Saturday, June 27, 2009
Interview and article below and at this link:
Living the fairy tale
* Last Updated: June 25. 2009 12:24AM UAE / June 24. 2009 8:24PM GMT
Chadi Zeneddine is a young Lebanese film director. To date, he has only one feature film under his belt, a poetic festival hit from 2007 called Falling From Earth. His next film, for which the cast and budget are still being ironed out, sounds like a breakout indie success in the making. But the one he makes after that ought to make Zeneddine the most discussed filmmaker in the Islamic world. This artsy, auteurish talent has been hired to make the first-ever Disney film in Arabic. He’s writing it, directing it, and from what he says, the studio is letting him go his own way.
“It’s a fairy tale,” Zeneddine says. He’s describing the plot of his Disney project, though he might as well be talking about how he got the job in the first place. “At Sundance last year I met a woman, Rachel Gandin, who read my script and she loved the project. Later, we became friends. Two months later, she called and said: ‘I have a meeting at Disney tomorrow and they want to do their first Arabic picture. Can I pitch your project?’ She got the job herself, and it’s her first producer job ever. And I got the job too. So for both of us it’s a fairy tale.”
There’s no denying that he got a lucky break. But Zeneddine has a way of making his own luck. This year, at 30 years old, he attended his fifth Cannes Film Festival in a decade. The manner in which he got into his first is instructive. “I was telling my parents I want to go to Cannes, I want to go to Cannes, and I was trying to book, and there was no place left,” he remembers. “And in Lebanon, they were doing this award kind of thing, like if you buy I don’t know how many packs of cigarettes, you can win the lottery.” The lottery, in this case, being an all expenses-paid trip to the festival.
Zeneddine didn’t win the competition, but he called the organisers anyway to see if there was something they could do. They told him that one of the winners had turned the prize down. “So I called the guy,” he says, “and we met, and he sold me everything for $500. Five hundred! It’s nothing.” He was on his way. Subsequent obstacles he despatched without a thought.
“The guy from the hotel at reception, he told me: ‘Your name is not registered. You were not supposed to come any more.’ I said: ‘What? How come I’m not supposed to come?’ I made like this clamour – come on, you cannot do that. So they gave me a presidential suite. For 10 days!” he says, laughing again.
Zeneddine doesn’t look like a force of nature. Slight, elegantly dressed with an neat goatee, he cuts a gentle, if slightly dandyish, figure. He’s excitable and candidly emotional. During a recent visit to Hiroshima, he says: “I was crying for an hour and half.”
He sees his current career as an outgrowth of the games he used to play as a child. “I used to bring other kids from the building or the neighbourhood and make them dance,” he tells me. “I didn’t know I would become a filmmaker. I always knew I would do something related to arts.”
The breakthrough came when his brother returned from Paris to the family home in Gabon, West Africa (Zeneddine moved to Beirut when he was 17). “He’s a wannabe actor,” Zeneddine explains, “so he brought a camera with him. He was like: ‘Shoot me, shoot me. Shoot me dying, shoot me crying’ – you know? And then I got used to it. And then we used to watch like four films in a row, and I was like: ‘Oh my God, that’s it, that’s it.’ It was there, just in front of me. And that’s how I decided to go and do filmmaking.”
If cinema hadn’t got to him first, it seems likely that any of his other possible careers would have announced his sensitive temperament even more loudly. At various times, Zeneddine considered becoming: “A writer, a choreographer – I used to love to dance – a poet – I used to write poems – painting, too. It was always art. It was always: how can I express myself and make it a better work?” I suggest that film might represent a synthesis of the other art forms he dabbled in, combining, as it does, elements of writing and painting, poetry and dance. Zeneddine erupts: “That’s right! Oh my God, this is it. You can merge all of them in one. And it’s still, I think, the most influential medium that we have.”
