Dennis Villeneuve and the quiet erasure of POCs in Film

Dennis Villeneuve’s stunning films tell incredibly humane, compelling stories…but why do they always whitewash their non white characters?


Source: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/10/denis-villeneuve-movies-ranked-worst-best-blade-runner-arrival-sicario-1201882671/

Source: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/10/denis-villeneuve-movies-ranked-worst-best-blade-runner-arrival-sicario-1201882671/


Dennis Villeneuve is set to adapt Dunne, staring Zendaya Coleman alongside Timothéé Chalamet (https://shadowandact.com/report-zendaya-to-star-opposite-timothee-chalamet-in-denis-villeneuves-dune-reboot).  Althought it’s an exciting project, I am a bit wary of the treatment Coleman will get. And the reason for this is because I am a huge fan of Dennis Villeneuve. He is one of the most talented filmmakers of our times and Incendies remain one of my all time favorite films. And because I am a fan, I know that every single ones of his films have erased POCs, when they didn’t have straight up white actors dable in asian-face or arab-face. When I watch Dennis Villeneuve’s films, I have to pretend that, I too, am white.

In Blade Runner 2019, the antagonist is played by a white actress, but as she explains, her aethetics were too look as ambiguously asian as possible, with straight jet black hair, black almond eyes. In the film, the set  is very Asian inspired, and yet, there are almost no asian characters, leading to a backlash (https://nextshark.com/asians-pissed-blade-runner-2049/).

His previous one, Sicaro had received much positive feedback, with the online movie-ratings platform Rotten Tomatoes giving it a generous 8 out of 10 points. 

Sicaro tells the story of an idealistic, U.S. policewoman who sets out to uncover the dirty politics of the FBI and CIA’s involvements in Mexico. It is Villeneuve’s third Hollywood feature film.  

Initially, the film had given high hopes to more critical film enthusiasts, raising expectations that it would scratch beyond the surface of mainstream representations of the U.S. war on drugs. Ultimately, however, Sicaro has failed to discuss the real evils behind this war, and the threat that are drug cartels, by representing accurately  their victims: the Mexicans.

 

To Villeneuve’s credit, the film avoids the use of miserabilism  or the white savior trope, a trope present in virtually every movie addressing issues surrounding the Mexican-American border. But instead of filling this gap, the film offers no wider critique and looks, in fact, empty. Sicario wants to denounce the war on drugs, without actually saying or revealing anything: we know it is deeply atrocious, and we know Mexico is host to many of its battlefields. But how can we relate to that issue, when the only two Mexican characters in the movie are either a cold hitman and a passive corrupt policeman.

In fact, Sicaro’s shallowness resembles Villeneuve’s previous film, Incendies (or Scorched), and it isn’t hard to see the similarities between the two films, more generally. Both films feature a tragic and twisted plot, and both portray women who fight against a war led by men, while losing their sanity in the process. Incendies, however, was adapted from a play by Wajdi Mouawad, Scorched, which presents a narrative on the fifteen-year long Lebanese civil war and its devastating aftermath. Incendies has, in fact, increasingly been thrown back into the media limelight.

 

But just like Sicario, Incendies too is a movie reeking of poetic distance: it shows the cruelty and hardships of wars, while dehumanising the people who suffer most from such wars through visually humiliating representations. So let’s see how it is even more obvious in Incendies, his only film who, in theory, features mainly non white characters in a non western country.

 

 Omission

Synopsis of the story:

An attorney in Montreal meets with two adult twins, Jeanne and Simon to read them their mother's will. He startles them by presenting two letters -- one to a father they thought was dead and another to a brother they never knew existed -- that their mother would like them to deliver. Simon initially is irritated by this request, but Jeanne is intrigued, and she travels to Lebanon to try to locate her father and brother.

An eye for an eye makes the world go blind” could be a summary of the message Mouwad is conveying in Scorched.

Scorched tells two stories: Nawal’s, a woman deeply wounded by an awful war, and also the History of Middle Eastern country destroyed by this same war.

