In the spirit of fun and satire as only the Lebanese can do it (think Nadine Labaki
), “ Very Big Shot” (Lebanon, Qatar; 2015) takes an unexpected twist from its initial drug heist opening to its anti-hero protagonist grasping the power of the image of media and ultimately spinning into the power of image in politics. This romp brings to mind 2012 Toronto Film Festival’s “Seven Boxes” (“7 Cajas”) which sold very well internationally.
The comedic mask covers a lot more for the audience to either pick up on or just to enjoy for what it is: a well told fun and funny story. The story has a particular Lebanese flavor and it began in a particular community which has drug dealers and violence and fanatics, but it moves into more universal contradictions between what is real, what is fiction as depicted in the movie being made within the film we are watching and how fiction becomes political fodder.
“ Very Big Shot “depicts the lives of three brothers – Jad, who is just coming out of prison after serving five years for a crime committed by his elder brother Ziad, and their middle brother Joe. A delivery for a local crime ring spins out of control and Ziad seizes the opportunity to make a fortune.
That “Very Big Shot” was made by three brothers and actually stars an actor who, after coming out of prison for manslaughter could not find other employment, makes this movie more nuanced than most audiences would imagine.
The directorial debut of Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya
, who worked with his two brothers, Christian Bou Chaaya
and Lucien Bou Chaaya, “Very Big Shot” started out as a short and received such positive attention and critical acclaim at several international festivals, that the idea of developing it into a full-fledged feature film was born.
The feature film project received support both from the region and international talent, giving the Arab world a powerful film on organized crime and the political nexus.
Earning tremendous acclaim at its screening at the third Ajyal Youth Film Festival, “Very Big Shot” is a dark comedy that pans the camera on Lebanese society, tackling multiple layers of the society. Says director Mir-Jan, “in Lebanon there is no separation between social life and political life and the scenario reflects that”.
It is co-written by Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya
and Alain Saadeh, who also stars in the film. The three Bou Chaaya Brothers combine financial know-how of brother Lucien who was (and still is) an investment attorney in Paris before turning his attention to raising financing for this film and talent; director Mir-Jean and actor producer Christian, a real-life restaurant owner which reflects directly on this film where the three fictitious brothers make a living running their father’s legacy, a pizza take-out place. In real-life one of the three brothers would always keep the others going in the face of obstacles which are inevitable for first time filmmakers.
We sat and spoke with the three brothers and actors Alain Saadi,Fouad Yammine
, and Alexandra Kahwagi
Sydney at SydneysBuzz: One of my favorite scenes was when the woman’s scarf was snatched off of her in the movie scene being shot within the actual movie and how locals believed it was real and joined the staged fight. It was very much like neorealism in “The Bicycle Thief
” when what was being shot on film as a mob stopping the thief was amplified by real citizens joining in and actually beating up the thief/ actor.
Mir-Jean: In the short, the film was shot in the street and a fifty, fifty-five year old woman saw the Muslim woman and the Christian man fighting and entered the scene and slapped the actor and so we put the scarf scene in the movie as well.
What are your favorite movies about movie making?
Mir-Jean: De Sica’s “After the Fox
”, Woody Allen
’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors
”, Truffaut’s “Day for Night
”, Kiarostami’s “Through the Olive Trees
” , “ Living in Oblivion
”. Reality and fiction is a very interesting subject, but the power of the image was the key in our film, not the making a movie within a movie.
It’s funny, “Argo” premiered in 2012 when the short was also showing. “Argo” won an Oscar and the short was compared to it.Alexandra Kahwagi
: “Living in Oblivion
” and “Singing in the Rain” are my favorites.
Alain Saadeh, how do you play the characters you play?
I work from within. As a kid, I liked the sort of tough guy character. I wanted to be like a tough guy in our family. There is a neighborhood in Lebanon where they say, “Don’t make trouble, just shoot him and go home”. But aside from liking that kind of character, to get to the human side, you have to be open minded to your own inner motivations as well.
Being true to yourself leaves no room for imitation.
Mir-Jean: I tried to be true to the milieu and therefore used the same street lingo without any modification to lend the film an authentic feel. The participation of Marcel Ghanem, multi-award winning television host, helped raise the profile of the movie as well as give confidence to the cast and crew.
We did not interfere with the actors and gave them total freedom, thus giving them the space to deliver a nuanced performance.
It seemed like an anachronism to be using “film” in the movie.
The use of film in the movie was a gesture to pay homage to George Nasser, the first Lebanese in the Cannes Film Festival.
The ending seemed rather sudden and I didn’t quite understand it…
There were three endings to this movie. One was a well-developed one but this was not convincing. It was about the ultimate form of manipulation, therefore the screen went to black. The story really ends at the airport, but the movie ending as it was, was more important than the ending of the story itself. There was a transformation of the character who, in being true to himself, discovers the power of image and the power of media. He had to become either a lobbyist or a politician. The ending also said something about the nature of politics in Lebanon.
What about the film’s distribution?
After “Very Big Shot” premiered in Toronto this fall, word of mouth was good but no international sales agent was on board to make deals for these first time filmmakers. B for Film picked it up for international representation and it went on to play in Talinn and London Film Festivals.
Here in Doha, Qatar, we were thrilled by the audience’s strong and positive reception. “Very Big Shot” looks like it could do very well at the box office, not only in the Middle East and North Africa where it will be distributed by Front Row after playing Dubai and Marrakesh Film Festivals. It has already been released in Lebanon November 19 to very good attendance considering it has no names. It opened in the top four (against three Hollywood blockbusters) which proves that people are interested in home-grown cinema.
The film will earn returns on sales in North America, Europe and Latin America as well for those loving a good (if foreign-language) caper with a view into Lebanon today (did you know there has not been a president there for 18 months?).
How did you go about financing the film?
Lucien: The biggest challenge for unknown new talents is finding finance and the platform to take the film to a global audience. We thank Doha Film Institute for its support to the film and Ajyal Youth Film Festival for screening it and supporting the emerging talent.
When the short was first seen in Abu Dhabi, an investor associated with Doha came in to help and that was how we became a Doha Film Institute grant recipient. Doha’s support did more than give us the first monies; it made us count in the international film community.
I knew every financial detail had to be transparent to create a comfort zone for investors. I furnished a completion bond and a detailed budget. Four Lebanese expats in Paris invested to support Lebanese film.
Well known music composer Michel Elefterides was one of its first investors which also gave credence to the film. He had liked the short and saw its potential. He also discovered two musicians, the Chehade Brothers who played in the film and who are now best sellers in Lebanon.
The film gained from the international collaboration that came from writer George Nasser whose 1957 film “Whither?” was the only Lebanese film to make it to Cannes Film Festival and Yves Angelo
. They brought Hollywood and French cinematic sensibility to the production.
This combination helped us to create a powerful script and a movie that resonates with the global audience.
We are also seeking to support filmmakers and film industry in Lebanon and the Arab World through our institute SuppAr-the Arab Art Support Group.” The Arab Art Support Group gives us and other filmmakers a support system to raise money in a sustainable, ongoing way. In effect it is a financial company created to support the arts.