AFMI festival programmer Alexander Farrow sits down with Lebanese-Canadian director Lara Zeidan to discuss her coming-of-age short film (and London Film School MA thesis), Three Centimetres, shot in one 9 minute take on a ferris wheel at Beirut’s iconic Luna Park where four young women talk about sex and virginity, which eventually leads to an unexpected “coming out of the closet” confession amidst the picturesque backdrop of the Mediterranean. Screened at over 50 film festivals around the world with multiple wins behind its belt – including last year’s Berlinale where it won the prestigious Teddy Award that recognizes outstanding queer cinema, and the £30,000 Iris Prize at the Iris Film Festival to fund her next film – Zeidan is an up-and-coming luminary of the thriving Lebanese indie film world with a nuanced grasp on film form reminiscent of a seasoned auteur, and will be participating in the exclusive Berlinale Talents program at the 69th annual Berlin International Film Festival (February 7-17, 2019) which exists to nurture and support emerging talent.
Alexander Farrow: Thank you for making time to be here with me today Lara, especially as you are getting ready for the Berlinale. It goes without saying the Arab Film Festival’s 2018 program would not have been complete without Three Centimetres, and it was awesome to have met you back in December at the NewFilmmakers Los Angeles event AFMI co-presented at the Academy.
Lara Zeidan: Thank you, it was great to have been part of the festival.
AF: To begin, I’m curious about how you got into filmmaking. I understand you were initially studying graphic design?
LZ: That’s right. I completed my Bachelor’s in graphic design at the American University of Beirut, and while in the program I took a few film courses as electives. Through these courses I began understanding I wasn’t only interested in visualizing concepts, but that I wanted to tell stories, and became increasingly interested in film as a means of communicating memory and personal experiences. Day by day, my interest in film started growing which eventually led to applying for the Master’s program at the London Film School.
AF: Three Centimetres, which was your thesis film at the London Film School. Just. Wow. Over 50 film festivals and counting, including Berlin and Raindance… winner of the Teddy Award, the Iris Prize, and Best British/Irish Short at the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards to name a few accolades… the film without a doubt was one of the biggest shorts of 2018 and we were so privileged to have been a stop on its festival tour.
LZ: That’s kind of you to say.
AF: Talk a bit about the development process for the film.
LZ: The film is inspired by real conversations with my friends and experiences that stuck with me growing up in Lebanon, which relate to the subjects of intimacy and sexuality. The first draft was part of my application to the London Film School’s MA program which requires applicants to submit a 3 page script. In time, however, and after taking different courses in the program as I moved closer to developing my thesis: I started to stray away from this idea and instead began focusing my energy on a new project. At the time, I wasn’t entirely comfortable with some of the topics I was working with for Three Centimetres. But… [pauses] something didn’t feel right. And I kept circling back to it.
AF: Almost as if you had “unfinished business”?
LZ: Yeah! Although I put it aside for awhile… I always saw Three Centimetres as a short film I would like to make someday with a small crew of friends. And, eventually… that’s exactly what it turned out to be.
AF: This might be an obvious question: but what was making you feel uncomfortable?
LZ: Well [pauses] conversations like the one in the film regarding sexuality are quite simply not talked about much in the Arab World. At least not openly, and can be viewed as taboo or inappropriate by many people, especially when coming out of the mouths of young women. Also, and on a personal level: when I was younger, I typically veered away from discussions about matters like these, oftentimes in conversations playing the role of the silent listener, as I did when similar conversations happened between myself and friends years prior. But… there was something important here I had to get out and in spite of my earlier hesitations while being encouraged by the positive reception of my classmates and instructors, I started to workshop it in London and Beirut.
AF: And I’m so glad you did. Your film is daring, and we rarely get submissions that speak to topics of female sexuality between women with such candor and openness, which is why, I’m sure, it has resonated with so many people.
The film has had a storied international run. But what about screenings in the Arab World?