Incendies shows the lonely and dramatic fight of a woman to survive, and the complicated quest of her children to discover her past and to reveal the truth.

Clearly inspired by the French New wave, Villeneuve favoured a more Nawal’s centred, individualistic story. This individualism is similar to what Deleuze would qualify of “flight-outing”: when the characters are “charming but hardly concerned by the events which happened to them”. Eugen Weber categorizes the New Wave as “escapist realism”. For him, these films “reflect a society that has abandoned its decision to others. Life is incomprehensible and politics even more so”.[1]

 

And indeed, in the film, the politics of the imaginary country are incomprehensible: former Christians are joining the Muslim militia, before pretending to be Christians again when it’s convenient, and then going back to fighting with Muslims, or with Christians. Life doesn’t make sense and so does the war. The twins, are investigating their mother’s past but don’t seem to be interested in learning more about Nawal’s homeland and neither does the film, except for showing with beautiful shots how stunning the landscape is.

New Wave’s films are well known for stating that “a faithful adaptation of the original material is useless because it doesn’t convey any personal intellectual conviction from the screenwriter and/or the director […]. An unfaithful adaptation shows, instead, the writer/director’s commitment to cinema and chooses images instead of words, which make sense”.

Wajdi Mouawad’s strong convictions have been cut from the film, as Villeneuve felt that he had to make the story lighter (not in term of content but in term of the dialogue). By leaving out elements that belonged to the theatre world, like the declamatory dialogues and scenes, necessary to understand the play’s message, but which don’t follow the screenwriting rule of “Show, don’t tell”, the un-filmable becomes filmable.

 In Incendies, the tragedy is the most important aspect of the film, more important than the war in this unnamed country, more important that Nawal’s fight and how the twins’ lives are changed for ever. Everything in the film, from the introductory scene with the young boys getting their heads shaved, leads us to the shocking, tragic ending.

   

Reconstruction

 

“On oublie l’histoire du Liban, peut-être parce-que cette guerre civile

fut si compliquée à comprendre qu’elle a assourdi la mémoire.”

 

[The History of Lebanon is forgotten, perhaps because the civil war was so

difficult to understand that it stifled all memory].

—Wajdi Mouawad (Architecture d’un Marcheur, 57)[7]

 

Mouawad’s family flew Lebanon shortly after the beginning of the civil war. He met Souha Bechara, a Lebanese militant during the war who was jailed and tortured for 10 years and who partly inspired Nawal. Confronted to the History of his birth country that he tried to avoid for so long, he decided to write Incendies.

 

"It was a very shameful war[…]They didn’t want to explain to my generation what had happened. Strangers had to tell me my own story." Consequently, he decided to reclaim that story. While Scorched is fiction, it draws on real-life characters and events.[8]

 

Mouawad decided to set the story partly in an imaginary country and not in Lebanon because he wasn’t interested in telling the story in a direct way. He doesn’t take any side regarding the war: the Muslims are not better that the Christians or any others.

 

Villeneuve decided to not set the imaginary country in Lebanon[9] but in an unnamed, imaginary country close to Lebanon. The audience is meant to guess that is set the Middle East, and that’s all.

In the article “Against amnesia: representations of memory in Algerian cinema”, Guy Austin explains that the civil war is Algeria was “an invisible one”. More and more films are fighting against this, tackling that issue by explicitly depicting the war and the trauma created by it, even if it’s a vision that doesn’t please everyone.

These films, such as Belkacem Hadjadj’s El Manara (2004) and Mohamed Chouikh’s L’arche du desert (The arch of the desert) (1997), have a cathartic role. By showing the civil war, they keep the memory alive and let the audience heal.[10]

 

Both Lebanese and Algerian civil wars are similar in the way that they were “invisible war”, hidden from the media, and complex but still highly sensitive subjects.

For Lebanese and people living in Lebanon the long, 15 year-long war, was everywhere, overwhelmingly present. However, it wasn’t a reality for people in others countries. The civil war, almost 29 years after its end, still has a big impact, and thus, stories about the war need to be told again and again.

