DUBAI: If you want to understand what it means to be Lebanese, there may be no better prism to look through than the work of Georges Khabbaz. In the three decades Khabbaz has been active, he has been a pillar of Lebanon’s arts scene, the true king of the Lebanese stage. He has written, directed and starred in dozens of plays and television shows, chronicling nearly every aspect of life in the Levantine nation, all with an honesty and fearlessness that have led some to call him the country’s true face.
Khabbaz has also spent decades building a reputation across the region and the world, winning best actor at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2007 for his acclaimed film “Under the Bombs” and working as a writer on Nadine Labaki’s Oscar-nominated 2018 film “Capernaum.” Now 46 and coming off the immense global success of last year’s Netflix film “Perfect Strangers,” in which he played Walid, Khabbaz is now writer and star of the hit MBC series “Brando El Sharq,” a show that is more than another feather in his cap — it’s the culmination of his career thus far.
“Quite simply, this series is an encapsulation of 30 years of my life,” Khabbaz tells Arab News. “I’ve taken a journey of decades, and put all that I’ve been through — the striving, the yearning, the success and the heartbreak — into 10 episodes, and kept the truth of it intact.”
The series follows a filmmaker — a character representing Khabbaz at his lowest — who is desperate to get funding for his debut film and fulfill his dreams of becoming a renowned director. He’s a man in love with film history, dreaming of Charlie Chaplin and “Casablanca,” and while art is his escape from reality, it is but a fleeting one. His father’s health is deteriorating, and, desperate for money, he begins a pursuit of the biggest star in the country, the titular Brando of the East, to finally bring his plans to fruition.
What makes this story distinctly Lebanese, in Khabbaz’s mind, is multifold. The country, a veritable mosaic of cultures and influences, is full of art-obsessed creatives, but lacks avenues for those creatives to thrive.
“There are so many educational and cultural hardships, but we fight for our dreams and ambitions harder. We rely on our work, and we rely on each other, because we don’t have an environment that supports us,” says Khabbaz. “A lot of the system we live in works against us. It exists to snap our wings off so that we can’t achieve our dreams. There’s a lot of bullying that stops us from fighting for our passion, especially at the beginning of a career. Frankly, you have to deal with a lot of baloney.”
Khabbaz, of course, feels he’s earned the right to make these sorts of grand proclamations about the state of his country.
“From the beginning, I had to work hard to discover what audiences in Lebanon are truly feeling,” says Khabbaz.
The magic of theater lies in its immediacy. People have to show up each night to buy tickets, and once they’re sitting there, performers can keenly feel their engagement from the stage. As Khabbaz wrote and performed plays, he worked to fine tune what it was that his audience really cared about, and to find common ground in their concerns, rather than just pander to them.
“There is a big audience in front of you that needs to be satisfied, but it doesn’t work if you don’t stay honest with yourself and true to your work. They will never be satisfied, nor will you, if it doesn’t come from a place deep inside you,” says Khabbaz. “I couldn’t lose hold of myself and my own feelings to satisfy them. And that has not always been easy. In fact, over 30 years, that has been a constant struggle, one I’m always concerned about.”
Ultimately, that is what “Brando El Sharq” is really about, in Khabbaz’s eyes. While its style pulls from his artistic heroes — Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, and the Coen brothers — its true exploration is of a man in desperate pursuit of his dreams who’s in danger of losing his artistic heart in the process.
“The idea evolved from the thought that, while looking for yourself, you shouldn’t lose yourself,” says Khabbaz.
In telling this story, Khabbaz was careful not to limit the show to any one genre. Like life, it jumps genres depending on the day, flush with joy, sorrow and everything in between.
“This series is tragedy, comedy, parody, satire, musical, romance and suspense. It’s theater and it’s cinema in one. This series is my scientific lab,” he says.
There’s more than one reason for that panoply of storytelling style. Khabbaz is an actor first and foremost and, for actors, great parts are defined by their dimensions.
“Any actor would love to play this role because it’s so diverse and inclusive of everything you learn about acting. A skilled actor loves to move from one emotion to another very quickly,” says Khabbaz.
As “Brando El Sharq” concludes its first season, Khabbaz is hard at work on his next film, “Yunan,” the latest from Syrian filmmaker Ameer Fakher Eldin, the man behind 2021’s acclaimed film “The Stranger,” staring Ashraf Barhom. In “Yunan,” Khabbaz plays a depressed writer living in exile who learns to love life again after meeting an elderly woman on a remote island.
For Khabbaz, the film is a testament to how far he’s come. Why? Because the elderly woman is played by the iconic German actress Hanna Schygulla, star of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “The Marriage of Maria Braun” (1979) and the defining star of the New German Cinema movement, now approaching her 80th birthday.
“I still have so many dreams and goals in the world of cinema and theater, but this is one of them. The opportunity to collaborate with a genius is deeply humbling,’ says Khabbaz.
Khabbaz is aware of the esteem he’s built in Lebanon and across the region, and as the positive reviews for his latest series roll in, he’s finally able to look back on his own journey with pride, and reflect on what all the praise represents.
“I’m just like all the people in the audience. I’ve always chosen the subject of my work based on what I know people can connect to, what we have in common. I’m just like all these people that look up to me, and perhaps they look up to me because I’ve shown them that I’m like them for years through my work,” says Khabbaz. “I think they see me, someone who looks just like them, as an example of what they can accomplish.”