Shadi Hanna says: “At the end of the day, I guess the audience has the final say.” It is the end of the day and he and I are the only customers at Le Chef restaurant in Gemaizeh.
Right now we aren’t talking about SLFilm, Hanna’s popular new movie. We are discussing Ziad Rahbani the man he says is his (and the SLChi crew’s) greatest inspiration specifically his brilliant but relatively unpopular final play.
“Ziad’s a genius,” he says. “His scripts, his music, the way he cuts through things. I think his plays should be shown in museums. His last plays were brilliant but so heavy, so political. Cynical. After this long war, it was too much for people, I think.”
Hanna has a right to be concerned with popularity. With SLChi in its seventh season and SLFilm doing well at the box office “50,000 tickets sold in the first 12 days,” he tells me he seems to have a saleable product on his hands.
SLFilm’s home-grown plotline seemed a natural choice, given the subject matter of the television series. But, surprisingly, the screenplays considered during the movie’s early development were far less recognizably Lebanese.
“We rejected three scripts before deciding on this one. The other three were parodies of American suspense thrillers. Car chase scenes. That sort of thing. But these screenplays would have departed a great deal from what we do in SLChi and we wanted to tap into our existing audience.”
Given SLFilm’s distinctly local flavor it is equally surprising, perhaps, that there are plans to distribute it outside Lebanon.
“Not in Europe,” he says, “But in the Arab world. In America, Australia, Brazil. Places where we have a strong expatriate population. Our biggest hurdle is that SLChi isn’t known outside Lebanon.”
Hanna has tried promoting his work in the west before, and he’s known his share of rejection. Before he took up filmmaking he was a musician. He says he made the switch to television and film because there was more work there.
“More money in Lebanese film? You must be joking.”
“Yeah, I traveled a lot as a musician. Took demos to France and the UK, went to see the people at Peter Gabriel’s label. But it didn’t go anywhere.
“I was in France talking to this guy in the industry, an Algerian guy. And he’s telling me ‘Man, nobody’s gonna want to listen to Arabs playing rock’n’roll. You’ve got to do something that sounds more Arab. Market your strengths’.”
“I told him ‘I’m not Arab’.”
“You’re from Lebanon, aren’t you?”
“‘Well, what about you?’” I said to him. “‘You’re Algerian. Are you Arab?’”
“‘No,’ he says, ‘I was born here in Paris.’”
Hanna eventually tired of his travels, though, and settled more permanently in Lebanon. “It’s addictive here,” he says. “I don’t know what it is. Lebanon’s the only place that inspires me. Like in Paris, you see these gray people on the metro. It’s like they’re dead or something. Like they’ve never laughed in their lives.”
Hanna’s television show and film seem to be his way of selling his addiction to this country. Naturally he has strong opinions about the work of his colleagues in the local television and film industry.
He is quick to assert that the various political satires on Lebanese television are just pale imitations of the SLChi prototype. And he has no time for political lampoon.
“Political satire is cheap,” he says. “Putting someone on TV every week dressed up like Michel Murr doesn’t take that much imagination. But to focus on the effects of politics upon society and culture, this is more challenging.”
Such statements echo Rahbani’s inspiration. But SLChi’s absurdist comedy also finds inspiration in such well-known American comics as Woody Allen and David Zucker the director of Hollywood parodies like Airplane and The Naked Gun.
Turning to Lebanese film, Hanna grimaces at the mention of local film treatments of the civil war. He believes that film-makers’ obsession with the civil war has more to do with foreign sponsorship than popular demand.
One of his favorite films, he says, is Ziad Doueri’s West Beyrouth. “It’s beautifully acted,” he says. “Beautifully shot. The only thing I don’t like about this film is that it’s about the war.
“You know Doueri had to go to France to get funding for this film. He wouldn’t have got a cent if it hadn’t been about the war. I went to the French to find funding for SLFilm, but there were all these conditions … they would’ve wanted it to be about the war.”
Hanna believes foreign backers want to ghettoize Lebanese film into dealing with the war, and that there are political motives behind it.
“Acknowledging that we’re capable of producing non-war films, that we can run a real film industry here, means acknowledging that we’re the same as them. By only funding films about the war, they fund us to represent ourselves as terrorists and murderers. They’re sending the message: ‘You’re third world’.”
The story and characters of SLFilm are certainly “first world.” But someone in the audience might be forgiven if he thought the characters, and the film, to be Christian.
“Putting religion into your film doesn’t mean you have a complex. You have a complex if you can’t put it. “Look, I’m a Christian, so it’s normal that a film I work on reflects my experience as a Christian. I don’t wear a crucifix because I don’t want to offend anyone. And you don’t see any crosses or Virgin Marys in this movie.”