Films like Eliane Raheb’s Sleepless Nights (2013), Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (2009), tackle Lebanon history. Like Raheb says in the article “Sleepless Nights: amnesia of the Lebanese civil war: “Neutrality doesn't necessarily have its place in a storyline full of tension and mystery”. The article acknowledges that Raheb can’t “remove herself” from the documentary she is shooting and that she’ll “never get this clean." By doing this, the director “affirms her presence behind the image.”[11]

Incendies doesn’t have any cathartic effect. There lies one of the biggest flaws of the film. Instead it has a poetic distance, or the white imagination of the Lebanese war.

Villeneuve believes that the universalism of the play means that this tragic story could have happened anywhere in the world (even if “anywhere”, most certainly, doesn’t include Western countries).  Nawal’s children who are Lebanese, are played by two white actors, Melissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxime Gaudette.

He uses beautiful images, big bright red titles to show each of the chapter of the story, as if the war in this Middle Eastern country was something romantic and not a tragic reality. The story avoids any political, historical portrayal of the war, but the scenery, the way the actors are directed, all this elements reminds the audience that it’s obvious that the film is about Lebanon, despite the film pretending otherwise.

 

Villeneuve created an imaginary country by mixing tons of random elements from different Middle Eastern countries which have no relation to each other.

 

For example, Incendies was filmed in Jordan. The extras in the film are, at least most of them, war refugees from Iraq. Consequently, they speak Arabic, with different accents, some of them from Iraq, Palestine or Jordan.  This is a deeply Eurocentric view of Lebanon.

All these elements are confusing, because the country is an imaginary one impossible to locate, but seems to look like Lebanon, without the accuracy. The country is neither here, nor there, and lacks any realism. It frankly looks like an Arabic catch-all. country.

 

Villeneuve carefully avoids to create a location which may be too close to Lebanon. Ironically, he pretends that the country is “realist and faithful”[12] and that the film depicts the reality Lebanese people have lived.

But such a thing is not possible. Avoiding talking about the Lebanon civil war means that the adaptation cheats, in a way that it doesn’t, explicitly, condemn the war. Therefore, how can the adaptation be realist if the imaginary country in which the story takes place doesn’t even have a name or a History?

 

It is, after all, an adaptation written by a Canadian filmmaker and aimed at a western audience. Villeneuve doesn’t have any real connection to Lebanon. And therefore, there are no personal, political convictions in this film. 

 

The suffering of the others is the only message that seems to clearly appear. Nowhere in the film, can the audience relate to the voices of Lebanese people who have lived, or been impacted by the war.

 

Incendies reeks of, like Salman Rushdie would say, exoticism. The film, instead of denouncing of the war, seems to be willing to adopt a fake universalism which shows the deep Eurocentric view of the middle east by Villeneuve.

Strangely, it is, despite its heavy, tragic story, close to a feel-good movie.

 

The western audience watches this Middle east country at war, safely sitting in their chairs, and the only message at the end of the film is that the war is awful. The audience doesn’t really understand the war, except that it’s something brutal, which happened elsewhere.[13] a foreign country where incomprehensible things happen.

 

 

By choosing to freely adapt the play Scorched, Villeneuve brought his vision to his story, yet didn’t take responsibility for the strong message in the original material. Like Alain Garcia says: “L’adaptation dite libre, c’est ce type qui va permettre au ralisateur de donner libre cours à sa créativité, developpant ce qui lui tient à Coeur.”[The loose adaptation allows the director to gain creative freedom and to develop a story he truly cares about.].[14] And he seems like by representing the imaginary country, Villeuneuve showed his creativity, but not how much he cared about the story.

 

Incendies tells a strong story by getting rid of the unnecessary theatrical devices such as long declamatory sentences. Villeneuve made the story simpler, more stunning. But his contradictions regarding the political setting of this story ripped the story of the strong message in the play. The imaginary country of Nawal is one of the main characters of the story. This is where everything begins and everything ended. That country had a purpose, a meaning in the play that has been lost in translation during the adaptation. As a result, the country is completely decontextualized and the film only focus on its aesthetic.

