Interview: Mira Shaib on ‘Arzé’ and the Personal Journey Inspired by Real Life

In Mira Shaib’s debut feature film, audiences are immersed in the bustling streets and vibrant life of Beirut through the compelling narrative of Arzé. The film chronicles the journey of Arzé (Diamand Abou Abboud), a single mother who is struggling to make ends meet. However, she never shies away from dealing with situations and navigates the challenges of life with determination. She lives with her agoraphobic older sister and teenage son, Kinan, played by Bilal Al Hamwi. Arzé is the sole bread-earner for her family and runs a small business of homemade pies. To make things easier, Arzé buys a scooter for her son so that the deliveries are made faster. However, things go downhill when the scooter gets stolen. Subsequently, Arze embarks on a journey to find the scooter and get to know the harsh reality of the society that we live in.

Director Mira Shaib has done a phenomenal job of showcasing the real Beirut in the film and doesn’t shy away from telling the world how Lebanon suffers. It is a poignant exploration of family bonds and the indomitable spirit that thrives in adversity in one of the Middle East’s most dynamic urban landscapes. We recently had the chance to talk with the director, Mira Shaib, over Zoom during the Tribeca Film Festival and discuss how she managed to infuse such crucial themes in a movie that talks about relationships.

The Interview with Arzé Director Mira Shaib

Aayush Sharma: Congratulations on Arzé. Such a beautiful film that tackles some really important themes. But before talking about the movie, I would love to know about your foray into the entertainment industry. Did you always want to be a filmmaker or decided to pursue it as time passed?

Mira Shaib: I got that question yesterday from a friend, actually. I was just like, have you always wanted to be a filmmaker? Yeah. Well, yeah, To be honest, yeah. From a from a young age. Well, my brother left Lebanon, like when he was 18, I was still like 10 years old.  So I remember when he left the country back then, we didn’t have phone calls, we didn’t have Internet. So it was like different timing and I was really young.

Mira Shaib: So the way he approached me was by sending me movies, sending me DVDs, which I still have, by the way, a set of DVDs. In a way it became our language, this is how we communicate, when he talks to me and when he speaks to me or when he calls just like for 20 minutes, just not to pay a lot. It was like discussing the movies and whenever he sends gifts back to Lebanon, like you open the bag, you see like makeup and clothes for my mom and my sister and a bag of DVDs for me.

Mira Shaib: So in a way anyway, thanks to him, he enabled that and he encouraged that but he was not pushing or anything. It just like happened. I saw this world. I was watching movies, and some movies I didn’t even understand what I was watching. But I remember that I used to skip anything, everything, just to sit at home alone and not spend time with anyone to watch movies. And that’s when I was like, OK, I don’t understand how this is done. I’m too young for this. But I know that I don’t want to be an actress. I want to do what they’re doing.

Mira Shaib: And since, a very young age, like we’re talking 13-14, I was like, I’m definitely gonna push through and through to become a film director. I believe that patience is the key to all of this. It’s not easy. It’s a very, very tough industry to get into. But if you stay patient and if you believe in yourself, one day you’re going to become the director that you want to be.

Aayush Sharma: Talking about Arzé, the film starts as a simple film about a family failing to make ends meet. However, as the story progresses, we get to know the reality. What inspired you to create a story centered around a struggling single mother in Beirut, and how did you develop the character of Arzé?

Mira Shaib: I was offered the movie in 2015. The movie is written by Faissal Sam Shaib and Louay Khraish. Faisal is my brother who had the idea of creating this movie since he was like 18 years old. The idea came from watching our family, from watching the people around, from watching the women in our family and mainly my mother. Those women who we saw struggling, who we saw trying to do anything to fulfill the dreams of their kids, including ours. The struggles that they face in a society that is full of hierarchy, patriarchy, and misogyny. We grew up watching those, those women, me as well.

Mira Shaib: But I saw that and I saw how they did anything to make us live a better life. And then you see Kinan. Kinan is a kid who represents almost every young Lebanese kid. Like, even me, I grew up wanting to leave. This was the only thing I dreamed of. I mean, like, if I leave, I’m gonna have a better life. I’m gonna have a better career. And I left eventually. So yeah, I mean, I mean, sad, you know, looking back at it, it’s sad because now not what the writers and the director are don’t live in Lebanon. They live all over the world.

Mira Shaib: So yeah, so this is how the story came to life. It came to life from real stories, from watching the people around us, from us as well. So he, he watched the Bicycle Thieves, got inspired by the idea of, oh, a bicycle, I need to find it in Beirut and showing the place as it is. Lebanese movies don’t show Lebanon as it is. They never do that. And this was one of my main goals is not to sugarcoat, it’s to use the Italian neorealism wave. It’s to show things as they are and every single place that you saw in the movie, they’re real places. I didn’t change anything. I added stuff.

