Heaven Without People tells the story of one Christian Lebanese family who’ve come together for an afternoon Easter lunch, all in one place for the first time in 2 years. The tides take a turn for the worst, however, when family matriarch Josephine realizes her cash savings of $12,000 has gone missing. Did she misplace it? Or did someone steal it? While the merriment continues, amidst heated debates at the lunch table on topics ranging from politics, philosophy, and social corruption to religion and personal aspirations: in the background Josephine falls apart, as everyone suddenly becomes suspect to the crime. Inch by inch, the crisis bleeds out in the open, and as a result triggers deeply held repressed resentments the family members hold against each other, much less themselves. Lucien Bourjeily is a writer and director of both theater and film but mostly known for his work in immersive and interactive theater.  Heaven Without People is his first feature length fiction film. We had the opportunity to ask Lucien a few questions about his work as a multi-medium storyteller, his concept for the film and one major hurdle the film had to overcome.

Heaven Without People will open the 22nd Arab Film Festival TONIGHT at the Castro Theater. Buy your tickets here!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Arab Film and Media Institute: Lets start by telling the readers a little bit about yourself and your work. You also work in theater, correct?

Lucien Bourjeily: Yes, I worked in theater before. I haven’t really counted them but I’ve done, I think, almost 15 plays. Some of them I wrote, some of them I just directed and some I adapted and directed. I adapt text of a foreign playwright into Arabic or into Lebanese and then I direct. But there are also many that I wrote myself. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of immersive theater, which is the kind of theater where you, as the audience, don’t just sit there in a chair. You become involved in what’s happening, you move. For example, [as part of the show], you go into a bus and on this bus there are actors who speak with you and tell their story and then the bus takes you somewhere and then there you have another interaction and you experience the play while being totally immersed in it. You’re not just watching it on a stage. This form of theater sort of inspired the style of Heaven Without People because the film is made to be an immersive experience where the camera takes on a role, as if it’s a person, immersed in the world of the family. While being there, it observes what is happening and it chooses to be in certain places. Just like in immersive theater where you would choose where you want to be. For example, you’re in a room and then you hear a scream somewhere else and you can move and see what’s happening in the other room. Have you ever experienced immersive theater?

AFMI: Yes, when I first moved to New York my friend took me to one. The setting was a house party so you could move throughout the house.

LB: Exactly. I like this kind of theater because I like to change the relationship between the art and the audience. I like to have the audience engage in roles and even have them participate in one way or another. In the film, of course, the audience doesn’t participate, they don’t become part of the film, but I wanted them to be included and immersed so when they are in their seats they feel like they are actually at the table. The story is almost told as if the main character is the camera, as if it’s a person there and their arc is changing throughout the film so when they get out of the house at the end, they have had experience. Each audience member chooses a character that they empathize with the most. Which character they choose to follow ultimately effects how they react to what is happening and what questions they are asking themselves after watching the film and what thoughts it provoked. I believe this is very important in this work and in general with what I do in both my artistic feats and as a storyteller.

AFMI: This story, did you ever want to tell it in the theater or did you always intend for it to be a film?

LB: No, I didn’t think about it as a possibility for the theater. Of course, at some point during it I thought to myself, “this could be a play” but then it would have to be an immersive play and it would be totally ineffective production-wise because it would be just for one person. They’d enter the house and either they would be an invisible observer off in the corner or they could be considered part of the family, like a relative or something, and have a seat at the table. This is how they would experience it, not on a stage with people watching it. So the closest way to do this is to film it, cinematically, from the perspective of someone who’s suddenly been immersed in this whole world. The other option is a possibility but it’s totally undoable because you’d have to do it each time for a one person audience and it would be, like, 16 actors doing it only for one person. I’ve done things like that before for small audiences of about 8 people with about 8 actors as well and you can do the play many times in the same evening. But this one would be really undoable with only one audience member per show.

AFMI: I bet it would be one of those shows that people pay a lot of money for because it’s a special experience.

LB: To make it feasible it would be very very expensive production-wise but it would’ve been a great experience! Very very special to experience.

AFMI: So this is your first feature film but you’ve done some short films before this, correct?

LB: Yes I made some short films, some during my studies. I received a Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking at Loyola-Marymount University as part of a scholarship I received from Fulbright. I did my graduate studies there in Los Angeles and these films were just my student films. But I did do one short documentary after that and otherwise I’ve done TV commercials as a director. So yes, this is my first feature.

AFMI: What made you decide to branch out from theater into filmmaking?

LB: For me, as a storyteller, each story has the best way to tell to. This story in particular, the best way of telling it is to have the first-hand experience through the camera. The point of view of the camera, entering a home and witnessing the story. So this cinematic form is the best way to tell this story. If this story would have been told better as immersive theater or even as normal theater, on a stage, or told as a book or whatever I would’ve went that way. I felt that this story needed this medium for sure. For me, at least, I don’t think it would be better in a different medium.

AFMI: So let’s talk about the actual film. Where did this story come from? Is it based on a single experience or an accumulation of experiences?

LB:  It’s actually an accumulation of many experiences. I have been to so many Easter lunches and family lunches in my life so I have my whole life as background. I’ve also heard stories from other people about their experiences and I’ve been in other people’s homes during their celebratory lunches. So it’s from all of in this. In one way or another, it’s inspired by true events. There are things have happened in real life that are similar to the film, but I wouldn’t specify which ones. And I personally know people who resemble some of these characters but not all of them. In all cases, these characters exist in the world in one way or another. I wanted to have a diverse set of characters around the table. These types of characters may have never actually been all together in real life but they are all each present in life somewhere, sometime or in a certain situation. The dialogue is, of course, fictional, as the situation is, but it’s based on reality. People can feel the realism because it’s based on true life situations. It is reveiled within this very simple, day-to-day talk that there are things that are unsaid and sometimes those things are louder than what is actually said.