LZ: [laughs] It hasn’t happened yet! But I am sure it will happen this year. I’m curious about how it will play in front of an Arab audience, and the Q&A to follow. I’m sure you know there are issues of censorship Lebanese filmmakers need to contend with…
AF: Oh yes. Our 2018 opening night film Heaven Without People, by Lucien Bourjeily who’s also from Lebanon, dealt with censorship issues back home and in fact had two versions: a “safe version” to be screened domestically, and a director’s cut for international audiences. But with a short like Three Centimetres which is only 9 minutes? When the topic of sexuality is so critical to the entirety of the film? Seems like it would be difficult to cut anything out of it…
LZ: Yes, that’s the thing, and it would be impossible to change it in any way. But I feel in my case it’s a matter of what is represented versus what is talked about. The characters are just… talking. There isn’t a sex scene, nudity, or other visually graphic situations. So I’m optimistic all will be well. Navigating the reality of censorship is very delicate.
AF: Getting to the film itself. As a viewer, you’re stuck with the young women in that cramped ferris wheel booth, for a 9 minute, uninterrupted long take as they discuss topics ranging from sex and virginity, to relationships and homosexuality. But, nevertheless: liberated by the open-air journey of the ferris wheel ride which creates a spatial complexity with the enclosed booth. Talk about the relationship between “the claustrophobic” and “the open” as a setting for these these topics.
LZ: Contrasts and polar-opposites are a huge theme in the film and you are right to note the relationship between claustrophobia and open space. I didn’t want to give the viewer the chance to escape, but at the same time allow them to dwell in the expanse of the open air ride at an amusement park while experiencing the conversation in all its rawness, unfiltered, alongside characters who are filled with complexities. From a sexually active virgin to a straight lesbian: I wanted to tackle the many contrasts that encompass a person through the characters in the film and, within this dynamic: the viewer, like the four girls, might hear things they don’t want to hear… but they can’t ignore it.
Related to this is the tension between public and private space which has led many people in the country to reserve types of dialogue for certain types of space, and at the extreme find themselves living double-lives. For example, someone can be openly gay to their circle of friends, in private. But publically, at work, on the street… they remain in the closet. So, in order for the young women in the film to talk about those particular topics, in the first place: they need to inhabit a private space… but a “private space” that cannot happen at home. And that cannot happen in most places. What’s interesting about the ferris wheel ride is it is at once a private and public experience, and by combining both registers of space I was hoping to problematize the complex nature of one’s private and public selves and the moment where these selves become blurred.
AF: During the film’s tour of the festival circuit, how did viewers respond to some of the themes we’re discussing?
LZ: I’ve been lucky to have screened the film to diverse audiences, and it was interesting to see how different the interactions can be with the film. For instance, I really enjoyed screening it to a teenage audience in Hamburg where the students were curious to know why homsexuality was perceived as an issue in the film. I’ve also had people come up to me after the Q&As to ask more questions or have a deeper conversation about the realities Three Centimetres addresses. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier with the response it has received.
AF: Moving to the topic of how the film was shot for the tech heads out there. Geez Louise. A 9 minute long take. In a cramped ferris wheel booth. All the while retaining an intense level of naturalistic intimacy between the actors. How did you pull it off?
LZ: It was tricky. The ferris wheel booths are very tight, and there was little space for the four actors and the DP, which meant the sound recordist, focus puller, and myself had to sit three booths away during the shoot. I had a small monitor and headphones so was able to watch and listen to what was going on to give direction for the next take upon the end of a given ride – for a total of 18 takes and 18 rides! Prior to shooting: I went on multiple rides on the ferris wheel with my cinematographer, Piero Cioffi, so we could begin developing a shooting style. With my actors I held two indoor rehearsals and one session at the Luna Park for them to start getting a feel for the space.
Piero and myself both agreed, from the beginning independently of each other that the film needed to be shot in a long take to amplify the immediate, organic conversation between the characters. And we went from there. So with extensive pre-production, rehearsals, trust in each other, and willingness to adapt and improvise, we were able to make it work.
