Lebanese crime comedy Very Big Shot is something of a miracle movie.
Landing in UAE’s theatres this Thursday, it’s the first feature film from 26-year-old director Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya. It’s travelled far and wide, screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival. At the Marrakech Film Festival, a jury headed by Francis Ford Coppola awarded the movie with the top prize: the Golden Star.
So what’s all the fuss? The film revolves around a small-time Lebanese drug dealer trying to clean up his act and start a family restaurant. He finds himself at the centre of yet another drug deal and uses a film production as a front for his illicit activities — and for who he is as a person.
“It goes through all the corruption, the violence, and the streets of very poor neighbourhoods in Beirut. The concept of the film [revolves around] the power of the image, and how a drug dealer will manage to eventually become a politician, by using cinema as a medium, and the image as his weapon,” said Bou Chaaya.
The story began as a short film treatment four years ago, while Bou Chaaya was doing his master’s degree in cinema, but he kept getting feedback that the story was too big to be told in a handful of moments. The idea kept nagging at him, too; he had to flesh it out.
“I found a very interesting story about an Italian production — and this is a true story that happened in Beirut — an Italian production started a huge [film project], getting everybody involved, and eventually it turned out to be a big drug smuggle. They used cinema to smuggle their own drugs,” said Bou Chaaya.
“I had a lot to say about this idea. This concept of the power of the image. It all comes from me looking around at my society — and every society — and seeing how we’re becoming a victim of an image. What’s most important today — who a person really is, or how he presents himself?”
So Bou Chaaya got to work. He linked up with famed and controversial Greek-Lebanese producer Michel Elefterides for the score and set out to tell a story of image versus reality. Cinema as a cover for reality. (The name itself, Very Big Shot, refers to the fake-film plotline; in Arabic, the title means “a very big movie”.) Bou Chaaya never tried to make it funny, or thrilling, or action-packed. But all those things ended up happening, one way or another.
A novice to the world of cinema, he treated the film as a passion project. Alongside his producers and brothers, he aimed to limit his budget to $900,000 (Dh3.30 million), an apt number for an independent film. They received financial support from private investors, gathered under an umbrella Arab art support group, dubbed Suppar, as well as the Doha Film Institute, who agreed to support the film in its final stages. DFI’s support, according to Bou Chaaya, gave the film the nudge it needed to enter a more international playground.
“It was filmed mostly in the suburbs of northern Lebanon, which is, how do we call it, the working district of Beirut. It’s a brutal neighbourhood. These neighbourhoods suffered a lot in the civil war, and you can still see the violence in the streets and in the mentality of the young people there,” said Bou Chaaya.
“It’s a very entertaining story about this guy and his transformation. It speaks about today’s society, the corruption that’s ruling a big part of this world. It has good values, good artistic values, and at the same time, it’s accessible to everyone,” he said.
Bou Chaaya is currently working on his second feature film with the same co-writer, and main star of Very Big Shot, Alaain Saadeh. He hopes to go into shooting and production next year.