DUBAI: By his own admission, Wissam Charaf leads “a schizophrenic life.” The Lebanese writer and director, whose second feature — “Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous” — had its regional premiere at the Red Sea International Film Festival this week, is a journalist (“because cinema doesn’t put food on the table”). But the dry, factual approach he must take to his day job is not carried over to his filmmaking.
“Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous” is, ostensibly, a love story set in Beirut. Its two central characters (“marginals who love each other,” Charaf says) are Ahmed (Ziad Jallad) — a Syrian refugee who scrapes a living selling scrap metal — and Mehdia (Clara Couturet), an Ethiopian housemaid working for the ailing Ibrahim and his wife Leila.
“I pictured these two dehumanized carrying machines — a Syrian refugee carrying heavy scrap metal on his shoulders, and carrying the load of the war that he witnessed, and this young lady who’s helping her ‘mister’ to walk,” Charaf tells Arab News. “I’ve seen these same two (people) on the streets round my bourgeois building in the posh neighborhood of Beirut where I live: two Sisyphus, two Atlases.”
But Charaf didn’t want to tell a straightforward love story. He’s not a straightforward filmmaker. “I’m a bit of punk,” he says. He is largely self-taught, and says he learned to direct “by watching movies,” particularly during his time in France, where he fell in love with arthouse cinema. “I would watch crazy movies,” he says. “Films that make you dream.”
So there are fantastical elements running through “Dirty, Difficult, Dangerous.” Ahmed, for example, is afflicted by a mysterious condition.
“My wife’s a visual artist too — we’re big fans of (late horror actor) Bela Lugosi, Bauhaus (the German art movement of the early 20th century), (Japanese body-horror film) ‘Tetsuo’ … all kinds of crazy stuff,” Charaf explains. “So we came up with this metaphor of a guy whose arm is turning into metal because he’s seen the war and it’s corrupting him from the inside. This immense sadness is killing him from the inside.”
Ahmed’s condition is also inspired by Charaf’s own experiences. When he was nine, he says, he was badly wounded by an Israeli grenade. “I got shrapnel all over my body — I’ve still got some in my head, my legs. And it was, like, revenge for my body, expelling this metal. It’s happened a few times, I’ll expel shrapnel from the flesh.”
Ibrahim (the name is a deliberate choice), meanwhile, is convinced he’s turning into a vampire and that he needs to drink the blood of young women — women like Mehdia.
“This is to show that there’s no more hope,” Charaf says. “Mehdia’s praying all the time in the film, but her prayers aren’t working. There’s this despair, you know? Even Ibrahim has turned into a senile old vampire.”
There is plenty of bleak reality in Charaf’s movie — particularly Mehdia’s “love-hate” relationship with her “owners.”
“I wanted to show the unconscious, everyday racism that is commonly practiced in Lebanon and in the Gulf,” he says. “I’m not hammering Arabs and saying ‘Look how bad we are.’ It’s more like, ‘This is how it is.’ It’s not good guys versus bad guys. It’s nuanced. She hates his guts, but she considers him like her dad. He’s the only dad she’s got. Before running away, she kisses him while he’s sleeping.”
But the film is not unremittingly grim. Charaf says his casting choices, for example, were very specific. “I wanted to assert that because you’re poor or a refugee doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to be ugly or (look exhausted). I got the most handsome refugee and the most beautiful housemaid in the world.”
And there is laughter here too. “I didn’t want it to be a documentary or a tear-jerker, you know? Watching people suffer and cry is too easy,” he continues. “There’s a dual tone in the film. There are absurd situations where you really laugh. But to be able to laugh, you need despair — you need things to hit rock bottom. They have to grow so desperate that they can laugh about their situation. Otherwise, it’s indecent to laugh about their misery.”t
The film debuted internationally in Venice, where it won the Europa Cinemas label prize, meaning it will be screened in arthouse cinemas across Europe — perhaps some of those same cinemas in which Charaf found early inspiration.
“That was pretty cool,” he says of his Venice win. “I think they thought, ‘Oh no — another film about Syrian refugees.’ Then they got surprised, because it’s fresh and new.”
He’s not sure how the film will be received when it does reach a wider audience. “Probably many people won’t get it,” he says. “Because it’s not a one-tone film. With my work, people either really like it or they hate it — and both are good (with me). It’s always been like that, and I think that’s a good sign — it means there’s consistency in my films.