AF: The end result is a work of art. Glorious, experiential filmmaking at its finest. And if shot differently, say, in a series of cuts, the organic-ness you speak of would have been diluted.
Switching gears, and something I would love for you to talk about when it comes to the Lebanese indie film world: some of the best work that comes on our radar is from Lebanon and is only getting better, year to year. Can you give some insight into the country’s thriving filmmaking scene?
LZ: Well, it’s hard to say an official “Lebanese film industry” exists. But there are of course many talented people who make films. My take on it is that in the absence of an official industry, filmmakers are free to do what they want artistically without their creative expression being controlled on a grander industry level, although, as we were talking about, even if on a socio-political level: the issue of censorship remains. Ultimately, it’s a double-edge sword – on one hand we’re free to experiment and take artistic risks, independently… but without an official industry it’s tough to find funding with many filmmakers self-financing their work, always on the lookout for regional and international grants and coproductions.
Also, and more importantly: Lebanon is such a small country with many contrasts, complex histories, political turmoil, and walks of life all together, stuffed in a small space which contributes to the inspiration of many artists.
AF: For sure. And within a setting like this artists are bound to have their creativity sparked.
LZ: Yes, I find it unavoidable. And personally speaking, Beirut is one of my deepest inspirations. And Lebanon as a whole. But mainly Beirut. If I haven’t been there for awhile I feel a sort of “creative blockage” with an urge to go back and get re-energized by this unique intensity that abounds everywhere.
AF: I’ve never been to Beirut. But programming for the festival for a number of years now it’s safe to say it’s on my shortlist of cities I’d like to visit. Through the vehicle film, but of course differently than actually being there: the intensity you speak can be felt.
LZ: [smiles] It’s a special place, I hope you can visit someday.
AF: Lara, as we approach the end of our interview. Congratulations on being selected as a 2019 Berlinale Talent! For our readers unfamiliar with the program and what it entails: can you give a general overview?
LZ: Sure. Berlinale Talents is a one week program that takes place during the Berlinale where new filmmakers from around the world are selected to participate in workshops, labs, studio events, and networking mixers to meet distributors, producers, potential collaborators, and industry professionals for the purpose of developing upcoming projects or works-in-progress. I feel honored to have been selected.
AF: Is there anything you’re able to reveal at this early stage about the project you will be developing with the Iris Prize?
LZ: It’s called Kaleidoscope. It’s a fantasy film set in a fictional world where a girl decides to live inside a kaleidoscope. It’s still in an early stage of development, hard to verbalize at this time because it’s very visual. But it’s born from the strange feeling I had when I was moving from Lebanon to London. At the time, it was hard for me to see my life in Beirut in a positive light, so I built illusions and false expectations about what London was going to be like. In a way, my perception in relation to both places was flawed. I see Kaleidoscope as a journey of shattering deeply ingrained illusions that take a beautifully dangerous form.
AF: I dig the idea of illusion-shattering. Oftentimes we tend to cling onto these illusions so deeply to the point where it is almost painful to conceive of “what comes next” after the illusions are broken. But, all the same: the process can be liberating and, as you say, beautiful. The project sounds really powerful and resonant. I wish you the best amidst the development phase.
To wrap up, I just want say we are so excited about about you and cannot wait to see the work you have coming up on the horizon, including Kaleidoscope. Truly Lara, you are a brilliant director. Finally, any words of advice for new filmmakers?
LZ: As a new filmmaker myself, I think one of the most important things is to try your hardest to stay true to the stories you want to tell, and the reasons you want to tell them.
AF: Well Said. Thank you again Lara and have a blast at the Berlinale!
LZ: Thank you Alex and to the team at AFMI. Your support has been inspiring.
Looking for more about Lara? Check out her website and follow her on social media:
Lara Facebook page: www.facebook.com/lara.a.zeidan
Three Centimetres Facebook page: www.facebook.com/3CMfilm
Learn more about Berlinale Talents: www.berlinale-talents.de