Leila Kanaan Upside Down + Inside Out
The Dichotomy Of Breakfast At Tiffany’s
I chose Hamra’s Café Prague to meet Leila, thinking that it was both arty enough and private enough to delve into the mind of the woman who can create both a concept for Nancy Ajram and short films that are completely at odds with one another. I am immediately struck by how tiny Leila Kanaan is, clad in an Audrey Hepburn-esque dress in shades of conservative black and grey, but still form fitting enough to show her figure, paired with shocking fluorescent coral pumps. Her long hair is flowing loose and her face has not a stitch of makeup, betraying her youth. At 30 years of age, Leila’s resume lists over 20 star studded video clips, in addition to a roster of commercials an arm long. What sparked our initial interest in Leila was the marked difference between her short films and her better known work, music videos for Lebanese Turbo-Folk singers (known as pop stars) and the interest she has expressed in moving away from that genre altogether.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what being a director was all about,” she says when we discuss film school and the particulars. “Initially I wanted to be a television presenter,” and after a few years in school, “I fell in love with the major.” This was the precursor to Leila being behind the camera, rather than in front. She went through the motions learning everything from sound to lighting, before she released, “My Father’s House”, a short film that was to be shown at 20 different film festivals spanning the globe from Canada to Switzerland including several in the Middle East. “It was shown a lot, it gave me the push I needed,” she explains sipping her tea, a large piece of chocolate cake untouched before her. The film is retro, vintage and kitsch, concepts that I see throughout Leila’s work that she figures must have come from the hours spent with her grandmother watching Egyptian films as child. “We lived in a ‘sha3beh’ neighborhood in Saida. I wasn’t allowed to go out and play in the street with the other kids. I spent so much of my childhood and adolescence imprisoned. I would watch people from the window, and make up stories for them… what their lives were about, where they were going. My sister and I had to create for fun. Our imaginations took off and this definitely contributed to where I am now,” she says reminiscing on the home that was filled with her grandmother’s antique pieces and the hours she spent with her sister with whom she shares her March 14th birthday.
The oldest of 3 children, Leila began directing in 2005, nearly right out of film school. She started off with, “Issa Ghandour, he does pop but it isn’t as conventional. He saw my work at the film fest and we went from there. His song was about the trials of departure and immigration, not just the normal pop stuff. I said pourquoi pas?” This was to be Leila’s stepping stone into the world of Lebanese music, bringing a quirky vibe to even the most repetitive of Lebanese Turbo-Folk. She’s often been told that the basic meaning of the sugary songs is given depth and character through her video interpretations. But some of Leila’s favorite Lebanese directors, Ziad Doueri, Elie Khalifé, Ghassan Salhab, “and the scripts of Danielle Arbid” aren’t reflected in her resume. Why is that? “Look when you graduate, the only way to establish yourself is ground experience,” she says. “You take what you can and make the best out of it,” citing numerous videos she has worked on. “If you put the video on mute and just watch with no sound, you will still see a cohesive story.” I agree frankly, telling her I did just that to get a better understanding of the director. “I love Charlie Chaplin, Stanley Kubrick, Buster Keaton, Wong Kar Wai, Abbas Kiarostami … There are so many that I don’t know where to start!” says Leila enthusiastically when asked to name directors from abroad that she likes. It is worth nothing that Café Hamra is probably the only place in Beirut that houses books on artists and directors that are off the beaten path, specifically Kubrick- it seems that I chose well for Leila, having sensed both her dark and light sides through the short films and even the music videos. I am pleased that the Kubrick book is lurking on the shelves, but neglect to mention this fact to her.
