15th ÉCU Film Festival | 2020 
"I cared about the characters, simple as that. I wanted to stay with them and follow their journey. They are complex, unpredictable, and believable."
Zayn Alexander
Arab Special Selection
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Tragedy strikes when the Zayyad family loses its patriarch under mysterious circumstances, leaving the surviving members to fend for themselves within a judgmental community in Southern Lebanon

Hi Zayn thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?

Of course. Some days are better than others. 

As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspirations?

I feel this is a sobering moment for us all. I’m taking the time to assess what really matters and, right now, the only thing that matters is my health and the well-being of those I care about. The creative front is taking a back seat at the moment. I also think it’s important to focus on being better informed and more self-aware. We should really take a closer look at how we’ve chosen to go about our lives and make some changes moving forward. If we pretend this is just a form of “time-off” and go about our days without reassessing some choices or doing some reflection and introspection, this is bound to happen again. 

Your film Manara has been selected for the 2020 ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?

I’m honored to be participating in this year’s edition. I’m really happy the festival decided to move forward online. I hope to attend ÉCU in the future and get to experience it.

What was the experience like for you premiering Manara at Venice Days during the 76th Venice Film Festival?

Manara is my second directorial effort and to have this film screen at one of the biggest film festivals in the world is a huge honor and validation for my work and the work of everyone involved in making this film. As you know, this is a subjective field and when you’re given that platform to showcase your work as an up and coming filmmaker, it’s a huge boost. 

Can you tell me a little bit about Manara, what was the inspiration behind this film? 

The idea of this film came after Pascale Seigneurie (writer and co-star) and I decided we wanted to make a follow-up to our first film collaboration, “Abroad”. We had a lot of discussions about what the next film should be about. Pascale and I share this deep-rooted frustration with the culture we grew up in and its tendency to prioritize appearances at the expense of healthy family dynamics. Essentially, that was the genesis of this project. We started experimenting with several ideas about a family and an intrusive entity that could threaten their stability and, after several drafts, that intruder evolved from being a physical entity into something more abstract and unseen. We knew then we had anchored the story and the overarching theme of secrecy.

What was it about Pascale Seigneurie’s screenplay that really interested you as a director? 

I cared about the characters, simple as that. I wanted to stay with them and follow their journey. They are complex, unpredictable, and believable. They are slowly simmering throughout the film, and I wanted the task of translating that tension and inner conflict visually. Pascale writes with a great deal of specificity, whether that pertains to the cultural components or character behavior. I believe in the strength of detail and, while the film is inherently cultural, I wanted the challenge of executing it in a way that appeals universally. 
How important is the collaboration when working on a project like this? 

This film would not have happened if it weren’t for my cast and crew.  I’ll forever be grateful for their hard work and selfless devotion. 

What was the most challenging aspect of bringing this Manara to life?

It was definitely challenging juggling the roles of actor and director especially when working with the tight time constraints we were operating under. 

Looking back do you think there is anything you would have done differently?

Oh yes. The bulk of the film was shot over a period of two days and that was ambitious in my opinion. 

What was the experience for you making Manara compared to your debut film Abroad? 

Abroad was made with a skeleton crew of four people. Manara was a completely different ballgame. I look at the whole experience as an intensive learning course. We were working with a lot of limitations. We were filming at a hotel and we didn’t really have access to a lot of the shooting locations until the day of. That didn’t allow for any type of rehearsal to take place so we just had to figure it out as we went. I’ve been asked as to why we didn’t show more of the location because it is such an aesthetic space in and of itself. The choice for tight framing was mainly a creative one. However, panning the camera even slightly would’ve yielded a completely different outcome. A lot of the aesthetic choices were contingent upon the inconsistencies in the space.  

Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been passionate about cinema and the world of make-believe. I grew up dreaming about a profession that seemed so far away from me. There are no artists in my family and, in Lebanon, the cinema industry was quite limited at the time. So, by design, studying cinema wasn't even on the table for someone like me. 

I think I chose to study Psychology because of my genuine interest in people combined with a buried unshakeable passion for storytelling. When I moved to New York in the summer of 2010, I found myself surrounded by opportunity and resources. That gave me the strength and motivation to finally pursue a career in the arts. 

"Everyone comes from a family and everyone has, at some point, experienced the negative impact of toxic family dynamics."

How much has your style and approach to your films changed since you started making films? 

I was an actor before I decided to step behind the camera. I’ve always valued committed and strong performances and I’ve always approached the work from both a performance-driven and a spectator lens. I try to film as simply as possible and I rely on my instinct. I don’t cut as long as I don’t have to, mainly because I want the actors to enjoy the process. 

What has been the best piece of advice you have been given when you started out?

Don’t worry too much.

Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film? 

It’s ok to not know.

What are you currently working on? 

I’m in the process of writing my first feature film. 

And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Manara? 

I can’t really speak for everybody. I’ve had people tell me how much they were heartbroken by the film, while others shared their pure discomfort with the whole experience. This film centers around a domineering female character that can be perceived as unsympathetic. That has evoked a lot of strong opinions from some people who have found the experience too close to home for them. Everyone comes from a family and everyone has, at some point, experienced the negative impact of toxic family dynamics. We’re all shaped by our past. Our personalities are influenced by our early experiences, positive or negative. Each of us bring our own collective set of experiences and that determines what we take away from any film.

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