There’s no power when Serge and his girlfriend Leila arrive at his parents’ apartment in “Heaven Without People,” but that hardly means there isn’t a charged environment inside. Although the generators have been turned off by state authorities in Lebanon since noon on Easter Sunday, an electrical current runs through the house where plates of fattoush and kibe are passed around with abandon, with even more food brought out by the family matriarch Josephine since the refrigerator no longer works. But it isn’t just the hummus that’s not keeping its cool as Leila is obviously nervous about something, unable to eat as she holds her bladder awaiting the bathroom to be unoccupied, which may take awhile since Serge’s 17-year-old cousin Sami holes up there to protest his mom’s decision to force him to spend the holiday with his family rather than go out with his friends. Meanwhile, there’s heated debate at the table where Yara, the youngest member of the clan is busy peeling shells off Easter eggs and the rest of the family is busy tiptoeing on top of them as discussion veers from the state of the country’s economy and government to the benefits of living abroad. It also becomes obvious at a certain point that Josephine’s constant trips to the kitchen aren’t necessarily to get food, and after discovering that $12,000 that had been in her purse to pay off various bills is no longer there, tensions somehow rise even higher than they already are.
Writer/director Lucien Bourjeily doesn’t give either the family or the audience much of a breather, filming “Heaven Without People” in long, unbroken takes that follow the flow of conversation and bring out its inherent energy and passion. But the result is refreshing as the candid discourse amongst the motley members of the household reveal both the beauty and challenges of living in the modern-day Middle East where antiquated customs die hard but some traditions that remain strong, such as, say, gathering together for holidays, continue to have great value. There is also an undeniable liveliness that emerges from Bourjeily’s use of a largely nonprofessional cast, both gregarious and unpredictable as they share a meal and subsequently a mystery as they try to figure out how Josephine’s money went missing. Shortly after the film’s premiere at the L.A. Film Festival, part of a celebrated festival run that began in Dubai, Bourjeily and star Farah Shaer spoke about the on-set environment that let life take over the film, the intense awareness to detail required to shoot such long takes and coalescing into a real family.
Lucien Bourjeily: I wanted to tell a story [about] where we are today in Lebanon and how it all starts [with] the relationship of families, in that sense [of going] from the micro to the macro. The main plot is based on a story that I heard from a very close friend of mine who had a similar story [of] money being lost or stolen. We still don’t know, and because of this money, the whole family was tense for a long while. Of course, this is what makes the film move forward, but what is most important for me is the human relationships and the psychology of how these characters interact together and what are they hiding and how much truth and how much lies are within what they say and from normal small talk, what is really underneath, not being said. So we wanted a kind of family [with] a wide range of characters, some that I’ve encountered in real life and some of them are a mixture between real life and fiction that represent Lebanese society in one way or another, or in a broader sense, Arab society as a whole.
How did you find your family?
Lucien Bourjeily: It was a very long and tedious casting process because we first got 2500 people and then we had to [marrow it down to] 250 until the 13 that make up the family.
Farah Shaer: Like half the cast, I’ve taken acting workshops with Lucien and and we did so many long rehearsals over two months in order to look like a real family, [where] we were getting to know each other on a personal level and more and more about those characters, so there’s a history before the actual day where the film takes place.
Lucien Bourjeily: At the first reading, there were some things that we changed to better reflect the people that are chosen for these roles, and we didn’t do any rehearsals during the next two weeks to rewrite the script, based on the actors that were cast. Then afterwards, there was still a lot of small changes that were happening during shooting, depending on what was happening in the moment, but even though when you look at it, you feel it’s improvisation because it is very spontaneous in how the characters are talking to each other, it was actually in the script where you have two dialogues happening at the same time. It was one of the difficulties reading the script to understand who’s talking with who because everybody’s talking with each other at the same time. [I wanted it to be] like what happens usually at lunch where you know on whom to concentrate, even though there’s two people talking to each other, [based on] who is more important for you as a listener and how it diverts and in a very subtle way, without editing it, it gets from one story to the next one to a third one while always keeping it up as a unity of time and space, which makes it a movie.
There were some very long takes – what is that like to do?
Lucien Bourjeily: Some shots we did 29 times and they’re long shots.
Farah Shaer: And we had a lot of food!
Lucien Bourjeily: Yes, the food [was challenging] because when you have a long shot, any small mistake at any part of it makes you need to repeat the whole thing and it’s very hard to have everything perfectly done, [especially with] so many people. The last take [of the film] is 15 minutes, so it’s very hard to have everything work out as much as you wanted, so that’s why we needed a lot of rehearsals before putting the camera on because the camera needed to be choreographed in a very precise way, so it doesn’t get in the way of characters moving around in this tight space.
