BENJAMIN'S BRIEFCASE is a script for a feature film that I have written with Etel Adnan. Based on her short story “An American Malady”, BB tells the story of a young woman's return to Beirut today and her discovery of her self through another woman's life many years earlier. The stories weave back and forth through time, 1981 to the present, and both characters are played by the same actress, Amira Casar.
The memory of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991) haunts Beirut today with the ongoing political assassinations, general unrest in the Middle East and special relations with neighboring Syria .
I have spent the last few years trying to put the production together in Paris . The wonderful cast includes Johanna ter Steege, Emmanuelle Riva, Rüdiger Vogler and Ms. Casar. It has been difficult to secure funds in France – being an American in Paris in this way is not romantic, nor helpful. Agnes b. spent time helping me to secure a producer. But last year I had the opportunity to visit Beirut for the second time and, on Christmas day, I flew in to the city to join my friend, Makram (L.E.FT). I stayed for two weeks and shot a lot of video myself to actively get lost in the script.
Etel was in Beirut and we were able to meet up. I was also able to see her painting exhibition. My friend Vatche took me back in to the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud. Fouad Elkoury, a photographer who had worked on the set of director Volker Schlöndorff back in 1981 for the film production of CIRLCE OF DECEIPT, was able to take me to locations that the film used as he tried to recall what happened. And, thanks to Makram, I was able to take Fouad to a house that was used in the film that he did not know was still standing. We also traveled to Chtaura and searched for the remains of railroad tracks that have not been used for years. Fouad has become a character in something I was discovering.
I returned to Paris and went through all of my footage. Then I went back to other material I had previously shot with the actors. The material I shot in Emmanuelle Riva's home of her reading the voice-over material from the script.
This allowed me to imagine another film, a personal journey of mine which uses BB, some of the script and its story. MAITRE, LIHSEB PLEASE began to emerge. It was unscripted, and I did not need to find a producer. I was my own camera and editor. “Maitre, lihseb please” means “Waiter, check please” in French, Arabic and English, and is a phrase often heard in the cafes of Beirut .
I had approached Markus Acher of The Notwist to work on the soundtrack to BB. He read the script and liked it a lot. I explained how I hoped to find a theme of music that could be used and explored in different ways. He sent me a piece of cello music he had written and recorded that was never used. It was just as I wanted: beautiful and sad. There were several versions, some with piano, but they were just rough recordings.
Markus had requested I look for some old vinyl records in Beirut . I was lucky to find a pile of 45's through the generosity of Peter, a wonderfully mad entertainment promoter and character, and sent them to Markus.
When I was at the Berlin Film Festival one year ago, I went to visit Markus in Munich to discuss the music.
Back in Paris I began to edit the material with the music that I had. Then Markus sent me a couple of versions that he had worked on with the music I had sent him and the way in which I was able to regard and present my material developed. We had begun a dialog. It also happened that Fouad was having an exhibition in Munich and I was able to introduce him to Markus.
Markus was doing a gig in Paris that spring and I was able to show him about 7-minutes that I had edited. Since then Markus completed seven versions of the music, which was now for M,LP, and he wanted to release it on a 10” vinyl. Wonderful. It was a new way of working together. The music would precede the image, in some sense like a music video, but Markus' music is the result of a dialog. He wanted to use a photo of Fouad's for the sleeve and was generously given permission. Fouad and I had played the original cello tracks in his car as he drove me out to Chtaura and other locations and we both loved the music – it became our soundtrack.
Fouad is now a character in M,LP and it is also serendipitous that he is also an old friend of Etel's. So I have recorded them in conversation in Paris .
When Etel and I began the project we also recorded her in conversation with film director Margarethe Von Trotta, who was married to Schlöndorff when he filmed in Beirut . She visited him there during the production.
I stopped working on the edit when I had the opportunity to make two music videos for New Order (THE TEMPTATION OF VICTORIA and CEREMONY).
I also had the idea of ENIGMATIC which Natasha Dack (Tigerlily Films) had brought me together with director Carol Morley and procured development money from Film Four. We were preparing a trip to Beijing and I was exploring two other projects which took me to Lyon and Poitiers . In Poitiers I got sick. What I thought was food poisoning developed in to what I am still dealing with now.
I am lucky that ENIGMATIC is still alive thanks to Natasha and Carol. Also that M,LP has developed, especially with the release of the music by Markus Acher.
While I was developing the TEMPTATION video with Victoria Bergsman, I played the original cello pieces for her. Victoria then recorded a vocal with lyrics that she wrote in case I could use it in the film. Markus was surprised to hear this as he always saw the music as instrumental. I respected, and agreed, with Markus. In the final mix of one song version he uses her voice briefly. It works as a hint of a lost person, a woman, perhaps Seta, the woman of BENJAMIN'S BRIEFCASE who disappears in 1981.
This is a brief background to the genesis of this recording, and the film projects. Now I am concentrating on my health while doing what I can to move ENIGMATIC along. Soon I hope that I am strong enough to dive back in to my edit. My sister has offered to upgrade my computer to have a system capable of handling the work. So far I have worked in Final Cut Pro on a G3 iBook that is was not meant to operate FCP on. I have gone as far as I can in this manner.
I do not know if there will be much more shooting. There will be some. The only thing that I wish to film is on the border of Lebanon and Israel – a sanctuary for the Mediterranean sea turtle. This is an unintentional positive result of the civil war.
So much has happened, and is happening, in direct and indirect relation to MAITRE, LIHSEB PLEASE. Last month was the first anniversary of the assassination of Hariri in Beirut making my Valentine wishes to some awfully sad. Like life, there is no script but for the one being written each day.
This is a production of lightblack LLC. In fact all that I do is with my partner Ned Richardson, including this site, which we are doing together with Makram .
10 March 2006
MAITRE, LIHSEB PLEASE is dedicated to the memory of Humbert Balsan, a producer who loved Beirut and lost a good friend there, and to Geraldine Peroni, film editor and friend.
10” vinyl: “Libanon” ,Artist: rayon ,Website: www.alientransistor.de
Etel Adnan at www.postapollopress.com
Ned Richardson at www.light-black.com
Makram el Kadi at www.leftish.net
Fouad El Koury at www.fouadelkoury.com