Québécois director Denis Villeneuve has achieved global recognition for his third film, the academy award nominated Incendies. He speaks with Kylie Boltin in New York.
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20 Apr 2011 - 2:52 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Incendies is the story of Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal) as revealed to her twins, Jeanne and Simon (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette) after her death. Their inheritance consists of two letters: one for the father they had thought dead and the second for a brother they had never known existed. Their mother's last wishes are that her children travel to the unnamed Middle Eastern country of her birth to deliver the letters. Their reactions to the request are polarised and it is Jeanne who sets off to the country she has never seen, alone, without language or a true sense of what awaits her.

The film oscillates between Nawal's story, and that of Jeanne and Simon. The dramatic structure consists of these two worlds as multiple 'presents' and is an adaptation of revered Lebanese-born, Montreal-based playwright, Wajdi Mouawad's Scorched .

Villeneuve explains that he saw a performance of Scorched and knew immediately that he wanted to translate the story to cinema: “I was struck about how the author was able to talk about anger,” he says. “The way anger is travelling inside a family and inside a society. How he was able to give hope for ending the cycle of violence, the cycle of hatred.”

Villeneuve says he was “totally free” to construct the film script as he desired, with no fear of retribution from Mouawad, and admits, “I destroyed his play in a way. The play is four-hours long, a very beautiful poem, but I kept just a few words out of it. It's not transposition. I started from scratch.” Throughout the production, Villeneuve says the play remained “a bible for everyone” providing additional information, characterisations and context for the cast and crew. “The structure of Incendies is like a building skeleton,” says Villeneuve, “the audience has to fill the holes”.

The original dramatic structure provided an innovative way for Villeneuve to represent the dual perspectives that form the spine of the film without the need for flashback. It is, he says, “a dialogue between two periods of time and two quests – the mother's quest and daughter's quest”. Villeneuve concedes that he loved this aspect of the storytelling: “I did my best to try and keep this idea. I thought it was a brilliant way to talk about transmission between generations”.

The generational gap also exposes contradictory relationships to the environment. From the very first frame of Incendies the viewer is positioned as an outsider. In the opening shots, images of young boys, their heads being shaved, are accompanied with a non-diegetic soundtrack delivered by UK band Radiohead. This overt clash of cultures serves to immediately juxtapose two vastly different worlds and place the film outside a field of “authentic” Arab drama.

According to Villeneuve, “The Radiohead song was attached to the opening of this film from day one. One of the ideas behind the song is for it to be clear that it will be a westerner's point of view about this world: an imposter's point of view. That it will be a fiction. When you put the image with an Arabic or Middle Eastern song it looks authentic, and I didn't like it at all.”

For Villeneuve, this westerner's perspective was the only one he could comfortably inhabit. The twins' point of view, he says, “is the door to this story. They are my eyes”.

At the same time, Incendies is Narwal's intensely private, insider's point of view and it was this aspect of the narrative that was the most challenging for the director. “[That] was my main challenge: to be faithful to Arabic culture,” he says emphatically. ”It was a huge job and I really had to put my ego aside. I didn't arrive there with answers”.

Villeneuve credits the feedback he received throughout the scriptwriting process with helping to create a reality “as close as to possible to something that looks authentic in front of the camera”.

“The film is better when you listen to others. You make the right decisions as a director. Very often directors are dictators, but I think it has to be a dictator who listens a lot.”

Villeneuve also ascribes the success of the film to the casting of Azabal as Narwal. “I was dead-on,” he says with pride. “Lubna was the perfect actress. She has strength inside her. A fire and a gypsy anger — something really alive that was exactly the character. It was very easy to direct her. I didn't have to rehearse with her very much. She totally understood and what I quickly found out was that she trusted me completely.”

At the same time, this search for 'authenticity' included obstacles that Villeneuve had never imagined. “I thought, very naively and very stupidly, that the Arabic language was the same for everybody but with accent and regionalism, like English. It's not the case,” he says. “North African Arabic and Lebanese Arabic are two different languages." Azabal's heritage is in part, North African, and Villeneuve says her experience was akin to learning a new language.

“She knew what she was saying, and she was able to make a pronunciation, but still she struggled. She was always with a dialect coach. The truth is that we dubbed with her later to really be sure that [the dialogue] was well pronounced.

“I'm sure that for Arabic audiences it hurts their ears sometimes. But still, they accept that [the setting of the story] is stuck between several countries. It's normal that people are talking with different accents, they accept the idea,” he insists.

Another fundamental element of Villeneuve's pursuit for authenticity was the casting of non-actors from Jordan. Villeneuve cast Iraqi refugees in a number of roles in the film at the suggestion of Lara Atalla, who had previously cast members of the community in The Hurt Locker. “Lara said they are reliable, faithful and very generous,” Villeneuve reflects. “She said they won't walk away during shooting and it is a community that needs [financial] help.” Villeneuve admits to being uncertain of his decision initially but says, “It was very moving to work with people who are just out of war and who wanted to participate in scenes that remind them of it. For them, it was important that stories from a victim's point of view were out in the world and they wanted to share their experience. They brought a lot to the script and while I was shooting I felt pressure to be authentic about violence and about war. It's amazing how some people, by intuition, have a natural talent,” he adds. “To be a good actor in cinema you need to be very generous and have a good intuition. There were some people like that among them.”