Indeed, his sense of the power of movies is unusually pronounced. During another account of his route into cinema, Zeneddine says: “Since I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to change the world. Gandhi and Mandela were my idols.” His response to the horror of Hiroshima: “We’re going to do a short film about it.” He intends to tell the story of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was poisoned by radiation when the first nuclear bomb struck Japan. During her years of illness, she was inspired by a Japanese proverb which said that if she could make 1,000 origami birds, she would be granted a wish.
“Sometimes I feel that human beings keep on constructing for greater destruction,” Zeneddine muses. “That’s so silly. And so I decided to do something against weapons – making weapons and stopping all those bombs being made.” It would be cynical to reflect that a single short film seems like rather light ammunition to bring down game as big as the arms industry. Zeneddine’s enthusiasm is too infectious for that.
In the meantime, he has the Disney film to work out. His plan is to create a modern adaptation of classic stories from the Arabian Nights – “Scheherezade, Ali Baba, Antar and Majnoon Laila,” he says. Titled Last of the Storytellers, it will depict a young boy who travels to a forgotten city to find a master of storytelling. The film will be live action and most probably shot in Morocco, though Zeneddine stresses: “It’s going to be a pan-Arab cast because this kid is going to travel to many different villages and cities. And even the dialect is going to change. So he’s going to be in lots of different Arab lands.”
The tone, Zeneddine says, will be fantastical, though in a subtle way: he doesn’t want to use special effects. “In the Arab world, a fairy tale is a bit different,” he says. “I’m doing something you call magical realism. I think it suits us more, for our culture. Of course we have things like djinns and the genie of the lamp and all that. But also, for us, we believe in facts and what you see.”
This seems as good a moment as any to ask what he thinks about Disney’s intentions in broaching the Arabic market. The company has been experimenting with a localist approach for the past few years, developing the animated feature Roadside Romeo for Indian audiences last year and sounding out the Russian and Chinese markets for bespoke Disney productions. Zeneddine is pragmatic.
“Of course they are more interested in us, but they are also interested in the financial effect that it could have,” he says. “It’s cheaper to shoot in those countries... I think it’s a good idea. Why not?” Still, he sympathises with those who fear an excessively exotic, outsider’s take on Arabian culture, and he takes responsibility for the project. “I promise them,” he says. “If it’s exotic, it’s for a reason.”
Intriguingly, despite his relative youth and inexperience, it appears that Disney are giving him a fairly free hand with the picture. The only stipulation that Zeneddine mentions is that “they want a happy-ending”. He’s content with that. “I believe in happy endings,” he says. All the same: “My happy ending is a very Arabic happy ending... It’s a normal boy who goes on a journey. He will change himself and his surroundings, not the whole world.”
Storytellers is scheduled to start shooting in the new year. Meanwhile, Zeneddine is working on Barbershop Trinity, a tragicomedy (“It’s comedy with tough scenes – like real life,” he says) set in a Ramallah hairdresser. The script, written by Bassem Nasir, tells the story of three Palestinian brothers who have to take over a barbershop when their father retires. “It’s not at all a political film,” the director says. “But you cannot but be political in such a situation. But it’s said in a different way: a beautiful, simple way.”
Zeneddine’s debut, Falling from Earth, was a tone-poem of a film, a collection of narrative fragments bound together by the framing device of an old Lebanese man who collects lost photographs. It was lyrical rather than strictly lucid, and introduced a director with a flair for vivid imagery and dreamlike associations. This isn’t the approach he’ll be taking with his next film. “I’m not going that extreme, that symbolic or poetic,” he says. “No no, I’m following my characters. Of course there will be beautiful shots; this is something that I like. I love to frame as much as I love character. But this film is going to be a narrative film, which is going to be a big challenge for me.”
