includes photos and a link to the film trailer.
March 30, 2011
Incendies, the remarkable Oscar-nominated film from Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, opens in limited release in Los Angeles on April 22. I don’t know which theater. I don’t know what time. I do know you should keep an eye out as the date approaches because I have never before seen such a viscerally engaging portrayal of war from the civilian perspective, how violence can turn victims into perpetrators, and how trauma–even when kept hidden and silent–is transmitted from generation to generation.
The film resonated powerfully for me having known real-life exiles and refugees in LA. Without didacticism or preaching, the film ultimately asks: Under the most brutal and extreme circumstances, is love possible? Is forgiveness possible? Is there a path to redemption?
The action begins in a notary’s office in Montreal when the adult twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan hear the contents of their mother, Nawal’s, will. Simon resents the fact that his mother was never “normal.” Neither is her will which describes the degrading burial she desires because of a promise she didn’t keep.
She has also left two letters: one for Jeanne to deliver to the father she’s always believed was dead, and the other for Simon to carry to the brother he never knew he had. Simon at first refuses but Jeanne undertakes the quest and returns to Nawal’s birthplace where she begins to piece together hints of a disturbing family history while parallel sequences in the film let the audience into the fuller truth of Nawal’s past.
Incendies is based on the play of the same name (the English version is entitled Scorched) by Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad and set in a fictional country clearly based on Lebanon, the homeland he left as a child during the civil war which tore the country apart from1975-1991.
In the film, Christians are pitted against Muslims while–as in life–atrocities lead to new atrocities and loyalties shift, lines are blurred without any letup in extremist passion. Massacres of despised refugees echo with the true history of what happened in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila.
On-screen, two journeys play out: Nawal seeking her lost son in the midst of civil war; Jeanne in the 21st century retracing her mother’s steps. At times, it’s momentarily and intentionally confusing–which woman are we watching?–until we are tipped off by Jeanne’s earbuds or slim blue jeans.
Melissa Desormeaux Poulin as Jeanne Marwan
Villeneuve, speaking at a screening on Monday, March 28, organized by WritersBloc and thanks to SONY Pictures, explained he had considered shooting transitional moments with the women in shadow to enhance the sense of identity confusion, but he found that Lubna Azabal (as Nawal) and Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin (Jeanne) looked enough alike that no photographic trick was necessary.
Azabal also, incidentally, resembles the real-life Soha Bechara who tried to assassinate a rightwing Christian militia leader in Lebanon, suffered years of torture and solitary confinement in a notorious prison, and served as partial model for the character of Nawal.
Incendies was filmed in Montreal and in Jordan for about $6 million dollars, a laughably low price tag by Hollywood standards for such a big film. Villeneuve cast smaller roles and extras from the community of Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
At first, he says he was concerned about retraumatizing the Iraqis by having them portray scenes so much like the violence they had so recently fled but people told him they wanted to participate so that audiences could understand what it means to be a civilian in a war.
The entire cast, professional actors and others, offers performances of striking authenticity. The cinematography is often breathtaking while the scenes of violence are personal and horrific.
The 130-minute film is in French and Arabic. The French is subtitled in English. The Arabic is not, putting the audience in the same position as Jeanne who is repeatedly at a loss in her travels until she can find someone who speaks French or English to serve as interpreter. As for native Arabic speakers in the audience, Villeneuve expects they’ll immediately notice a glitch: he gave up on regularizing the Arabic spoken as many of the professional actors in the film come from different areas of North Africa and the Middle East and speak with different accents. For him the range of dialects serves as a reminder that there is no such thing as “Arab culture” but many cultures in the Arab world and many individuals.
As a Canadian, he said, he doesn’t pretend to understand what it means to have come from Lebanon or to have lived through such terrible events but he found a personal way to relate to Mouawad’s play in its exploration of the legacy of pain within a family.
Some scenes in this film are difficult to watch, but go to see it and stick with it. The moments of grace are as startling (and convincing) as the moments of horror.
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