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Director Karim Kassem on Connecting to His Lebanese Roots Through His Films While Lebanon Heals

Director Karim Kassem on Connecting to His Lebanese Roots Through His Films While Lebanon Heals

Karim Kassem, a filmmaker, director, and screenwriter from Lebanon, has had a year full of lows and highs. The good: he wrapped up production on not one, but two feature-length films. Only The Winds, his first ever feature length film, and Octopus, a silent film that he relayed is currently in post-production. The bad: not only did his country endure a revolution (during which Only The Winds was being shot), his home city of Beirut suffered a traumatic and deadly explosion on August 4, 2020 as well. 

The Power of Healing Through Heritage

Kassem had just traveled from New York to Beirut to start filming Octopus and was quarantining at a hotel when he experienced the full shock of the explosion. “We lost everything,” he explained morosely. As his family and his community picked through the rubble of their homes, Kassem took in the pain of his city and went out into the wreckage. He changed the premise of Octopus completely so that he was able to accurately show the reality of Beirut in the aftermath of the explosion. 

Image: Karim Kassem

While Only The Winds focuses on the journey of a filmmaker at a blind institute for children, and Octopus focuses on the city of Beirut in the wake of a tragedy, both films feature people contending with their roots, their home country, and their identities. 

Kassem’s film Only The Winds will be screening at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam in January of 2021, while his second film Octopus will be released in May of 2021.

You’re originally from Lebanon. How did you end up in New York, working with film in both New York and abroad?

I actually ended up in New York accidentally. I was on my way to Berlin to pursue a deejaying career, when I decided to visit New York for a month as a tourist. But I ended up working on some films, and decided to stay. 

You mentioned that you started out as a DJ. Did you work in film before that, or was film something that you just picked up along the way and decided to pursue instead?

I was a professional DJ for four years, and then I started taking pictures in college. One of my professors noticed me, and he took me to Indonesia with him—alongside the Indonesian embassy—to document the landmarks there. My professor gave me the confidence to pursue film. 

You believe that, “cinema allows us to experiment within the metaphysical nature of our being.” How did you discover this, and how does this translate to your overall film work up until this point?

Philosophy has always been an interest in my life. If I didn’t become a filmmaker, I probably would have become a full-time philosopher. But since I didn’t take that academic route, I ended up delving into metaphysics through film.

Tell me a little about your first feature-length film, Only The Winds, which will be screening at the International Film Festival in Rotterdam in 2021, at the end of January.

Only The Winds is my first feature, and it revolves around a filmmaker who travels from New York to Beirut. I play myself in the film, so in the film, I travel to Beirut to conduct research at a school for the blind in order to come up with a film idea and eventually make it. The film delves into blindness, not just from a narrative perspective but a metaphysical one.

It’s about bridging a gap between ourselves and another realm. Perception, called representation in metaphysics, is just one facet. There is definitely something to perception beyond the senses. 

The theme of blindness unfolds alongside the journey of the filmmaker. In that sense, the film is a narrative within another one.  

You are the writer, director and also one of the main actors, or non actors, because you play yourself. What inspired you to come up with the concept for this film and write this storyline?

I was actually blinded 10 years ago in Egypt during the Revolution. I was acting in a TV show, and when I landed there, the director told me that I had a sty on each eye and that I couldn’t go on TV. I went through surgery to remove them and was blindfolded for four days. That experience instigated my first meditation, which eventually inspired me to make this film.

How did working with non actors allow for more real and complex human moments on screen?

A blind girl is the best person the play herself. I would never pick a sighted girl to play the role.

You were essentially filming while the revolution was taking place. How do these stories intertwine? And what was the experience of filming in Lebanon during that tumultuous time like?

We made a film in a very difficult time, but we started filming before the revolution began. When the revolution started, we wrapped up filming. Prior to the revolution, Lebanon was talking about an economic collapse, the fluctuation of the dollar. People were considering leaving Lebanon altogether. 

It was really hard filming after the revolution. We used the revolution sort of as a base layer for the entirety of the film, but we almost never showed it. To express this, we wanted the film to have sound as a layer. Blind children at the school are not affected by the revolution because they are so marginalized. An aspect of this film is about a filmmaker going back home to dissect himself and connect to his roots. 

Only The Winds is a hybrid film or docu-fiction. You wrote that filmmakers often, “lie as much as possible to get closer to the truth.” So how does the format of this film allow for this? Can you speak more about what it was like to write and film in this specific style or genre?