The details of the cast remain to be fixed, but it seems to be established that Saleh Bakri, last seen playing Elia Suleiman’s father in the recent Cannes hit The Time That Remains, will take a central role. “It’s a French co-production,” Zeneddine explains. “It’s going to be a Lebanese-French film, taking place in Palestine, being shot in Jordan, with actors from different countries.” A cosmopolitan operation, in other words. And then there’s the Disney film, with its imaginative tour of the Arab world. Next comes the Japanese short. Towards the end of our conversation, Zeneddine reflects: “It’s been a year and a half that I haven’t had a home... Once you travel a lot, there’s no home any more. You want to be there and there and there and there – and there’s so many beautiful things to share.” It remains to be seen what the benefit to cinema will be of all this ecstatic wandering. But it should be interesting to find out.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
(Entire article at link, excerpt below):
I like how the writer mentions the material is in the public domain!
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Last updated 5:19 p.m. PT
Big Hitter: The Fame Trailer, The Duel II, The Thieves of Baghdad, and The Three Stooges
By LAREMY LEGEL
"Also, our own Cole Haddon has officially signed a screenwriting deal. Here's the big news, from Variety:
"Warners will also develop "Thieves of Baghdad," a 10th century family adventure steeped in the world of the Arabian Nights, with Cole Haddon writing the script. Shaye sparked to Haddon's take on the original collection of folk tales "One Thousand and One Nights," which is in the public domain. It is a film that weaves Sinbad, Ali Baba, flying carpets, sword fights and genies in urns.
I definitely like where that's headed. I grew up on Aladdin; I think audiences are ready for an Arabian Nights-style film. I worry a little that Jake Gyllenhaal's Prince of Persia will step on the material a bit, but Haddon is a good enough writer to bring a freshness to whatever he chooses. I think, much like with Pirates of the Caribbean, that there's a huge gritty mysticism angle to explore with the source material. Something to wow families and yet intrigue adults. Why not? If you're going to remake something at least go with classic material that's stood the test of centuries."
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
For English readers interested in the Nights here is a good list of sources and versions you can take a look at with my own take on them, you can also find in them verification for the facts I’ve presented and further bibliographies should you be interested in pursuing the mad trail of the Nights:
1. Reynolds, Dwight F. "A Thousand and One Nights: a history of the text and its reception." Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Eds. Roger Allen and D. S. Richards. Cambridge University Press, 2006.
- This is by far the best and most concise history of the 1001 Nights I’ve ever read. You need to get a copy of this and read it if you are interested in the Nights and their history at all. In a future class I’d like to teach on the Nights this would be the first thing I’d have students read. This book might be hard to get (ie expensive) if you are not affiliated with a university library and can check it out but it might be worth a local university library membership if you are interested. Most university libraries will let you enter and photocopy without affiliation, however.
1.5 Nurse, Paul. Eastern Dreams: How the Arabian Nights Came to the World. Penguin. 2010.
A complete and straightforward introduction to the textual history of the Nights, one of the best textbooks on the subject and part of the Nights canon, to be sure, for years to come. This book is especially important as it gets into the details of Galland's life and his publication of the Nights, the first major publication of the story collection since the medieval ages.
2. Ross, Jack. “A new translation of the Arabian Nights.” http://mairangibay.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-translation-of-arabian-nights.html
This is a free online article and great introduction to the various English language versions of the 1001 Nights and their histories and differences. A must read for anyone interested in seeing what version they should start reading.
3. The Arabian Nights Reader. Book edited by Ulrich Marzolph, 2006. This reader has several important scholarly articles on the history of the Nights including Nabia Abbott’s study of the papers she found in 1948 and a short essay on the history of the titles. Other articles are hit and miss but the book is important for the historical articles.
4. Read the introductions to the online versions I have linked here or any introduction to the Nights and you’ll get a feel for the variations of the Nights and what each author thinks of their history.
5. If you are looking for a version of the Nights to buy and are discouraged by seeing Richard Burton’s 16 volume edition with footnotes and crazy language, never fear, there are several decent and smaller versions that can give you at least a taste of the Nights.
