Arabic film Mahbas (Solitaire) will delicately tackle the issue of Lebanese-Syrian prejudices on the big screen in the UAE starting on April 6.
The dramedy, which premiered at Dubai International Film Festival in December, is set in a small village in Lebanon. It centres around the mayor’s wife Therese, whose brother was killed during a Syrian bombing 20 years ago.
Therese, still impacted by the loss of her sibling, is excited for the arrival of her daughter Ghada’s suitor, Samer. But what she doesn’t know is that Samer and his parents are from Syria.
“Being my first feature film, I wanted to talk about something that really matters to us, to my society, to where I come from,” said Dubai-based director Sophie Boutros.
She wanted to tackle the “special love-hate” relationship and scratch at its surface until she revealed the contradictions beneath.
“People who have a problem with Syria, for example, would watch Syrian dubbed series or go and buy something from Damascus, but at the same time, they don’t like Syrians,” she said.
The ambitious yet simple idea for Mahbas began as a short film. Boutros and her Jordanian co-writer Nadia Eliewat — both of whom teach screenwriting and production at American University of Dubai — always planned on including the marriage proposal, but said the Lebanese-Syrian theme came later on.
They wrote the script between 2013 and 2015, during work breaks, at night and over holidays and summer breaks. They wrote four drafts and shot the fifth in Lebanon. Despite the gravity of the topic, they managed to infuse it with humour and compassion.
“We still now have a million and a half refugees in Lebanon, and the Lebanese are a bit bitter against that presence, and the Syrians also have their prejudice against Lebanese. It’s still fresh. It’s not history. It’s still now happening,” said Boutros.
“So if we want to really talk about the topic, and avoid being preachy and direct, we thought making fun of ourselves would be the best way. That’s why we went for comedy.”
Boutros herself was born during the war, in early 1970s Lebanon. She lived in that reality for 18 years. She experienced first-hand the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which began in 1976 and ended in 2005. Her household instilled in her a sense that everyone had a common fate, history and culture, despite the baggage that came with political conflict.
“You can easily be biased during the war, because you’re living the atrocities. But there was some kind of balance in my family. Nadia comes from the same background. This led us to be able to write such a story,” said Boutros.
“I hate being someone coming up and telling people, ‘You are wrong,’ and making the audience feel like they’re blamed. I didn’t want that. We tried to pass on our messages in between the lines,” she said.
Heavyweight actors brought a “fourth-dimension” to already well-rounded characters, said Boutros. The film featured performances from Julia Kassar, Ali Al Khalil, Bassam Koussa, Nadine Khoury, Betty Taoutel, Jaber Jokhadar, Serena Chami and Said Serhan.
“We gave [the script] the time it needs, the development it needs, and I started seeing the characters as if they’re really alive around me. We talked about them as if we knew them, one by one,” said Boutros.
Kassar shouldered much of the story as the intolerant lead character Therese. The film was initially supposed to revolve around her daughter and her pursuit of romance, but the script had a mind of its own.
“It is rare in the region that stories are written about that age group. She’s over 50, our main character. We didn’t do it deliberately as much as we did it because that’s where the story led us,” said Boutros.
“It’s not [about] the love story itself. It’s about acceptance and tolerance, and really finding resemblance between us rather than highlighting the differences,” she added.
The film has been doing its rounds of the festival circuit since December. It’s now showing in Lebanese and Jordanian cinemas. Last week, it held the second spot on the Lebanese box office, said Boutros, bested only by Hollywood blockbuster Beauty and the Beast.
“People want to see their stories. They want to see themselves on the screen. They don’t want to see an artificial copy of them. The film has characters that talk like us, move like us. They’re very close to the audience [in terms of] what they’re saying and how they’re acting and reacting to each other,” she said.
“Of course I can see flaws myself because I criticise my work, but widely, it was very well-received,” she added.
The film was well-received during its world premiere at Diff, too. An unintentional social media campaign began when an unassuming poster was posted online, creating a flurry of excitement amongst film buffs in the region. It became one of the festival’s most highly anticipated titles.
“The direct target is who the film talks about — the Lebanese and Syrians,” said Boutros.
“But for the wider audience, it’s for every person who can relate of a story of tolerance and forgiveness. Any two different parties who have this kind of conflict between them. And it happens everywhere in the world. It doesn’t have to be nationality or religion — it can be the Parisians and the villagers,” she added.
As for what’s next, Boutros, who is currently the manager of student affairs and communication at AUD, would love to create a Lebanese television series. She says the commitment required may be too far-fetched for her, and that working on a movie allows her to set her own deadlines. In the meantime, she has a theme in mind for her next feature film.
“It’s still too soon to talk about, because I want to start seriously writing after summer — I want to spend summer with my kids. What I have in mind is different than Solitaire,” she said.