From Beirut to New York and (almost) Cannes: a filmmaker’s journey

A view shows Lebanese film maker Jimmy Keyrouz on the set of the movie "Broken keys" in Biakout, Lebanon. (File/Reuters)
Short Url
Updated 20 June 2020

From Beirut to New York and (almost) Cannes: a filmmaker’s journey

  • Revolution…pandemic…the incredible story of the making of Jimmy Keyrouz’s debut feature is almost as dramatic as the film itself
  • Next up for Keyrouz is a film about corruption, which is a topical choice given the current unrest in many countries

PARIS: The process of making his debut feature film has turned out to be a bittersweet experience for Lebanese director and screenwriter, Jimmy Keyrouz.
Not only was the filming of “Broken Keys” in his homeland interrupted first by a revolution and then by a global pandemic, but it was unveiled this month as an official selection for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival — after the event had to be canceled for only the second time in its 74-year history, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Still, he said, he is humbled and honored his movie was chosen by the prestigious festival.
The film is clearly a labor of love for 32-year-old Keyrouz, not least because it was filmed in his homeland.
“Lebanon is not a country where there are many feature films produced every year,” he said. “I always wanted to make feature films but it seemed Lebanon was focused on commercials and music videos, with feature films far from usual. Now, however, they are more common.”
Keyrouz, whose family comes from Bcharre in northern Lebanon, began making films during his undergraduate studies at the French-Lebanese Saint Joseph University in Beirut. He said his father was initially skeptical of his career choice but both parents eventually supported his dream, which led him to Columbia University in New York City.
“I wanted to learn as much as possible, so that is why I applied to the top five schools in the US and, in fact, was accepted by three of them,” he said. “I chose Columbia because the school is focused on writing, so my M.A. was in screenwriting and directing. I always thought that becoming a better writer would make me a better storyteller and, therefore, a better film director.”
The seeds for “Broken Keys” — which is produced by Antoun Sehnaoui, the Lebanese-French producer of Ziad Doueiri’s “The Insult,” and features music by award-winning French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared — can be found in his studies in the US.
“Before graduating I had to make a film for my thesis in 2014, and this is how ‘Broken Keys’ came about,” said Keyrouz. “I wanted to write about something I could relate to, and at that time I was following the wars in Syria and Iraq.
“When I heard what Daesh was doing, I was deeply shocked. They had banned music, and it was inconceivable to me that something as beautiful and as innocent as music should be banned.”
Keyrouz, who plays the piano as a hobby, then came across a news story about a pianist and other musicians who continued to play music in the midst of war and starvation, which he found deeply moving and inspirational.
“It is easy to say bad things about war but it is very difficult to send a message of hope in the darkest times, and those musicians who kept on with their music were inspiring in many ways,” he said.
“I wrote a short film, ‘Nocturne in Black,’ which was shot in 2015. It won the student Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same institution that awards the Oscars every year. There is a special (awards event) for films by students and in 2016, out of 1749 films, my team and I won the Gold Medal (in the narrative category). The film was later on Amazon and shown on….French TV.”
His next project was a feature documentary about climate change, and then in 2018 he decided to start work on a feature film because “that is the path every director follows.” His particular path took him back to his roots.
“I had to come back from New York to shoot in Lebanon, where I met producer Antoun Sehnaoui,” said Keyrouz. “He had produced a film, ‘The Insult,’ which I thought was excellent. Antoun loved the idea of my film and we started preproduction last July.
“Our screenplay….was one of six selected from more than a thousand by Black List, a Los Angeles-based institution that recognizes the best screenplays every year. I was selected for their annual feature lab. Getting that recognition from Black List was an early victory for our entire team and gave us more confidence as we went into production in October.”
Filming began in Lebanon and then moved to Mosul in Iraq because Keyrouz wanted the film to be as authentic as possible. The stars are all familiar faces in Lebanon, with the main role taken by Tarek Yaacoub, who also appeared in “Nocturne in Black.”
“The story takes place in a war-ravaged, Middle-Eastern, Daesh-controlled neighborhood,” he said. “It concerns a pianist who struggles to rebuild his piano, which was destroyed by terrorists because music was banned. He dreams of a musical career in Europe, or anywhere, but cannot pursue his dream because of where he is.
“In Mosul, we shot the film in the last place where Daesh fought and then we returned to Lebanon — just as the Oct. 17 revolution broke out and we had to stop shooting. Then we were able to start again but were stopped in Feb. by COVID-19, and we had to work remotely.”
Given the themes of the film, music plays an important role and Keyrouz said he was honored to have Yared provide the score, not only because he is an Oscar and Grammy-winning composer who worked on films such as “The English Patient,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain,” but “because he is extremely inspiring and talented and has a Middle-Eastern background.”
He added: “I thought it would be great to collaborate with him and I had a wonderful time working with him and observing him.”
Next up for Keyrouz is a film about corruption, which is a topical choice given the current unrest in many countries, not least Lebanon.
“I made a documentary in 2018 about the social impact of climate change in Africa,” he said. “I have always loved the natural world, and enjoy hiking and planting. When I was younger, my dad and I used to plant apple trees in his garden.
“At present, climate change is the most urgent issue and that is why I am writing about corruption and destruction such as we have seen in the rainforests of Indonesia and the Amazon. I care passionately about these things.”


Egypt collector accumulated over 100 vintage cars

Updated 28 October 2020

Egypt collector accumulated over 100 vintage cars

  • Among the famous figures who once rode one of Sima’s cars was former Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat
  • Sima’s oldest car is an Auburn which he acquired in the 1980s

CAIRO: Sayed Sima says he was around 25 years old when he began collecting vintage cars, attracted by their beauty and rarity. They were also relatively cheap.
More than half a century later Sima, a nickname derived from the Egyptian slang for cinema, says he now owns hundreds of vintage cars, some of which he keeps in Egypt’s Media Production City where directors often rent the antiques for shows and films.


Sima’s oldest car is an Auburn which he acquired in the 1980s.
“This is of course a very rare car, a car that is entirely a piece of antique,” he said, while sitting in the Auburn showcasing its wooden frame and steel coating.
“Its original tank is still inside. It’s a beautiful car. Its structure is all wood.”
Sima remains fascinated by the way older cars operate.
His 38-year-old son, Ayman, shares this peculiar passion. He grew up seeing his father’s cars in movies.


“I also liked how I saw these cars on movie screens. I would see a movie and think, oh it is our car,” he said.
Among the famous figures who once rode one of Sima’s cars was former Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat, whose presidential car was a black 1975 Chevrolet Impala, said Sima.