AFMI: This story, at its core, is very Lebanese but it still resonates with a wider audience. When making this film, what kind of audience did you have in mind?

LB: I was thinking about the wider audience. For me, everything that is happening and being said in the film works if you just adapt it a bit. I’m used to adapting Russian writers or French writers to Lebanese and what you notice is that, sometimes, you just have to change the names and it’s the same. Suddenly the play becomes a Lebanese play and nobody actually notices that it’s not a Lebanese play. You just change the names and maybe the locations or the names of situations and you adapt them and then you’ll find that it works as well as it did in the original country and context. It’s the same here. You just change some of the names and some of the socio-political things they talk about it could be a family dinner anywhere. That’s what I learned from people who watched the film. They came to me and they said they also discuss politics and it’s not the same but they discuss it the same way. The characters reminded them of their relatives, their brother, their aunt…so everybody finds something related to them because it’s the family that’s relateable in one way or another. There are characters that are familiar in a general sense, they’re human.

AFMI: It’s going to be interesting to see it at the Castro on opening night of the Arab Film Festival since it will be such a diverse audience. It will be interesting to see how everyone interprets it with their own situations.

LB: Yeah, every screening has had different reactions. You even see it even within the same audience at one screening. Some people will be laughing while others are totally silent, not really reacting to what’s happening on screen. Different people follow different characters, ones they find to be closest to themselves, ones that reflect their own experiences or their own life. Different situations [in the film] are going to effect everyone differently and everyone will feel differently. That’s one reason I made the film the way I did, so you can choose your own emotions instead of feeling one certain emotion that I direct you to.

AFMI: Tell us a little about censorship in relation to this film.

LB: The film was censored in Lebanon. In the U.S., it will be playing in full, the way it’s supposed to be seen. Actually it has played like this in every country so far, except Lebanon unfortunately. The authorities didn’t like certain parts [so I had to remove things] which was a big issue for me especially because they didn’t let me talk about it. Censorship is what it is, unfortunately, what can I do? It’s part of how they operate in Lebanon and it’s very bad, but not being able to publicize [the situation] and talk about it front of everybody was even worse for me because it’s defamation of the work. The work is not the same when you cut parts of it, so people don’t know that it’s not my work. They will think this is me and how I cut the film. That was very frustrating. I’m very happy that the Castro Theater and many other places, almost 10 or 12 countries now, are playing the original version. Even in the other Arab countries such as the UAE, Morocco, even Jordan, it has played in full, it’s just in Lebanon that there is an issue. What I felt is that it was, like, subduing the critics, for me as a dissent of the political power in Lebanon that has to be changed. I think that in Lebanon everyone feels the same way but in general since I oppose this type of thing very vocally and I don’t think [the authorities] like me very much. Before this, they had banned two of my plays. For this film, I was given a choice between censorship and having it banned all together. I didn’t want it banned because that would be a big frustration for the crew, the actors and myself. For my first film to be killed from the beginning and banned….it would be very bad. It would’ve been a very big economical violence agains this film.

AFMI: Sometimes it’s better to be able to show something rather than nothing, right?

LB: Yes and I knew eventually people would find out about this situation. When it was in theaters I couldn’t talk about it but now I can speak freely about it. People will find out and understand. Of course, it’s not the same but I’m sure the information will get to them. And now I’m talking to you [about it] and it will spread. In Lebanon, word of mouth goes very fast. Sometimes better than newspapers, haha.

AFMI: Do you have any advice for any young storytellers? Especially for those who want to tell stories that are difficult to tell?

LB: My advice is that they concentrate on the obvious thing: having a good story. If the story is good, interesting and engaging, it will find a way to be produced. It has to be black-and-white interesting. The amount of passion they have is also very crucial. They have to have passion. Never go out and do something if you’re not ultimately passionate about it, espcially this kind of thing. For example, if you’re not passionate at work, in business or something, it can be okay, you can manage yourself because you know at the end you’re going to get the reward of money or something like that. But in the arts, you’re always struggling so it doesn’t make sense if you’re not totally passionate and love it and cannot live without it and the pursuit of it. You have to look inside yourself and if you cannot live without it, persue it and perfect your stories and ultimately it WILL happen. Some people, unfortunately, are not really passionate and they just want to do it for the end result. I normally talk about this to actors because I also teach actors, which is actually how I got to know a lot of the people who are in this film. Many of them were theater actors and this was their first time in cinema. For some, this was their very first audition. We held open auditions because I think there is a lot of untapped talent in Lebanon because we don’t focus on the arts very much. I belive that some people are really born to be in the arts but they don’t know it because they have never been taught about it. I love to hold open castings because we often find so much raw, amazing talent. But I think I’ve gotten away from the question a bit, so my advice is this: have passion. What I tell actors a lot is that if you’re doing this for the fame or whatever instead of the love of acting, the love of taking on roles or characters and memorizing a monologue because you know you can play around with it and feel like you’re another person or in another world, then you will not succeed. It’s not about the end result, it’s about the process. You will never be successful unless you truly love the process and enjoy it and are passionate about it.

Heaven Without People will open the 22nd Arab Film Festival TONIGHT at the Castro Theater. Buy your tickets here!

Make sure to also check out the full #AFF2018 schedule and buy tickets to all screenings here!