Lubna Azabal Interview

Adapted from Wajdi Mouawad’s acclaimed play Scorched, and directed by the visionary Denis Villeneuve, Incendies is a gripping, emotive exploration of the mysteries that lie in our family roots.

Actress Lubna Azabal, who assumed the challenging role of Nawal Marwan in Incendies, took time out of her busy schedule to join Soundbite Culture for a chat.

Soundbite Culture: First off Lubna, let me congratulate you on your amazing performance in Incendies; the subject matter is very emotive, and the film itself is just as moving. How did playing the role of Nawal Marwan affect you as a person, and how intense did it get on set?

Lubna Azabal: It affected me at the end of filming, when I had to say goodbye to the director. You feel like a widow in a way, as though some of your family have passed away. I had a deep connection with the director and was involved so much [with the character of Nawal] that I forgot myself. At the same time, I had to shoot another movie in Armenia straight after Incendies, as well as a bunch of other projects to work on, and Incendies required me to cut any connection with it, because when I’m working on a project I have to put 100% in.

SC: So the scenes and the subject material didn’t affect you?

LA: It wasn’t me, if I was affected it’s because Nawal was; I was just serving the director. When you serve the story, you forget yourself. I was focusing on what I had to do and couldn’t let myself be me otherwise you mix things. Of course it’s me, it’s my body.

SC: But you’re kind of like a vessel, and you’re driving Nawal.

LA: Yes, yes that’s a good expression. I’m this vessel, driving Nawal, and I was 100% with her; sleeping with her, eating my breakfast with her. I wasn’t able to go places and enjoy life because I was kind of in a bubble. I remember my producer saying, “Come on, go out” and I just wasn’t able.

SC: How did you prepare for the role?

LA: There was no magic preparation. I tried to prepare myself, like I do with all my other projects; I read the script, went to see the play, etc. I also read the autobiography of Suha Ashour, a woman who spent ten years in jail for trying to kill a Christian militia leader during the war in Lebanon.

SC: So the story of Nawal was inspired by real acts?

LA: Yes it was partly true. I tried to dream frequently, trying to find inspiration everywhere I could; in the television, in people’s eyes and I read a lot. I could spend three hours on my terrace with a coffee, just thinking and thinking; trying to dream her. Then comes the day you begin shooting, I know more or less what direction to take, but I never prepare myself with the intellectual or political details.

SC: So it’s more of an emotionally driven performance?

LA: Yeah, it’s more emotional. It’s more about your instincts, your belly, your heart. For me, since the beginning I decided to put the political things of Nawal’s character to one side. I saw her as a young girl who is accused of staining her family by having a relationship out of marriage to someone from another religion; and after, I saw her as a mother whose child has been taken from her. I’m not a mother, but I have friends and sisters and they’re all mothers. I know she could be any mother in the world, who become like lions if you touch their child, and during her journey she sees such terrible things. It gets to a point where Nawal’s certain her child is dead and she’s got nothing left to lose; so she becomes consumed by vengeance.

SC: What do you think Nawal’s spirit signified, what was she fighting for?

LA: I think she saw too much injustice during this war. The turning point for her is when a little girl is murdered by the Christian militia; for Nawal, it feels like they killed her child for a second time. From then on, the destiny of this woman became tragic, very tragic. So she decides to kill the man that she sees as the cause of all this injustice.

SC: There are deep rooted social and political issues highlighted in the film, namely the sectarian violence in Lebanon with the Christians and the Muslims, do you think this was a chance to showcase how Christian Arabs live, because you don’t usually hear or see about them?

LA: I can only answer in my point of view but I know this is not what Dennis wanted to show. It comes down to a war between brothers; one wears a cross the other a star and moon. It’s what we call a war without a name. Muslims and Christians are the same, that’s why this movie could have been shot in Serbia.

SC: And that’s why Incendies never names the country, because you want to highlight that these situations happen all over the world and are not restricted to one location or culture?

LA: Yes, and there is always this kind of war without a name. It’s always stupid things that start it, usually some misunderstanding between politicians, or political groups.

SC: What was the hardest part of making the film?

LA: The toughest moments were the jail scenes. Not because it’s in jail, but because I had to start shooting Incendies with those scenes. In Montreal, we were shooting inside a studio surrounded by thousands of people and it was scary. When on set, I never prepare myself; I just do what comes naturally. So when you start filming in the middle of the story, it’s scary. Was it going to be wrong? Was the tone going to be right? I mean in four days Nawal’s been raped, fallen pregnant, had her hair forcibly cut; and I have to go through her with this. Only you don’t get to start from the beginning of the movie. So that was really tough.

SC: Don’t worry the scenes went very well.

LA: *laughing* Thank you.

SC: What was the most enjoyable part of filming Incendies?

LA: The whole experience, really. I couldn’t choose and say this part was great, it was the whole experience.

SC: It’s like tearing a page out of a novel and hoping it made sense on its own.

LA: Yeah, you love the whole book, so there’s no specific part you can choose.

SC: What do you think the overall meaning of Incendies is?

LA: I’m not sure there is any kind of moral message. Incendies talks to everyone, it’s a family portrait; we’re talking about family honour, family secrets, the kind of things that exist in every family. And there’s also this notion that love, hate, vengeance and forgiveness can co exist. This story makes you question your whole life, your parents’ lives, what your real past and your family tree is. These little questions will literally make you understand who you are and this, for me, is the essence of the movie.

SC: Why did Nawal tell her children, why couldn’t she just let herself die without telling them? It’s quite a psychological crux for the children to bear?

LA: Because when you have children, it’s the continuation of yourself. If you cannot find peace, your continuity will never be at peace. For Nawal, peace can come only after death. Maybe the truth’s not nice to hear, but it was important for her children to know; to give Nawal closure and help them understand why she was the way she was.

SC: They did think their mother crazy, so I guess an explanation of who she is was needed?

LA: Yes, they thought their mother was crazy; they thought she hated them, because she never really connected with them. She just fed them, and clothed them, gave them an education; but there was no emotional connection.

SC: Ok, Radiohead for the musical segues; whose choice was that? I was expecting some ambient, Middle Eastern strings?

LA: I think Dennis really wanted to have European music, because it’s like his point of view; from outside of this culture. And it helps make Incendies an international feature. Radiohead fits very well.

SC: Yes it does. Thank you for joining Soundbite today Lubna, it’s been a pleasure.

LA: No, thank you for joining me for a cigarette.

SC: It was a pleasure, next time you’re in London and want to have a cigarette just call me.

LA: *laughing* OK, I will.

Incendies is now showing in selected cinemas throughout the UK.

Kareem Ghezawi

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Dates ‘n stuff

July 2011