A journey of discovery to the Middle East

By Loren King
Globe Correspondent / May 15, 2011

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From the moment the curtain fell on a 2004 Montreal production of Wajdi Mouawad’s Middle East-set play “Incendies’’ (“Scorched’’), Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve wanted to bring the explosive family and war drama to the screen. “It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,’’ he says of the play. “At the end, there was silence, like in a church. I immediately jumped on Wajdi to get the rights for it.’’

That, it turned out, was the easy part. “Wajdi said when he gave me the rights, ‘You are totally free, you can do what you want. I’m going back to Paris and I cannot help you. You’re alone in this and you’re going to suffer.’ . . . It was six months before I was able to put a word on paper. I froze.

“I’m from Canada, from winter. I know nothing about this world; I know nothing about war,’’ says Villeneuve, whose soft-spoken manner seems at odds with his searing film about the personal and mythic effects of religious and political violence. “Incendies,’’ nominated for the foreign language film Oscar this year, takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country that mirrors Lebanon during the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990. Mouawad, born there in 1968, fled when he was 8 and moved to Quebec in 1983.

“Incendies’’ takes the viewer on two harrowing journeys that connect past and present. The first begins in Quebec, where college-age twins, Simon (Maxim Gau) and Jeanne (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin), learn that their late mother, Nawal (Lubna Azabal), left a final wish that her children travel to her war-ravaged homeland to seek the truth about her past, and theirs. Entwined with this search is the journey that Nawal undertook as a young woman fleeing her hometown for the city and witnessing the horrors of war along the way.

Villeneuve, 43, calls his film “a modern Greek tragedy.’’ “I was amazed by the way Wajdi was able to deal with the intimate, the political, and the mythological at the same time.’’ The challenge, he says, was transforming a dialogue-driven play set largely in refugee camps and a jail cell into an expansive, epic film. In opening the landscape while scaling back the dialogue, Villeneuve cites one of his favorites movies, “Apocalypse Now,’’ and silent films as his influences. In the opening sequence of young boys undergoing a militia-style head-shaving, the soundtrack pulses with Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?’’

Except for a few sequences shot in Canada, “Incendies’’ was filmed in Jordan, says Villeneuve, because “the landscape is not torn apart by war.’’ The Lebanon of Mouawad’s plays and novels was off-limits because it remains “a war zone. . . . I did not want to make a war film in a place where people are rebuilding their houses. When I was writing the script, I knew to be careful with reality, because with this civil war the alliances changed over and over. The more I learned about this country, the more I got confused. It’s so complicated, and my goal was to let the audience feel the complexity of this.’’

The crew on the 40-day shoot included Jordanian, French, and Canadian members, with Iraqi refugees serving as extras, says Villeneuve. “It was very touching because they need the work; they are faithful and reliable and I love them. I felt responsible to them to share their experiences. For them, this was real. During the scene when the bus explodes, there was a mother who said, ‘I want the children to understand why we left [Iraq].’ We must share those experiences with the rest of world.’’

Villeneuve studied science at the Montreal campus of the University of Quebec, then spent a year traveling the world shooting short documentaries for Radio-Canada. “That was my film school,’’ he says. “I went all over the world, alone, with just my video camera.’’

His acclaimed “Maelstrom’’ (2000), a dark foray into a woman’s life after she has a near-death experience, earned critical raves. Except for a couple of shorts, Villeneuve didn’t make another film for nine years. “Polytechnique’’ (2009), about the 1989 massacre of female students at the University of Montreal, was another critical success. Despite his resume, he says he is not drawn to large-scale tragedy, calamitous events, or films that feature women dealing with brutal violence. “I’d love to make a comedy or musical,’’ he laughs. (That won’t be the case if, as has been recently reported, Villeneuve is attached to his first Hollywood film, the vigilante drama “Prisoners’’.)

Villeneuve says his only need as a filmmaker is to be fully engaged. “The past five years, I’ve been making ‘Incendies,’ ’’ he says. “It is a privilege — and a sacrifice, because I have a family. When I make a film, I’m gone for a long time, so I need a strong emotional connection to the subject to be away from my [three] kids and my wife. . . . I don’t want to make movies just for the sake of making movies. I love cinema. I want to fall in love with the story.’’

Loren King can be reached at

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