Both of these are fairly inexpensive on Amazon and will certainly give you plenty to work with:
NJ Dawood’s Tales from the Arabian Nights. Penguin. Despite having many problems with the author’s introduction this version is quite readable and in my opinion better written than the Haddawy translation. Although again, it is very problematic on its own but so is every version. This is a very small selection of the Nights but its prose is also quite readable and it contains most of the popularly known stories.
Robert Mack, editor: Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Oxford World's Classics. This is the “complete” English translation of Galland’s French version (as Galland's version looked in 1705 before later additions), all in one volume, quite a big paperback but not too huge to hold. This version’s language holds up quite well over the years and is surprisingly accessible even to the contemporary reader and includes the crowd favorites “Ali Baba,” Sindbad,” and “Aladdin” as they were first read in English in 1705/1706.
Robert Mack's introduction in this volume is also a great succinct (and correct) historical account of the Nights and its timeline is written in a straight-forward and readable manner.
6. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Translators of the Arabian Nights.” This is a somewhat abstract article (in Borgesian fashion) on the different versions of the Nights and makes for an interesting and poetic theoretical approach to the Nights.
7. Mia Gerhardt. The Art of Story Telling. This is a difficult academic book to find but it does a good job of introducing the history of the Nights and also has some interesting literary takes on the Nights stories in general. A sort of must-have in the canon.
8. Robert Irwin. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. This book is interesting and is somewhat of a canonical text vis-à-vis the Nights. Though it feels a bit unfocused at times (but the breadth of the Nights is sort of suggestively covered here) the book attempts to cover just about everything regarding the Nights you can think of (history, reception, setting, influences, etc.). The most interesting part of this book to me is the historical information about medieval Cairo and its crime stories and their relationship to some of the stories in the Nights.
There are about three tons of literature and scholarship on the Nights, check out my “free articles” link on this blog and you will find some online bibliographies that are a good starting point for investigating the Nights phenomenon academically.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
It's a pretty good overview of pre-20th century "Oriental" tales and their popularity in England, including lots on the Nights.
One interesting section was on pseudo-related Nights tales published and written by enterprising hacks:
"One of the most facile and prolific of French writers of pseudo-translations was Thomas Simon Gueullette (1683-1766). Four of his collections were translated into English under the names: Chinese Tales, or the Wonderful Adventures of the Mandarin Fum-Hoam...(1725); Mogul Tales, or the Dreams of Men Awake: being Stories Told to Divert the Sultanas of Guzarat, for the Supposed Death of the Sultan (1736); Tartarian Tales; or, a Thousand and One Quarters of Hours (1759); and Peruvian Tales Related in One Thousand and One Hours by One of the Select Virgins of Cuzco, to the Inca of Peru (1764)."
Monday, June 8, 2009
I think this angle is really interesting. The Nights are so different from say Masudi's Meadows of Gold in that Masudi would never portray a leader in a truly negative light or have a leader get duped or tricked or lose their kingdom due to dumb luck or fate (there would always be an earthly reason).
Likewise the Nights is a sexually subversive text, people seem to be fairly open sexually and go with their desires even when it leads to their demise.
It's also interesting because the 1001 Nights is so popular in the West, particularly in its children-friendly format, which I find to be really interesting as well. It's as if someone decided Pasolini's "Salo" had some interesting aspects in it which (if you took out all the bad stuff) would make a great book for children. The history of the Nights is all about repressing this sexual side of the Nights as well, and yet it is this sexual side that is really at the core of the Nights' identity.
Monday, June 1, 2009
For copyright issues please visit the link to see the entire article/review/webpage:
Portion of review pasted below:
Originally posted: May 31, 2009
'Arabian Nights' at Lookingglass a cascade of life-affirming stories
HEATER REVIEW: "ARABIAN NIGHTS" ★★★★ Through July 12 at the Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.; Running Time: 2 hours, 15 mins.; Tickets: $30-$60 at 312-337-0665.