Mira Shaib: Of course, we played with production inside those are real streets, real places. So we wanted to bring Beirut and the reality to everyone on screen. We wanted to bring the people that we grew up watching to you all, but also those people, not just in Lebanon, they could be anywhere in the world. This is what we try to do with having the message like end of the movie, international, like an international message.

Aayush Sharma: Although the movie briefly talks about the protests and shows a couple of scenes, why did you decide to put the protest in the background? How did you handle the portrayal of socio-economic challenges in Beirut?

Mira Shaib: Let me start with the protest and I’ll go to the social and economic because that was a very tough time when we shot the movie. The protests are to show you that this is our daily lives. We live with it, whether blocking streets, or just moving from place to place, but we keep moving as well as people, well we don’t stop. You know, even those protesters that were on the street, the next day, they’re going to go back to work and they’re going to go at night and protest.

Mira Shaib: And we wanted to show that everything is happening as a backdrop. Beirut is a backdrop. The city is moving, but my character is also moving with the city. She’s part of everything. She’s watching, she’s seeing, she knows what is happening. But now it is time to find the scooter. But we live in this place, we live in this city, and this is what’s happening in the city. So yeah. So it is like a background to show you what is happening in the city. I didn’t want to talk about it or push it visually. I think it was like it makes sense visually, it was clear. So, we didn’t need to talk about it much.

Mira Shaib: We needed just to show that this is what is happening in the meantime as filming this, the whole thing.  I think you know from the question that our situation in Lebanon is, is not easy. And it was very, I’m not gonna lie, it was very tough. We filmed in August, it was already very hot. We filmed 21 locations in 23 days. That was crazy, jumping from one place to another, and during a blackout, no electricity. Economy? No economy.

Mira Shaib: Above all, it was almost a year after the port explosion, and protests happening everywhere and blocking roads everywhere. But we pulled through, we made it happen. We knew it was not going to be easy. We chose the crew that is willing to go through this with us, not to act as a job, to act as a passion because it was a very tough situation, honestly, and long hours and not a lot of vacations. The country is sinking. We needed people to believe in the story. We needed people to be like, I want to make the story come to life.

Aayush Sharma: The conversation between Kinan and Arzé when the mother tells him the truth about his father. It shows how single parents always go through this feeling of wanting to be enough for their children. But we never see Arzé losing her composure, was that deliberate?

Mira Shaib: Oh, yeah, yeah. She’s tough, to be honest, she’s tough. She’s like my mother. She never lost it and no, that was not deliberate. That was a choice, to be honest, between me and the actress. After doing the character’s background, and dissecting the character, Arzé doesn’t lose it. Arzé is always gonna have her composure, Arzé is always gonna push through and through. Because if you are a woman and a single mother living in this country, this is how you have to do it. Or otherwise, you’re not going to make it in this country.

Aayush Sharma: Diamand Abou Abboud is splendid as Arzé and all the other cast members are equally great. Can you talk about the casting process for Arzé, Kinan, and the sister? What qualities were you looking for in the actors who played these roles?

Mira Shaib: Well, I’m gonna first talk about the characters that she meets when she goes on the journey. That was a very deliberate choice. We wanted to bring the characters from their own communities. For example, when she goes to meet the Sunni guy or the Maronite guy or the, they are Catholic, they are Maronites and they are Sunni, they are Shia. We did that on purpose because we wanted, we wanted to show the audience, especially the Lebanese audience that we are not making fun. We are not joking. Those are people from the community, from their own sect saying the problems. So it will honestly, it will resonate more towards them and, and getting the aspect of real accents and getting the aspect of knowing their people, you know, like, it wasn’t that they brought also ideas to me that I did not know.  They brought some lines and some words.

Mira Shaib: So it was easy working like that with them, especially since we did not have a long time to rehearse and to film. So that was on purpose. As for Diamand, Arzé, we sent her the script and once she read the script, we had the first call. She opened the she opened the call, she was crying. I remember looking at the writers and the producers, like we started crying and we were like, ‘OK, OK, OK. No way. No way. No, no, we can’t. Like, it’s her. She knows. She knows what she’s saying.’ Every word she said about the character was every word I had in my head.  I remember seeing my brother and the other writer tearing up. She knows she grew up in a household where her mom used to make Spinach pies when she was young.  She grew up in Beirut. She grew up in such houses. So she knows what she knows about the life of Arzé as well.

