In Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s powerful stage play, “Incendies,” it’s possible to identify tragedies as ancient as the theater itself and as contemporary as the latest dispatches from Libya and Afghanistan. By chronicling the journey of a Middle Eastern woman along the ruined roads of her homeland and through a life shaped by the cruelest of fates, “Incendies” argues that mankind has been taken hostage by fanatics, war mongers and monsters, and the ransom is being paid in the blood of innocents.
At its core, though, “Incendies” can also be read simply as the story of siblings, who, while attempting to solve the mystery that was their mother, are introduced to a world they never knew existed.
“Wajdi’s play is very well known in Canada and the French-speaking world, where he’s something of a ‘rock star’ among young people,” says Villeneuve, a Quebec native and three-time Genie Award-winner for Best Achievement in Direction. “Along with the rights to ‘Incendies,’ he gave me total freedom … including the freedom to make mistakes. At 3½ to 4 hours long, the play was very talkative and contained powerful theatrical images, which wouldn’t work on film.
“The most important thing for both of us, though, was to maintain the dialogue between the past and present.”
The movie begins in the office of a Montreal notary, where the twin children of the recently deceased Nawal Marwan are being told of their mother’s final wishes. In addition to learning the disposition of her modest estate, Jeanne and Simon are handed letters she wants them to deliver to the father they believe to be dead and brother they didn’t know existed. When Simon balks at the strange request, Jeanne accepts the notary’s offer to introduce her to lawyers and notaries in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, which so resembles war-torn Lebanon, there’s no point pretending it isn’t.
The rest of the film’s narrative flashes between the past and present, allowing viewers to absorb Nawal’s tragic history simultaneously with Jeanne and, eventually, Simon. In this way, the shocking events of the final 20 minutes, or so, take everyone by surprise.
Nawal was raised as a Christian in southern Lebanon, at about the same time as Palestinians exiled from Israel and neighboring states were taking root in camps there. Before we’re able to understand fully what’s happening between Nawal and her Palestinian lover, her brothers shoot and kill the young man and rush their teenage sister from the hillside where the murder takes place. Soon, it’s revealed that Nawal was pregnant and packed away, in disgrace, to another village.
“It was an honor killing, because he was a Palestinian refugee,” says the 44-year-old Villeneuve, stressing, “We’ve been led to believe that such things only happen in Muslim families, but that’s not true.”
With only this much information and a photograph of her mother as a teenager in hand, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) attempts to trace Nawal’s now-faint footprints. They take her to the hospital in a nearby village, where she would have delivered the son who may or may not have been killed after his birth. The women she meets, who conceivably would remember such an event, treat Jeanne as if she were the evil spawn of Yasser Arafat and Golda Meir.
The daughter is able to glean a clue that leads her back to the capital, presumably Beirut, where Nawal is shown in flashback as a college student and aspiring journalist. The murder of her lover and presumed death of her child have caused her to embrace non-violence, but turn her back on Christianity, or, at least, the segment that endorses bigotry and hate crimes. While there, several opposing forces square off in a civil war, which also will result in an invasion and occupation by an unnamed force that might as well be called Israel.
After managing to escape the chaos in the city, Nawal finds herself in a bus that will be stopped at a checkpoint and boarded by members of a right-wing Christian militia. To avoid being slaughtered alongside the Arab passengers, she holds out the crucifix she still carries in her pocket. Ashamed by her decision to exploit the symbol of a religion she no longer respects and, then, having to watch helplessly as the bus is set ablaze, Nawal commits a crime that not only lands her in jail, but also fuels the explosive drama to come. Not for nothing does the French word, incendies, translate to “fire” or “scorched.”
At this point, any further summarization of the movie’s plot, would only lead to a minefield of spoilers. Suffice it say that Jeanne’s investigation doesn’t stop at the gates of the now empty prison. When her brother (Maxim Gaudette) finally agrees to join her, she heads back to the still war-torn capital and its refugee camps, protected by more men and women armed to the teeth. What the siblings learn there will carry them back to Montreal with a far greater understanding of their unusual background and a date with destiny.
