3 on 1: MASQUERADES—from Concept to Comedy

Castro Marquee

Photo courtesy of the Arab Film Festival

For last month’s 3 on 1 column, three GFI staffers discussed the making of BECLOUD and how the film went from grant submission to Global Lens film, as well as how the director, Alejandro Gerber Bicecci, went from respected colleague to dear friend.

This month, in honor of our DVD release of the Algerian romantic comedy (and one-time Oscar hopeful) MASQUERADES, we’ve brought together three very special people to share their experience with the film: Director Lyes Salem, GFI Founder and Board Chair Susan Weeks Coulter and Michel Shehadeh, Executive Director of the Arab Film Festival.

Excerpts of our conversation with each are below and although everyone comes from a different country and background, together they prove that while a film may be subject to editing, language barriers or hectic screening environments, laughter never gets lost in translation!

Lyes Salem, director-writer-actor, on the concept behind MASQUERADES:

Lyes Salem on the set of MASQUERADES

As I was writing the script, I aimed at finding a balance between a surrealist depiction and an unlikely story—although I am not sure the story told in Masquerades is so unlikely!

In a country overwhelmed with confusion, hearsay and illusion are queens: there will always be people to tell preposterous stories in order to provide themselves with a certain kind of power; and there will always be people who want to believe in these stories.

In Masquerades, one will never know to what extent the villagers believe in the story of one of their own marrying a wealthy financier who embodies everything they don’t have: money, freedom to go wherever they wish around the world, respect….In other words, a certain idea of the consumer society; but they willingly believe in it.

I chose to film on location, in Aurès, because there is a western-like atmosphere to it. When the cars wildly chase each other, or when Mounir is posing, I wanted the audience to think of Sergio Leone’s cowboys.

Susan Weeks Coulter, Founder and Board Chair of GFI, on the discovery of MASQUERADES in Ouagadougou:

yellow GFI bag

Susan Weeks Coulter (right) in her temporary office at FESPACO 2009

The best flight from San Francisco (11 hours to Paris with a five hour layover, then a five hour flight with a stop in Niger) landed me and long time Board Member Shaari Ergas in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) at 9pm in early March 2009. Having wanted to attend FESPACO for several years, the excitement of finally arriving eliminated any jet-lag. It was unbelievably hot and humid but quickly eased the stiff back from such a long trip. Obama has just been elected President and the welcome and high-five greetings when presenting American passports left us, as well as the custom officials, grinning from ear-to-ear.

My task in Ouagadougou: to identify and, if possible, acquire distribution rights to one or more films that would be part of the exhibition program.

Like most film festivals, professional “delegates” pick up credentials at a central location that is also generally a meet-and greet opportunity. The local Global Film office hours were quickly established: 5-7pm each day in the air-conditioned lobby of the Hotel Independence. “Regardez le sac jaune” or” Look for the yellow bag” became our mantra, and it worked as a way of identifying GFI within a large crowd of boisterous film folks!

But how to concentrate on meetings in a lobby with Tuareg men in royal blue turbans, or Burkinade women with amazingly creative hairstyles and spectacularly colorful robes and hats, while communicating solely in a French dialect so unfamiliar? One just does.

Having figured out, more or less, the lay of the land, films were identified for viewing by nation or sometimes just by location, logistics and luck. So it was for Masquerades, a film by Algerian director Lyes Salem. An afternoon viewing led to several follow up discussions in our hotel lobby office, sometimes having to resort to hand gestures to be certain we were all of a similar understanding. From my perspective, this was a film in which the cinematography was so good, I could taste the dust; the story line was unusual, the characters believable, the depth of content worthy of becoming a Global Lens film. And so, discussions concluded, with an agreement to discuss the more salient details of contracts and schedule after the festival ended.

Michel Shehadeh, Executive Director of the Arab Film Festival, on the exhibition of MASQUERADES and the audience reaction to the film:

Audience at Castro Theater

A packed house for MASQUERADES on the opening night of the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco. Photo courtesy of the Arab Film Festival

When I first heard about the film Masquerades, I thought to myself what kind of a film could have such a name. In Arabic, masquerades, pronounced maskhara, is a word that means silliness, or absurdity, or a similar emotion. I don’t know if the origin of the word is Arabic or a Latin derivative. I had to see it. The name gave me no clue of what to expect, so I went in with no expectations. And boy, I was taken by the story, the actors, the humor, the multi-layered meanings and symbolism. This film has it all. We decided to have it as our Opening Night film for the 14th Arab Film Festival and what a hit it was! More than a thousand people attended. Everyone I spoke with loved it. The Q&A with the filmmaker Lyes Salem was brilliant. The consensus was that Maquerades was one of our most successful opening night films. If films are magic, Masquerades made our opening night magical.

Ever since, we have used the film in many screenings and are happy to introduce people to Arabs through their comedy. Audiences identified easily with the Arab humor despite the subtitles. I speak Arabic but don’t understand the Algerian dialect so I was reading subtitles also, but didn’t stop laughing. Instantly language barriers disappeared, and everyone spoke one language—the language of film.

MASQUERADES is available on DVD through the Global Film Initiative’s film catalogue. It was originally presented in theaters as part of Global Lens 2010 along with nine other films from around the world—click here to read more about this and other new releases!

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