At the start of “The Arabian Nights,” Mary Zimmerman’s thrilling Chinese box of nested Middle Eastern stories, we encounter the embittered, brutal, merciless King Shahryar. He has a knife at a young woman’s throat.
To quieten the king’s restless soul and save her life, this young woman frantically starts spewing forth stories—1,001 nights of sad, funny, moral, smart, silly, satirical, repeatable and ultimately redemptive yarns of Baghdad, its quirky denizens and colorful environs. These interlocking yarns dance in their visually gorgeous frames—intruding, delighting, imposing and, by the end of a couple of hugely engrossing hours, universalizing.
And all the time, that knife is that young woman’s throat, threatening to topple the fountainhead of this landscape of the imagination.
The memory of this extraordinary piece of Chicago theater has stayed with me since its seminal first production in a then-scruffy section of Belmont Avenue in 1992—long before Zimmerman got gigs at the Metropolitan Opera, David Schwimmer snagged a sitcom named “Friends” and Lookingglass got its spiffy, city-sponsored digs on the Magnificent Mile. It was the time of the first Gulf War, when Iraq’s cultural identity, thanks to both its merciless dictator and the needs of his Western antagonists, had been rendered in the media and the halls of goverment as a hostile, homogenous antithasis of light, art and freedom. By reminding everyone of our shared cultural roots—and by demonstrating the Arabian heritage of humor and wisdom—Zimmerman and her young, just-graduated cohorts seemed—almost alone—to be pulling back a black veil and letting in the humanity.
Well, you can’t go back. “Arabian Nights” is not what it was on that heart-stopping night in 1992. It is better.
The multi-ethnic actors—some from that same cast, some new—are more mature and thus probe deeper. The text, honed and published in the intervening years, is richer. The new production, which has already been acclaimed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and deserves to end up on Broadway—is sharper, faster, more polished, more exciting. It’s also more present and spontaneous—the great Andy White tells his stories with delicious improvisational applomb—as if everyone intuitively understands that great storytellers constantly adjust their narratives, based on how they land with an audience.
I think the brilliance of this piece, which is Zimmerman’s most theatrically complete and perfect creation, can be seen in that first moment, when Louise Lamson’s bright-eyed Scheherezade starts spinning her life-preserving stories for Shahryar, now played by Ryan Artzburger, an actor who somehow simultaneously capures a brutal core, a sad heart and a vulnerable soul. Scheherezade’s scared little sister, movingly played by Heidi Stillman, looks on, willing the stories to overcome violence.
You can see that opening many ways. A young person (this show is fine for teens) might see it as just the first of many stories—an ancient tale in the same style as those that follow. But you could also see the violent opening as a metaphorical embodiment of the Achiles’ heel of Islamic culture—a sexist bruality that can easily morph into oppresive totalitarianism. Or, if you take a different political position, you could see Shahryar as the invading Americans and Scheherezade as, say, Iraqi culture fighting against its own destruction. They all work.
And here’s the best part. Whichever way you are looking at the opening, the conclusion is life-affirming and satisfying in every respect. That’s because Zimmerman’s adaptations of these anicent yarns are relentlessly focused on our shared humanity.
Most in the mix of tourists and locals who find their way to the Water Tower will, I suspect, just sit and enjoy the cascade of stories, which range from celebrations of great female learning to the yarns of butchers, pasty crooks and Kurds to prolonged fart jokes. It’s like a Las Vegas buffet. If you don’t like one bite, another one starts shortly.
This is a wholly accessible, earthy, whimsical, sensual show with none of the narative pretensions or precious stagings that often afflicts work of this type. Full-blooded actors like the macho Usman Ally and the emotionally resonant Allen Gilmore convey some deep truths, but not at the expense of fun.
But this is high-stakes fun. It always feels like both life and freedom are at stake. Nothing involving Arabian nights has ever been simple.