I had a screenplay, but I got rid of it during the second week or the third week of production. When we were at the school, we didn’t have lots of control over the children and the environments. We really had to improvise a lot, which was interesting because it meant I was open to anything.

 

Image: Karim Kassem

How long did the filming process take?

We filmed 36 days. I filmed six days on my own. And then the rest was with the crew, and we were able to be at the school for 12 days. 

As you mentioned before, in addition to writing and directing Only The Winds, you also starred in the film as the filmmaker who travels from New York to Lebanon. So you were essentially playing yourself. Have you acted before at all or done any work in front of the camera? What was it like work now both behind and in front of the camera for this project? 

I never wanted to act. I’ve acted in a TV show and a short film once. I didn’t enjoy the experience very much, I don’t think I am a performer. I prefer to be behind the camera. But for Only The Winds I wanted to play myself as I had already established a connection with the blind children, The performances are very natural. That’s the whole point of hybrids.

How did working with non actors allow for more real and complex human moments on screen?

There’s so much to learn from non actors. I think the most important thing is the space and time between when you’re sitting down with a blind person and you’re talking to them. There’s just a different sense of space and time. The way they listen to you, building that bridge.It’s quite fascinating. 

You relayed how your next upcoming project Octopus was made after the explosion in Beirut earlier this year. Can you tell me a little about this film and what led you to creating it?

Octopus was planned to be my second feature film. I had been doing research for quite some time and was writing a script. When I landed in Beirut on August 3, I had already started planning and making phone calls from my hotel room. I was in quarantine for 48 hours. The next day, the explosion happened and everything was taken away. So I made a new Octopus. I kept the title, but I had to adapt. And for around eight years I’ve been saying that I wanted to make a silent film, and there was probably no better time to do that, right after the explosion. 

Can you tell a little bit about the premise?

It’s essentially about a filmmaker being in a position where he has to adapt to a new circumstance. There are no words to describe people’s feelings after the explosion. Everyone wants to say something. I want to say something, too. But I felt like there was already too much noise and I had to move in parallel, almost in tandem and create something on the more contemplative side. Meditation in parallel to everything that’s unfolding. I wanted to take a step to the side and look at everything in my own way. That being said, while there are no words, the film is very sonically rich. 

Are you going to play yourself in this one as well?

There are very few scenes where I show up, but you may hear my voice behind the camera.

What was it like to film and to work right in your city right after the explosion? 

After fixing my apartment, I needed to fix myself. I felt like I was running out of time. I felt this strong urge not to leave my family. I was very scared for them, but at the same time, I felt a duty to get out on the streets and do my job. Everyone had to be on duty at that time. I volunteered at the beginning then I didn’t have time anymore because we were filming. 

I can’t describe how difficult it was to be walking into each person’s apartment that had been blown out. I could still see blood on people’s couches, I could feel the glass everywhere. Some people don’t have walls or doors to their bathrooms—so many details to swallow. I had to distance myself as a filmmaker; it is my duty to make such a film and tell people’s stories and to tell Beirut’s story. 

In general, this is a story about a city. And whatever happens, I learned that life goes on. It’s very strange, and I don’t want to say sad, but it’s very sad how everything just continues and you’re just taken by the wave, whether you like it or not. Whether your government cares or not, everything goes on. 

I’m very proud of my crew, who stuck with me in a heatwave, through all that time. Some people had to take days off because they just couldn’t take it anymore. It was too emotional and draining. While it was entirely improvised, it was still the most difficult shoot of my career.

When will Octopus come out?

Hopefully in May. In the beginning of the film, there’s a scene where we are searching underwater for an octopus. I think an octopus is a very interesting animal that we have a lot to learn from. This is not a film about an octopus, but at the same time, it could be, even though we might not see one in the film.

Image: Karim Kassem

Only The Winds will be screening at the end of January. So, a lot of things are coming up in 2021 for you!

Yeah, I did not expect to make two features in one year! That’s pretty overwhelming. I just turned 30, and I never imagined I’d make a film before that. 

There’s an urgency to live after such a disaster. Whatever that urgency feels like or how it unfolds is really up to you. You could see the world as a very dark place or you could be extremely positive. It’s very difficult though, because who am I to say.

Some people lost their brothers, fathers, daughters, mothers. I have a friend who just lost her mother today, three months after the explosion. She was in a coma all this time, but she died today. So It’s hard to know what to say. That’s why I don’t want to say anything. That’s why Octopus is a silent film. So we don’t have to say anything.