Q&A: Cyril Aris, writer/director of short film ‘The President’s Visit’

By Josh Morris

The President’s Visit is a short film that follows Nino Fattoush, a local shop owner in Lebanon whose soap attracts the attention of a presidential candidate looking for the perfect marketing gimmick. Chaos may or may not ensue when word spreads about the president’s visit to the small town …. Writer/director Cyril Aris was kind enough to answer some questions about this comedy/drama.

Informer Media Group: What inspired this story?

Cyril Aris: The story was inspired with the absurdity of the political scene in my home country, Lebanon, and my desire was to look at this with humor rather than desperation. We did not have a President for over two years (2014-2016), simply because our parliament couldn’t agree on a candidate. Stuck in a political limbo, the whole country was leaderless. Yet the country continued to function, and soon after when we had a president it continued working the same way. It seemed that the country is equally as functional and dysfunctional as it is with or without a president. That makes you wonder why we argue and fight over political issues and political representation, and whether politics as a whole are actually any use to the people. In the plot of the film, the President is “on a cleansing campaign of the country against corruption, bribery, and greed”. Of course, he needs soap for that. And a whole lot of them! This is a metaphor taken literally, which is the source of comedy, and I think it reflects quite well the level of absurdity of following politics in Lebanon. Nothing really makes sense. I was interested in looking at it from a comedic vantage point and just pushed the story as far as I could in its absurdity.

Informer Media Group: I notice Nino’s shop translates as “The Sultan of Soap” as well as “The Conscience Cleaner.” Why did you make him soap-maker? Why was it important?

Cyril Aris: On the front door of Nino’s soap shop, there is a sign in Arabic that says: The Sultan of Soap, The Conscience Cleaner. They’re actually two separate lines, which translate as I mentioned, respectively. There were many reasons to make him a soap-maker, but this stems mostly from the metaphor of wanting to have a President making a marketing stunt claiming to want to cleanse the country. On top of that, Lebanon has towns that are very well known for their handmade soaps, with recipes being passed on generations and generations since the 1800s. They’re made of natural oils and ingredients and are based on the most primitive ways of making soap. The soap shops are quite iconic and are a touristic attraction. So it made sense to have Nino as one of those soap makers, especially given that I was looking for a character feeling stuck and imprisoned. That tends to be the fate of every member of a family with a long history of working in one family business. In a way, Nino’s fate was imposed on him since birth. So all these ideas culminated nicely when making him a soap-maker.

Informer Media Group: Based on what I saw of it in your film, Lebanon is clearly a beautiful country. Can you tell me about Lebanon and your history with the country?

Cyril Aris: It’s a beautiful country, indeed. It’s a Mediterranean country, so it has the same landscape as all Mediterranean countries like southern Spain, southern Italy, Greece, coastal Turkey, but since its part of the Arab world, there’s a mix between the Western Mediterranean cultures and the Middle Eastern and Arab cultures. That gives it quite a unique flavor that is very particular to the country. I was born in Lebanon and lived there 2/3 of my life, approximately. So in a way, all the stories that I have to tell – for now – are based in Beirut and in Lebanon. Even though I am based in New York now, I keep traveling back and forth for shoots in Lebanon.

Informer Media Group: Anything important an American audience might not know or might miss?

Cyril Aris: To a certain extent, a lot Americans confuse Lebanon as being the same as all the other countries in the Middle East – a desert with camels and Bedouins. This is fortunately very untrue, and while we do have a strong Arab heritage, Lebanon is a real cross-over between East and West, and you would find that despite the tininess of the country, there is an eclectic mix of cultures, religions and languages spoken, and people currently live peacefully with one another despite their differences. Lebanon is much more advanced in women’s rights, freedom of expression and overall liberalism, compared to other Arab countries. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, but our basic democratic are taken for granted.

Informer Media Group: What are the politics like in Lebanon, as you see them?

Cyril Aris: Lebanon is a democracy, where people elect a parliament, and the parliament in turn elects the President, who in turn names his cabinet (I say “his” because we’ve never had a “her” yet). But it is not purely a democracy, cause all the seats are based on confessions. The President must be Christian, the Prime Minister must be Sunni Muslim, speaker of Parliament must be Shiite Muslim etc. The Parliament itself is split according to confessions, with each religion guaranteed a certain number of seats. This whole outdated system is a remnant from 1990, where these laws were put in place to end the civil war and ensure political representation of all communities, including minorities. These “guaranteed” seats for every confession, however, reduce and remove any accountability, and as a result, if there’s one thing most Lebanese politicians are good at, it’s pointing fingers at each other for the country’s woes. On top of that, even in their disagreements, all political parties have agreed on an equitable cut of the cake, where they each steal their fair share of money  from the public funds, with little or no return to the people overall. Corruption flourishes like cancer among Lebanese politicians, and I’m quite desperate when I look at the state of politics. Lebanese politicians are, in the best case, dishonest and incompetent. It is none but the people who are the victim of this flawed system, and seeing that was a driving force into making The President’s Visit, because despite the parties’ uselessness, they still have strong support from their communities.