We move into a conversation about Sofia Coppola, another of her favorites, famous child of Francis Ford Coppola and director in her own right. I ask Leila’s opinion on Coppola’s 2006 feature film depiction of Marie Antoinette and explain that I felt that from a cinematography perspective it was good, in addition to having won the Academy Award for best costume amongst others, but by and large found the film disappointing and the characters underdeveloped. This is when Leila is most animated as she quickly says, “This is my problem with feature film. You know when you watch a series like Twin Peaks- I think that Twin Peaks is the pinnacle of TV, The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men - you get to really know the characters! On my next project I want to explore my characters like that! I want people to get to know them, get attached to them,” she says agreeing that in film the characters expire. You get to know them and if you are truly excellent, can give them a sort of evolution, but with a very short time limit. “I feel as though once the film is done, it’s absorbed and that’s it? I think an ambitious project like this is lacking. I want the chance to create a historical fresco! I’m a perfectionist, I want to explore my characters, let them grow and change in a series,” leading me to ask her if she will continue with music videos. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I think it will depend on the project but this is not my future focus. I want to create more personal stuff, things and worlds that would find their source, inspiration and kick-off in my own intimate self. When I work, I don’t worry about people liking it or not. I profoundly believe that if I like what I am doing, then people may like it. If it speaks to me, it will speak to others as well,” she says contemplating her current fan base and whether or not they will follow her when she moves away from music.
“My work is neither very arty or very commercial. It is accessible. I’ve done most of the A stars with the biggest budgets. But that’s it, I have nothing left to give to these projects. I want to talk about other subjects now and I want to present myself to a different audience. How long can you continue treating the same subject differently when the lyrics and the compositions are all the same?” she asks both me and herself. Leila does this often, speaking rhetorically; she seems to ask herself the same questions that she poses to me. “Why do we just have B.A.C.?” she asks me in reference to the Beirut Art Center and the lack of cultural education here in general, as I comment that not many people in Lebanon would list Twin Peaks as their end all and be all of television. “Look, here you have to go out and look for your cultural education, it is not taught to you in school. When I taught my classes, I would ask myself, ‘Where do I start?’” she says echoing the sentiments of many in the art community. “When Wadih and I visit Paris, you are drowning in culture,” she says naming her husband and lamenting the remoteness here of art. This husband was also a sort of contrast, I learn. The girl from the “sha3beh” neighborhood in Saida met her future husband at his film festival. They live together in a “160 year-old home in Broumana,” married as of this month. Our talk turns to relationships between artists at which I point out that our Turbo- Folk stars if you will, are simply not as exciting as those in Europe and other countries. I give her the example of Ceca (pronounced Tsetsa) Ražnatović and explain that she is Serbia’s version of Haifa Wehbe. The difference is that Ceca is heavily covered by Western media and love her or hate her, she has quite the interesting life, from connections to organized crime to her late husband: The notorious Arkan (Željko Ražnatović) was assassinated in January 2000. Ceca has a dangerous energy to her with hit songs like “Votka sa Utehom” (Vodka with Solace) that have interesting lyrics and a really tangible edge. “If our pop singers had songs like that, songs with real grief and real meaning, I would happily continue directing for them but I can create something no matter what the material,” she says clearly relishing the dark story of Ceca and Arkan. This is just one of the glimpses of the darkness in Leila that I am given throughout the interview, this Audrey Hepburn with her coral stilettos doesn’t try to “please all the people, that’s very wrong. I’m not a very diplomatic person,” says Leila unapologetically.
Another thing Leila is unapologetic about is scandal, “I would love to shoot for Carla Bruni,” she says as we discuss the controversial song of Carla’s that caused an international incident, “Tu es ma came”, with the line about being more addictive than “White Columbian… and Afghan heroin”. I suggest this song may be inappropriate for a First Lady representing a powerful country but Leila is adamant as she says, “If there is a contradiction in Carla as an artist and Carla as a First Lady, then we need to move away from this mould, this preconceived idea of what a First Lady must be. She already is not the typical First Lady and why should she be?” Leila asks out loud, again both to me and herself. Her answer is what I expect: Just because someone is known for one thing, does not mean they cannot be a whole other. You can still turn things upside down and inside out, no matter what shell and role people have ascribed to you.
Just like Leila Kanaan.
By Fida Chaaban