, right?
NE: Yes it’s based in Amman.
AFF: I understand that the focus of the company is on creating films for theatrical releases. I was wondering what you thought about the importance of showing films in theaters, especially as more content is being made available online.
NE: I don’t really agree that theaters are dying. You look at the box office and at the numbers and you’ll see that it’s definitely competitive, there are so many other platforms, but I don’t think it means that the theaters will one day die and you’ll only watch things on your mobile or laptop. I like theaters, I like cinema but I’m not focused on making films just for theatrical release. I might also produce content that expressly isn’t for theaters, maybe for TV or something else, I don’t mind. My company is called Screen Project and I produce different content, for a variety of platforms, with a focus on films for theatrical release because this is my passion. I believe that films that get to theaters have an audience. The films I make will be released on a variety of platforms online and on-demand but making films for the theater is my passion.
AFF: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
NE: It’s pretty general but work hard. If you believe in a project just pursue it and make it happen. Make sure you surround yourself with the right team. For me, the partnerships that you create are very important and also the friendships you make along the way are very important. For example, working with Sophie on this project, I believed in her as a director and also trusted her as a friend. It’s very important, when you believe in a project, to surround yourself with the right people who will share your vision and who trust each other and will work together as a team.