Informer Media Group: Who are in the pictures in Nino’s shop?

Cyril Aris: This is the “Wall of Fame” of the soap shop. There are pictures of Nino’s father along with celebrities. If you were from the Arab world, you would recognize them, as they’re all popular stars. If you’re not, you would probably only understand that it’s the “Wall of Fame”, which can be found in Italian restaurants in New York, for example. There are a few Lebanese restaurants and shops that do that, where they display images of celebrities who have visited the place, in order to brag about their clientele and reputation. I find it very cute, and wanted to add that element to give an even heavier weight on Nino. Not only he is not very good at what he does, but he has to carry the weight of his favor having been the best at it.

Informer Media Group: Why was it important to you to have Nino’s mother in the film?

Cyril Aris: Family is so inherent to Lebanese culture that the presence of the mother is not surprising. Also, given that Nino is a weak and passive character, I wanted to show that he had an over-protective mother that imposes herself as an authoritative figure. That’s probably why Nino can barely talk to other women, and is bullied by other men in town.

Informer Media Group: Why doesn’t Soraya feel sympathy for Nico? I must admit, I feel sympathy towards him….

Cyril Aris: Glad to hear that! I think the actor, Fouad Yammine, is extremely sympathetic, because he has this mixture of funny gestures and sad facial expressions, so it makes him quite complex and lovable. I think Soraya is just not interested in him, but she shows him some attention as she knows that he likes her. He doesn’t hide it very well! She stays and listens to his nonsensical rambling, even when she has to be somewhere else. It is only when he resorts to violence against other people that her disinterest turns into contempt.

Informer Media Group: There seems to me a theme of doing what’s best for oneself versus doing what’s best for the group (“We’re all one.”). Why did you want to explore that?

Cyril Aris: Because it’s pretty obvious that when one stands for oneself, it is almost always at the benefit of others. The increasingly divisive nature of politics in the world is rendering all parties losers, cannibalizing on each other. I know that I’m generalizing, and it’s too long of a debate to have anyway. Give a man some power, and all of a sudden he thinks he’s better than others. Then human greed takes over, and he wants more and more, distancing him from the community he initially came from. The idea came from the fact that in Lebanon we had a 15-year civil war in the 70s and 80s, and while everyone stood for his or her own party, everyone lost by the end of it. Yet, some people still support these parties, and talk about the benefits of the party instead of the benefit of society as a whole.

 Informer Media Group:  Why is it SO important for this small town to make a good impression?

Cyril Aris: I guess that’s also something inherent to Middle Eastern cultures. There’s a cult of personalities happening with politicians, and if a president or high authoritative figure visits a town, there is this need of displaying the most hospitable welcoming. It’s unfortunate, cause it should be the other way around. It should be the politicians who are eagerly trying to make a good impression to the people, because after all, they are our employees; we pay their salaries and we get them elected. They owe us much more than we owe them. Additionally, it’s a bit more than just making a good impression. This is a dead town where nothing happens and everyone blends in the mass, so ultimately, Nino wants the attention of the president, as he believes this will give him some sense of power and elevate him above other members of the town. Maybe then, he will get Soraya’s interest? Maybe then, his Mother will stop belittling him? As soon as Nino learns that the president is interested in his soaps, he gets a big head. Even in his walk next to Soraya, he walks proudly. He is the center of attention, and this reversal of situation happened overnight.  But then, every townsfolk wants to steal that attention to themselves, so they all end up destroying each.

Informer Media Group: What’s next for you?

Cyril Aris: I have a feature documentary currently going through the festival circuit, called The Swing. The Swing (2018) premiered in the documentary competition of the 53rd Karlovy Vary IFF, receiving positive reviews from the press with The Hollywood Reporter calling it ‘Intimate and moving’, in “this meditation on truth, love and lies in the face of illness and death”. It won the El-Gouna Bronze Star Award at the El-Gouna Film Festival, and an honorable mention at London’s Open City Docs, where it played as the closing film of the festival. Its narrative revolves around a family tragedy, with the two protagonists being my 82-year-old grandmother and my 90-year old grandfather. It examines questions about mortality, and what remains by the end of life when we progressively lose our physical abilities and our memory. In parallel, I am developing my first narrative work, with the working title It’s a Sad and Beautiful World, with a tone close to The President’s Visit.

Informer Media Group: Where can people learn more about you and your projects?

Cyril Aris: You can learn more about me on www.cyrilaris.com/bio

I post work and screening dates on my website www.cyrilaris.com

I also regularly update my facebook page and instagram account with work-related posts, so you can also follow me on @CyrilAris

The film’s co-writer Mounia Akl also has her work posted at www.mouniaakl.com.

 

 

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