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Family circus

Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve talks about his Oscar-nominated drama Incendies: “To me the film is less about war and more about family.”


His Oscar-nominated film Incendies is a wrenching portrait of war, anger and pain, but for Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, it was a project sparked by love.  

Villeneuve was first set ablaze by Incendies---which translates into English as Scorched---when he saw Wajdi Mouawad's stage play in 2004. "I think I seriously bought the two last tickets to the last show," says Villeneuve. "I was completely astonished when I saw it.

"I remember going outside onto the sidewalk and saying, 'OK, I'm going to make a film.' It was just love at first sight." As in any love affair, though, an element of fear set in as the weight of adapting a three-and-a- half-hour play settled on his shoulders. For one thing, Villeneuve had to chop characters and scenes to reach a viable running time. For another, he had to translate the material into cinematic language. He also had to study up on the Lebanese civil war from 1975 and 1990, a series of brutal attacks and reprisals between Christians and Muslims.

"It took six months before I put down the first word," says Villeneuve. The play "was so big, and talking about things that I didn't know."

Villeneuve received Mouawad's blessing, but not his assistance on the script. In fact, the rights to the material were accompanied by an instruction from the playwright: Make the story your own. Villeneuve's love of the story eventually won out over his fear as he waded into Mouawad's universe and realized that it could be captured on film.

"It's a road trip, a quest in a new country, so of course it's cinematic," says Villeneuve. "As a filmmaker, I was looking at the play and saying to myself, [the characters are] talking about space, but I can show it. They are talking about events all the time, but I can show what the events are."

Those events happen in both the present day and in flashbacks---a cinematic contrivance that Villeneuve says he normally doesn't like---as twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan go to Lebanon, as per their late mother's will, to discover shocking family secrets dating back to the days of the war.

Villeneuve shot most of the film in Jordan, where local crew members and non-professional actors helped him create realistic depictions of strife. "There were people participating on the film crew or in front of the camera who were from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan. There were Palestinian people," he says. "They were sharing their stories with me and I was very touched by their willingness to share their experience."

Though a warring nation forms the backdrop, Villeneuve says Incendies isn't really a war film: "To me the film is less about war and more about family. It's more about the way anger is thriving inside family members, and the children have to get rid of the anger of their parents in order to become real adults."

Incendies also represents a growing up of sorts for Villeneuve, whose previous films Maelstrom and Polytechnique marked him as a filmmaker unafraid to tackle tough subjects. His latest is equally powerful, but made with the confident assurance of a master craftsman. And although a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film has him feeling the Oscar love, Villeneuve says he's more interested in audiences than baubles.

"With my first feature film, I was like a prizes addict. I wanted prizes, for my ego. Being nominated is a beautiful compliment, but I think my ego is more grounded now." His career, on the other hand, is soaring.

Incendies opens Friday, February 18


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