Mira Shaib: Kinan was a young actor, 18, a non-professional actor. I really wanted to work with a non-professional actor as well. So it was like we auditioned almost a hundred kids all over town at some point. Me and the casting director and the producer, we’re walking on the streets looking for kids, seeing, which resonates with the character. Until we found Kinan, 18, wanting to leave the country as soon as possible. He’s a spontaneous guy. Everything about him, everything about him was like, that was it? I knew it was gonna be challenging, but I’m someone who’s so into directing actors. So I took all the techniques, techniques that I learned in my master’s and in my bachelor’s and integrated them and found a technique and a method to work with him. And I think that he told me that what he learned with me is going to be used on every set because he believes that. I believe he was perfect in portraying the character.

Mira Shaib: As for the sister, Leila, Leila is also someone who when we were writing the character, we’re like, she’s a pioneer in the Lebanese industry. We’re like, it’s definitely going to be her. And the moment we met her, I remember we were sitting with the producers and the writer and she’s speaking about the character, the way she’s speaking about the character, the way she is saying how she met a woman who’s also has been waiting for her kids who died in the Civil War, but same situation. She can’t leave the spot.

Mira Shaib: And she’s like, she’s talking about it the way she is suggesting outfits and hair and makeup. You know, you feel it. It’s a feeling. You’re like when you speak to someone and they get you, you’d be like, ‘OK,’ I mean, it is not a job. We’re gonna collaborate together. We’re gonna create this character together. As much as I rewrote, as much as I had ideas in my mind, I needed each one of them to give me their own input to create what I created.

Aayush Sharma: What was the reasoning behind choosing a delivery scooter as the pivotal object in the film’s plot?

Mira Shaib: Because this is Beirut, this is Lebanon. This is how all deliveries happen on a scooter, on a jog. We don’t have other means, for example, cars or bicycles, because we don’t have bicycle lanes or anything. We have scooters. So I grew up in a city where it is, what we call organized chaos because when you go on the street, the cars are all over the place, and between the cars you have scooters. So at some point, it was easier to get a scooter and ride it to reach your destination because of the timing of the cars and the traffic. So I even rode a scooter at some point in my life because for me it was easier if you see the production, like some of the production crew were always on the scooters going to get stuff and coming back. It is a very common Lebanese thing. It’s a way like it’s, it’s all over the place. If you visit one day, you’re gonna remember the movie, I promise.

Aayush Sharma: The film was selected for the Cairo International Film Festival, but the festival got canceled because of the ongoing war. This war just keeps on getting worse and worse for the common people. I just wanted to know, if you can, your thoughts on what’s happening.

Mira Shaib: I’m very glad that people are seeing the truth in a way when other people have their eyes are they’re getting more knowledge, they’re getting more attention to the details that happening in our region. Because at some point we always felt like we need to teach people and it’s not my place to teach people about everything that is happening around the world. You can have your own opinion, you can read, you can see what is happening. So at some point, we got tired of teaching and, now seeing the new generation growing up and realizing how tough it is the region is what’s going happening in the region and seeing that this is also the lives that we’ve been through.  Lebanon has been in trouble and, war, almost all since I grew up and I and the writers, we all left Lebanon for a lot of reasons, including the trouble that is happening in the region.

Mira Shaib: So if I think the region is going to get better, I really do hope for the generations that are growing up there to have to live in a peaceful world. Because of all the trauma and the PTSD that I grew up in and my brother and I grew up in, we’re going to carry them all our lives. It’s not something I wish upon anyone. I just wish for people to have their minds open, read more, have more knowledge about the situation, and learn what is going on in the region and not just believe the news that they’re reading because the news has been lying all their lives. So just like, understand that it is unfair for the whole people, for everyone living in the region to live that way.

Aayush Sharma: What do you hope audiences will take away from Arzé and Kinan’s journey through the film, and how do you want them to feel at the end of the story?

Mira Shaib: Well, for the Lebanese audience specifically, I hope that they come out of the movie with a smile and hope that the country hopefully is going to be better. Only if we change as people because we’re all the same. And that’s what the movie is trying to tell you, everyone, that, oh, look around, we’re all pin-pointing. We’re all saying the same words, just like change, and once you change as people, your country is going to get better and we’re going to be able to live again in our country.

Mira Shaib: As for the international audience, I want to see if the story is going to resonate with them. I want to see how they’re going to see Beirut.  I found Beirut as it is. I didn’t change anything. The streets are the same. I tried my best to go around the whole city and I want them to see it. See it and tell me how it resonated with them. Additionally, I want them to tell me about the relationship between the mother and the son and because it is not a Lebanese relationship, we all can go through this. There’s a single mother everywhere in the world, mothers and women struggling everywhere in the world. A lot of kids everywhere in the world want to leave their countries and go and live a better life. So I just really want to see how they’re going to react after they see the movie and what are they going to think about Beirut.

Mira Shaib’s photo by Adil Boukind.

Arzé recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Learn more about the film at the Tribeca website for the title.

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