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From adman to director

Leo Burnett MENA’s chief creative officer, Bechara Mouzannar, talks to Iain Akerman about his first venture into short film making

It’s just gone midnight and Bechara Mouzannar is holding an impromptu screening of his first ever short film. There are only three of us in the audience, a party is in full swing downstairs, and there’s no popcorn. This is what happens at the Dubai Lynx.

A few years in the making, Apelo is Mouzannar’s first foray into non-branded work. It is also his first experience as an actor, portraying himself in a film that he also directed and co-produced, and which was inspired by an event that occurred during his inaugural trip to Brazil in 2007. It is, he says, the story of a Lebanese tourist adrift in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

Shot over six nights in September last year, the main market for the short will be Brazil, although a life on the international short film festival circuit is hoped for, followed by an art house cinema release and then distribution online.

For the chief creative officer at Leo Burnett MENA it is new ground and undoubtedly nerve-racking. Opening yourself up to public scrutiny is not to be taken lightly, nor are issues of art and commerciality, although the process of creation is of the purest value.

“It is an unbranded project and, if there is any hidden brand, I am the brand for a change,” says Mouzannar with the hint of a smile. “Yet the purpose is mankind and the audience universal. And to be honest, the exercise of telling an unbranded story several times while evolving it into a script and then getting into the joyful complexity of making it a film has been the most thrilling and the most humbling exercise. It has been the greatest experience in my long carrier in storytelling and I would be a fool if I did not do this again.”

Set during his first night in Rio de Janeiro, the film traces “a life-changing experience; a real moment of truth that made me look at things differently” says Mouzannar by way of explanation, although he has recounted the story to me previously. “That story kept on resonating in my mind for a while, before I started to tell it to family and friends and colleagues. Every time I was telling the story there were people asking me to tell it again to their friends, which I did at dinner parties, in bars, on the beach, on the plane, at weddings, during client dinners and in several cities around the world. Every time I was unconsciously evolving the storytelling by adding a few nuances until the moment it became almost a script in my mind.

“Then Mark Tutssel – global chief creative officer at Leo Burnett – suggested I make a film out of it. This instantly made sense to me. I had had previous experience directing commercials, but the perspective of writing and directing a story of my own – and for once, unbranded – made me find the time and the energy to make Apelo.”

Co-produced by Mouzannar alongside Lebanese-French film producer Georges Schoucair and Cinerama Brasilis’ Mario Nakamura, the film’s main funding is Brazilian, with the entire crew from Brazil and post-production also taking place in Rio de Janeiro. Co-written by Renata Vieira, Mouzannar learnt Portuguese in order to be able to co-write the script. “Since there’s a big difference between a story that is told orally and a story that is told on screen, I had to re-write it four different times before I felt almost satisfied with the structure. The director of photography, Dudu Miranda, helped give me exactly – and with beautiful added value – the style and the depth of cinematography that I was foreseeing for this film, and one of the most-talented legends of Bossa Nova, Maria Creuza, sang the main title song, Apelo, especially for the film.”

A year and a half ago, sitting amidst the avant-garde photography, woodcarvings and decorative custom-made wallpaper of contemporary Lebanese restaurant Liza in Achrafieh, we spoke of bringing personal projects to life. Is negative critical reaction a killer that renders work void? Or is the very process of creation the most important factor? Either way, Mouzannar has created a human story that is based on a very personal experience, one that also relates to Mouzannar’s childhood and his Brazilian grandmother. Is this what he hoped he would create?

“It is indeed a very human story,” he replies. “It also talks about communication and miscommunication between human beings of different cultures. It also makes you feel that Rio is not only beautiful for its landscapes, but more importantly for its people. What happened to me did happen for a reason. It made me curious to know more about Brazil – the country where my grandmother was born, and which had been almost forgotten by my family. In my mind what happened triggered a quest for knowledge of Brazilian culture, which made me later seek and get Brazilian citizenship, which was my right, after all, by blood and by law.”



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