Krystel El Koussa talks Weeping Willow, staying true to oneself, and clichés of filmmaking in Lebanon

As we celebrate the success of Nadine Labaki in worldwide film circles, it’s always great to see what emerging Lebanese filmmaking talents are up to as our film industry continues to grow. As such, we at Reel Rambler have chosen to spotlight the work of Krystel El Koussa, a recent university graduate whose final film Weeping Willow has been making rounds at festivals around the world, including Montreal World Film Festival 2018; Buffalo International Film Festival 2018; Miami Short Film Festival 2018, where it was a semi-finalist; Galway Arts Center, Ireland, with the support of Galway City Council for their yearly cultural night under the topic “Lost + Found”; and, most recently, in this year’s competition segment of the 25th European Film Festival in Lebanon at Metropolis Cinema.

We reached out to El Koussa to discuss her film, what it meant for her to tell her story, and how she navigates the local industry as a young Lebanese filmmaker.

Film still 1

Courtesy of the filmmaker

Reel Rambler: Congratulations on the success of Weeping Willow so far. Can you tell me a bit about what inspired you to tell this story?

Krystel El Koussa: Thank you so much!

Well, as student filmmakers, for our graduation shorts we tend to pick a topic that is close to us, something that we relate to or something that we’ve experienced. This makes it easier for us to write, direct, and film for the first time in our lives. In my case, my childhood experiences and my love for my mother inspired Weeping Willow — with a little twist in the story, of course.

RR: The short is quite meditative and atmospheric and that’s in part because of the lack of dialogue. Can you tell me more about your decision to include so much silence in the film?

KK: Writing and directing the film with very little dialogue between my characters was not easy. Words usually make it easier to communicate what you want to convey to the audience, but silence speaks louder than words, right? I thought my film would be much more interesting if my characters, instead of talking, communicated through the five senses and the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire). This naturally made my task much more challenging and the film even more difficult to act out, but I found that the bond the actors created didn’t even need words — the silence and the emotions were much stronger than that.

Film still 2

Courtesy of the filmmaker

RR: What do you want your viewers to take away from the film?

KK: It is my belief that only by overcoming one’s deepest and darkest memories is one able to enjoy the present moment and the future. I made this film to show the world the impact the separation of a family has on a person. I wanted it to be as clear and as true as it is: you never really get over it and your heart aches every time you see other families. On the other hand, you gain something else. For me, it was a love greater than anyone could ever describe: my mother’s unconditional love and support.

RR: From development to release, how difficult was the process of realising the film?

KK: At my university, we write, cast, shoot, and edit our entire film in just one semester! I think you come to realise how incredibly difficult that is to do in just four months. Once my script was complete, the most difficult part was setting up a budget and looking for sponsors because making movies isn’t cheap. I had heard that Bank of Beirut encourages emerging talents so I pitched my project to them. Thankfully, they were so moved by the script’s idea that they agreed to co-produce it. I also have my Dad to thank for being the main producer of the whole film and for all his help and support.

Another difficulty was finding the appropriate cast for my script. With barely a few words spoken throughout the whole film, it was hard for me to find actors who could portray the roles as transparently as they were in screen. I am very grateful that my actresses Maria Nacouzi & Claude Baz Moussawbaa were very professional and able to physically translate what I meant to convey.

RR: What do you feel are the biggest challenges for rising filmmakers in Lebanon? How do you combat these challenges?

KK: Filmmaking in Lebanon is becoming more and more popular. One of the biggest challenges that arises, though, is to stay creative and avoid stories that lend themselves to some clichés. Because we all live in the same society and experience the same problems, and because all of our parents lived at the time of war, some themes are bound to pop up more than once in shorts members of the film community here make. The most important thing is to stay true to what one wants to say and what one wants people to feel when people see one’s film. Filmmakers should never be afraid to express, shoot, say, edit the way they feel; it is only by doing so that they will be able to overcome slowly vanishing taboos in our societies.

Still with laurels

Courtesy of the filmmaker

RR: What’s next for Weeping Willow?

KK: Well, Weeping Willow still has one Lebanese film festival to attend, the Ora Union Film Festival 2019, which will be held at Forum de Beyrouth in the near future. I’m also still submitting it to several film festivals, in hopes of being selected for an Arab one some day. I would really like to visit an Arab country and watch what other students have accomplished.

RR: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects?

KK: I am hoping to apply for a Master’s degree soon, outside of Lebanon. Cinema is such an enriching art and I feel like having learned the basics of cinema in my Bachelor’s degree here in Lebanon. I am ready to embark on a new journey, studying it in depth, in a whole other country. I’m also starting to write another short film — hopefully one that will become as successful as Weeping Willow someday!

Catch Krystel El Koussa’s Weeping Willow at Ora Union Film Festival soon.

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Reel Rambler

Reel Rambler is an entertainment website aiming to elevate Middle Eastern voices of film criticism with the aim of contributing a more inclusive perspective on international cinema, awards politics, and film news from around the world. Follow @reelrambler

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