“This movie is a work of fiction and has no historical significance,” cautions Villeneuve, who had been in Los Angeles for the Academy Awards, as a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Feature category. “Of course, massacres and assassinations did occur in Lebanon, and Wajdi had a friend, a girl, who remained in Beirut during the civil war. As in the movie, there was a prisoner who sang after being tortured.
“He was inspired by the story of this woman, who was able to survive in prison for 10 years, resist her captors and maintain political engagement. But, this isn’t her story.”
As much as the movie might resemble a primer on late-20th Century Lebanese history, Villeneuve encourages viewers to look at how all civil wars resemble each other and produce tragedies, atrocities and bizarre circumstances, like those described in “Incendies.”
“The most horrible thing,” he emphasizes, “is the intimacy of such wars. Neighbors kill neighbors, friends fight friends, and families are torn apart.”
Villeneuve might as well have added that things happen in wars that simply make no logical sense. Alliances are formed and broken overnight and former comrades-in-arms turn against each other unexpectedly, even before the ink dries on the scorecards kept by analysts in Washington and Moscow. Family feuds and ancient vendettas often are ascribed political motives where none exist.
And, it’s the rare movie – “Incendies” being one of the few – that looks behind the Wizard’s curtains to see what happens when patriotism, jingoism and box-office reports are allowed to interfere with the processing of history, politics and vision.
If, for example, “Charlie Wilson’s War” had lasted another half-hour, the other side of his coin may have been revealed. Audiences would have seen how the devil’s bargain struck between Wilson, his buddies at the CIA and Muslim insurgents not only forced the Russians to retreat from Afghanistan, but it also laid the foundation for 9/11 and a nearly a decade of fruitless wars there and in Iraq. And, yet, it was fun to watch a congressman snort coke in a hot tub full of naked hookers and play grab-ass with Julia Roberts.
Democracy might look like a hot ticket today in Egypt, Libya and Syria, but who knows what’s at play behind the scenes? Certainly not the boys and girls handing out weapons at the CIA.
Knowing that it would be next to impossible to navigate the political and cultural shoals in Lebanon, Villeneuve was invited to shoot “Incendies” in nearby Jordan. Although that country, too, has been rocked by sectarian violence, the filmmaker says that he was surprised at the amount of cooperation he received. It provided him with landscapes, villages and urban settings compatible with the faux-Lebanon conceit.
“It was a fantastic place to shoot and I would go there, again, tomorrow,” he adds. “Jordan doesn’t have an infrastructure for making movies, but they had the will to make what we were doing successful. Montreal has a large Lebanese community and lots of the people we showed it to thought it was shot there.
“The northern part of Jordan looks a lot like southern Lebanon.”
In fact, Amman has served as headquarters for several location shoots in recent years. Among the titles are “Fair Game,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Bruno” and “Redacted.” The 2007 festival favorite, “Captain Abu Read,” was the first Jordanian feature film made in more than a half-century and became the country’s official selection for the 2009 Academy Awards competition.
Villeneuve employed an international crew in the production of the non-Canadian half of “Incendies” and refugees from Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon were used as extras or background characters. Anais Barbeau-Lavalette’s short making-of documentary, “Se souvenir des cendres – Regards sur Incendies,” incorporates interviews with several of these non-professional actors, who provided, she’s said, “their views on the vicious war and cycle of violence being re-created before their eyes, and by their own efforts.”
Villeneuve has shown “Incendies” at festivals around the world, including the Emirate states. It’s also been picked up for distribution in Lebanon, Egypt, Israel and Europe.
According to the director, “Incendies” has been lauded at every stop, so far, although “some Lebanese critics didn’t like the way I played with their country’s history,” even though it wasn’t named. So much, then, for trying to disguise the obvious.
Opening day reviews in the U.S. have been ecstatic in their praise. The first sentence in Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern’s column called “Incendies,” “the film that should have won an Oscar in its foreign-language category this year and didn’t.” Given the Byzantine rules guiding the academy’s nominating decisions, might it be too much to ask that someone there consider, at least, allowing Azabal and Villaneuve’s names to be included among the actors and directors to be considered in January 2012? — Gary Dretzka