Joshua Leonard: Hollywood's go-to guy for daring movie-making

In this file photo taken on February 21, 2018 US actor Joshua Leonard (L) and US director Steven Soderbergh (R) pose during the photo call for the film "Unsane" presented in competition during the 68th edition of the Berlinale film festival in Berlin. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2018
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Joshua Leonard: Hollywood's go-to guy for daring movie-making

LOS ANGELES: Ever since Joshua Leonard helped reinvent indie filmmaking as a star of found-footage pioneer "The Blair Witch Project," he has been something of a go-to guy for groundbreaking, no-budget cinema.
Two decades on he's at it again, in an acclaimed but deeply unsettling role as a stalker in "Unsane" -- filmed entirely on an iPhone by Oscar-winning auteur Steven Soderbergh ("Erin Brockovich," "Traffic").
"The only reason I have a career still is that we availed ourselves of new technology and unprecedented techniques 20 years ago with 'Blair Witch,'" said Leonard, 42, enthusing about how low-fi filmmaking appeals to his impatient streak.
"I think it's the reason that I was so excited when I got called in to make this project, because I love making films much more than I love waiting to make films," he told AFP ahead its US release on Friday.
"Unsane" stars British actress Claire Foy, of the Netflix series "The Crown", as Pennsylvania office worker Sawyer Valentini, who has left her hometown under mysterious circumstances.
After an online dating encounter leaves her upset, she seeks help from a counselor at a local clinic, who tells her to sign a routine form before she leaves.
Within minutes, she is committed to a mental institution against her will and pumped full of pills.
A fellow patient whose background may be more interesting than he is letting on, tells her she's been locked away as part of an insurance scam but that if she keeps her head down, she will be released within days.
However when Sawyer encounters Leonard's character, an orderly she claims has been stalking her for two years, the audience begins to question her sanity as well.

Roundly praised

Leonard's nuanced, half-pathetic, half-terrifying performance has been roundly praised since the movie premiered in Berlin's film festival in February, although the acclaim has done nothing for his family life.
"I just I felt terrible that my wife had to watch it, come home and sleep next to me. I want to try to figure out a way that my 15-month-old daughter never sees it when she's a teenager," he says, laughing.
Understandably, much has been made of the iPhone novelty but the medium has overshadowed the message to some extent, with headlines concentrating on how the film was made, rather than what it has to say.
Ostensibly a Kafkaesque satire of the medical insurance racket, "Unsane" is as much a part of the #MeToo moment as any red carpet protest since the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct scandal ignited.
Foy's brittle, irritable Sawyer isn't believed when she complains about her stalker, those in charge of her care assuming she is delusional.
The significance of a woman screaming to be heard in the face of threatening male sexuality, as various characters try to "gaslight" her by telling her the ordeal is all in her head, is not lost on Leonard.
"Unsane," he points out, was filmed before Weinstein was accused of litany of sex offenses, but he adds that "anything that furthers the discussion is a good thing."
Ironically, real-life unfair treatment of women has thrust Foy into the limelight recently, with the producers of "The Crown" admitting she was paid less for her award-winning performances than co-star Matt Smith.
"It's a conversation that is long overdue, and I think we've been operating off an old paradigm for far too long," Leonard told AFP.
"Bringing some of this information to light, like the pay gap disparity, is the first step in actually making real and lasting change. "

A divided career

Leonard has divided his career between appearing in television that you might recognize -- "Bates Motel," "True Detective," "CSI: Miami" and the like -- and cinema you almost certainly won't.
Cast as the steadfast cameraman Josh in "The Blair Witch Project," Leonard balanced shooting the 16mm footage with improvising the increasingly-creepy turn of events alongside Heather Donahue and Michael Williams.
Since its inauspicious release on 27 screens in 1999, the pioneering film from Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick has been hailed as a modern horror classic, despite having no special effects, monsters or gore.
It made use of viral online marketing in a way no movie had attempted before and, despite its tiny $60,000 budget, managed to make $248 million worldwide.
"I laugh at how young I look -- that terrible mid-90s bachelor," he chuckles.
The movie spawned myriad imitations -- including a couple of its own ropey sequels -- with found-footage movies such as "Cloverfield," "Rec" and "Paranormal Activity" saturating the market over the following years.
Rather than capitalizing on his sudden fame, Leonard stuck steadfastly to smaller independent films and working the festival circuit.
"When you only want to spend $3 on your film, call Josh Leonard," he jokes.
Leonard says working with Soderbergh, an avid innovator who likes to play with genres and formats, felt like a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" -- but he wasn't expecting a theatrical release to come of it.
"That surprised and excited the hell out of all of us," Leonard said. "Wherever it takes me, I'm excited to keep telling stories in whatever manner best suits the story."


The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.