Farah Shaer: Yeah, it was tough and interesting at the same time to do so many takes when you have food involved and [of course] I had the hungry character, so I had 29 takes with food involved and I had to look hungry each take. [laughs] You also has to be spontaneous in the way you were eating and focusing on lines. I remember after the film, the whole cast including me, spent six months not eating any food like the food we had in the film – rice and chicken. Never. For six months, we couldn’t handle anymore.
No kibe and fattoush for you!
Farah Shaer: No, no. [laughs] And we used to [eat] them at like 6:30 or 7 in the morning. And fattoush is sour, and each take you have to look hungry, [like you’re] doing the take for the first time, so that was tough.
But the food looks so good onscreen.
Lucien Bourjeily: Yes, it’s a different experience for the actors.
Farah Shaer: And also continuity. Even though it’s one shot, everything still had [to be in the same place if we reshot it].
Lucien Bourjeily: So everybody’s cups are the same…
Farah Shaer: And we’re eating the same bite at that [same specific] line, but we needed to look very spontaneous and natural.
Lucien Bourjeily: The continuity was a real challenge because we had so many people and so much food. We took a lot of time in between takes to make sure everything is reset, [like] how many cucumbers are still on the table.
Farah Shaer: Yes, there was one time a cucumber was [missing] and nobody remembered whether they are it or not!
Lucien Bourjeily: My most recent work in theater has been immersive theater, which is when you as an audience don’t sit in a chair anymore. You’re moving around, for example, inside a house or you are on a bus and the actors are next to you and you’re talking with them, so you become totally immersed in the world. I like to [use] the best format for each story for the viewer to have the most intense [experience]. This story could’ve been an immersive play where one audience member would come into a house, sit at the dinner table and everybody else is an actor, but you’re not, watching whatever is happening and you have the choice of moving around inside the house and seeing what’s happening in the kitchen or inside the bathroom. But that would’ve been unfeasible because so many people would working just for the sake of a one-person audience watching it. That’s why I chose the camera to be this audience and one of the reasons why the camera doesn’t cut – to keep the intensity because if you are there, you don’t cut. You are actually watching. You move your head, you go around and you choose where you want to be and this is the immersion aspect of it.
Farah, there any detail that unlocks the character for you?
Farah Shaer: The more rehearsals, the more time we had to prep, it gave us more time to know more about the character and the whole family and what the energy [would be like] between us. And there was also one interesting thing that Lucien didn’t tell us – the last three pages of the film were not given to us until we were shooting the ending of the film, so all of the time we were shooting the film, we were wondering who really stole the money, so it really helped us as actors not to know the ending, especially because we’re all first time film actors. We were able to really have the discipline of being focused on the characters and the story so that when we started to shoot the ending, we could only focus on the ending.
Was it difficult to find a location to shoot this?
Lucien Bourjeily: Actually, the location is my parents’ house in the mountain, so the only hard thing was that I needed my parents to be on a vacation because of this really invasive process of so many people coming in, so I had to wait until my mother had gone traveling that summer to visit my sister here in the U.S. It was a perfect opportunity, so I [asked my mother], “Look, would it be okay if I shoot this film?” And of course, she didn’t know what was going to happen or how many people were going to be there, but she said “Okay,” and we shot and it went fine, but after three months, she was always telling me, “Oh, but I’m not finding this or that…” [laughs]
Farah Shaer: Stuff was moved.
Lucien Bourjeily: Even though I talked with the production designers to make sure they take pictures of everything and they can put it back as it was! But there’s still a spoon up until now that is missing, or something like that, and my mother always reminds me about it. Other than that, we were very lucky because it was where I spent my childhood, so it helped a lot when we wanted to shoot it because I had really envisioned how the best way to shoot it. I remember one of the first viewers of the film, an editor in Lebanon, said, “How the camera moves around this house, it really feels like someone knows each inch and every corner or every aspect of it.”
The film has actually premiered in Lebanon. What was it like showing it locally?
Lucien Bourjeily: It was really great. The only problem was in Lebanon, the state authorities censored the film. It’s like saying to a painter, “This is your painting, but we’re going to cut out a part of it and then it’s still your painting.” It’s not really the same. At first, I was trying very hard not to have this kind of censorship, but the problem is that they told me if you do not accept the cuts, the whole film will be banned, so I told them, “No, I prefer that people actually see the film,” and additionally they said, “You should not say that it was cut.” That was the biggest issue. I wanted people to know at least that this version of the film has been cut by the authorities and they didn’t even want me to say it because if I say it, it would be bad PR for them, so I had to abide by that publicly, and the only people that heard about it were from personal interactions and sometimes from Q & As. But I’m very happy that here in the U.S., it’s going to be played fully as it is and in all other places. But in Lebanon, people really enjoyed the film and some people were very moved by it. They talked to us after the film about their personal experiences and this is why I personally like to do art and theater and film – if it gives you this incentive to think and to talk about it afterwards, this is what a perfect ending. When somebody calls me and tells me the next day, “My wife and I spent until 2 a.m. discussing it,” this is the best feedback I’ve heard.