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How Sophie Boutros Became the Most Anticipated Arab Director at DIFF

On Sunday, the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) will feature the world premiere of Lebanese director Sophie Boutros’ first feature film, Solitaire (Mahbas). The comedic drama tells the story of a Lebanese woman who holds a decades-old grudge against Syrians, due to her brother’s passing from a Syrian bomb. As the heroine prepares to meet her daughter’s future in-laws, she is horror-struck to discover that they are Syrian. Ahead of the screening, Vogue Arabia sits down with the film’s director and co-screenwriter, Sophie Boutros, to learn how she came to be the most anticipated female Arab director at this year’s DIFF.

Growing up in Beirut, you were raised in a high art oriented family—today, your brother Ziad is an acclaimed composer and your sister Julia is a celebrated singer. When did it “click” that you would have a career in cinema?Music has always been part of our lives, but in school, my studies were very science-focused. I was the kid who was going to become a doctor or an engineer, or something like that. I grew up in a war zone in Lebanon. I was born during the war and I finished school exactly when the war ended; so, there were some limitations in terms of majors to study. Everybody expected their kids to be lawyers, engineers, or doctors. At the time, my sister and I used to watch a lot of films. Every weekend we rented VHS tapes of new releases from the rental shop next to our house; we fell in love with the films and discussed them together. It was a hobby to me.

What genres of films and actors were you drawn to?
We were into Hollywood cinema—it was the only one accessible to us. We loved Robert de Niro, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino… we were into actors that we considered “serious.” We also watched a lot of Egyptian cinema on TV over the weekends and on Sundays. Still, cinema was never a career option; we didn’t even consider it.

And yet you majored in cinema.
I originally studied medicine. I did a preparatory year to be a doctor—but it wasn’t want I wanted. I told my dad that I wanted to do something more artistic, more creative. “Audiovisual” was a new major at my university, the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), and I enrolled.

In order to become a director, what is one taught?
When you watch movies, you don’t necessarily know how to analyze and critique them; in order to make good movies, you need to watch good movies and learn from them. We learned the language of cinema, script writing, and there was a lot of emphasis on culture and general knowledge about art, music, and civilizations. We were given something of a cultural background that is needed in order to create stories and tell them as the director.

You went on to direct music videos—how did you make the jump to feature films?
Along with my co-script writer, Nadia Eliewat, I applied to an interchange program in collaboration with DIFF in 2013 and the Torino Film Lab. We created a ten-page treatment and were selected. We developed the first draft over five months with a “script doctor” and attended writing and producer workshops. Once finished, we developed more drafts until we reached a fifth and final one, which is the one we shot.

How were you able to juggle it all and continue your current full-time job as a manager of student affairs at the American University in Dubai?
It was not easy at all. I’m also married and I have kids, two boys aged five and ten. We started our first writing draft in 2013, making the most of breaks, weekends, and nights; we weren’t ready to shoot until December 2015.

I had to detach myself from my family while shooting. We shot in Lebanon for two months and it was not easy. My husband helped me a lot and he stayed with our kids. You find yourself almost trapped—you are finishing the project and you know that you cannot stop; it’s like a snowball. But my children are very proud and my eldest son will be with me to watch the premiere.

How did you go about casting the lead role?
Julia Kassar—who plays the mother, Thérèse—was on my mind early on. She was the first cast member that we contacted from the second draft—back then the script wasn’t even finished! We asked if she would be a part of it and she immediately got back to us, excited and also very happy that the main role is about a woman who is in her fifties. In the Arab world, a [principal] role for a woman of that age is not common. Films are normally made for a younger generation. The rest of the cast is from Lebanon and Syria. In fact, I have some big names from Syria: Bassam Koussa and Nadine Khoury, who play the Syrian parents.

What’s next for you?
After the March commercial release of Mahbas in Lebanon, I will be able to start something new. I’ve realized that when you get on this rollercoaster you cannot stop. When you start writing the story, things really start happening, and I want to give myself some time before I start—to make up [for the lost time] with my kids.

Even with all the challenges and difficulties, [filmmaking] is a beautiful experience—I feel alive. When I look back at those moments that we experienced during pre-production and film production—to me, they are priceless.

Solitaire (Mahbas), written by Sophie Boutros and Nadia Eliewat. Directed by Sophie Boutros and produced by Nadia Eliewat. The sold out world premiere is on Sunday, December 11th at the Dubai International Film Festival.

See Vogue Arabia’s selection of top films to watch at DIFF 2016. 

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