 

Like the character Nawal, Mouawad’s parents never spoke of the war to their children. This is why he decided to write the play. It is a story that needs to be told, not a vague concept to be shown.

 

 

References

 

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are my own.

 

Films

L’arche du desert(The arch of the desert)(1997).[Feature Film] Directed by Mohamed Chouikh

El Manara (2004). [Feature Film] Directed by Belkacem Hadjadj

Incendies, 2010. [Feature Film] Directed by Dennis Villeneuve

Lebanon, 2009.[Feature Film] Directed by Samuel Maoz

Sleepless Nights, 2013. [Documentary] Directed by Eliane Raheb

Z, 1969.[Feature Film] Directed by Costa-Gavras

 

Books

Aronson, Linda. The 21st Century Screenplay (2010). Allen and Unwin

Mouawad, Wajdi. (2003) Scorched. Traslated by Linda Gaboriau. Canada/France: Leméac and Actes-Sud-Papiers

Rushdie, Salman (28 february 2009) A fine pickle. Guardian Books

 

 

Online Articles

 

Croteau, Stéphane. (2 may 2011) Incendies : qunad la douleur perd ses repères, Hors Champ http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/spip.php?article446


Hockstader, Lee.(20 December 1999) Lebanon’s Forgotten Civil War. Washington Post Foreign Service. Available from:

http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/civwr1.htm


Hudson, Moura. (25 November 2012) Mouawad works in any language, Reflection and film. Available from:http://reflectionandfilm.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/mouawad-works-in-many-languages.html


Morrow, Martin. (19 september 2008), Hot Topic, CBC News.

Available from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/hot-topic-1.701170


Nestruck, J. Kelly.( 18 january 2011),Will Denis Villeneuve's 'Incendies' light a fire under Oscar?  The Globe and Mail

Online dictionary, The Free dictionary. Available from:

 http://www.thefreedictionary.com/adaptation


Roy, Jean.(12 january 2011), Incendies est un film qui ne condamne pas, il console, L’Humanité. Available from: http://www.humanite.fr/11_01_2011-%C2%AB-incendies-est-un-film-qui-ne-condamne-pas-il-console-%C2%BB-462049


Official Publications

 

Centre National du Cinéma (July 2012) Livret Incendies pour Lycéens et Apprentis, Written by Boris Henry

 

Euromed Audiovisual,(22 April 2013). Euromed audiovisual newsletter, Sleepless Nights: amnesia of the Lebanese civil war, Written by Anais Renevier and translated by Nasima Akaloo. Available from:

http://euromedaudiovisuel.net/p.aspx?t=news&mid=21&cid=15&l=en&did=1384


Hopscotch Films Australia (2011) Incendies- Production notes. Hopscotch films: Production Notes

 

Academic Journals

 

Sheen, Erica, “Anti-anti-fidelity: Truffault, Roché, Shakespeare”, Adaptation, vol 6, No.3, (March 2013) pp 243-259

 

Austin, Guy, “Against amnesia: representations of memory in Algerian cinema”, Journal of African Cinemas, vol 2 Number 1 (2010), pp 27-35

 

Williams, Erin. From Oedipus to Incendies. CHS Sunoikisis Undergraduate Research Syposium. (1rst December 2012)  Harvard University

 

Theses

 

Sochová, Kateřina.2012. Wajdi Mouawad : Incendies

(Analyse comparative de l'œuvre littéraire et de son adaptation cinématographique). Thesis. Masarykova Univerzitafilozofická Fakulta

 

Zarah, Omar. Breaking the thread: Structure and Exile in Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies. California State University Long Beach. Department of Comparative World Litterature and Classics.

 

 


       

[1] Sheen, Erica, Anti-anti-fidelity: Truffault, Roché, Shakespeare, Adaptation, vol 6, No.3, (March 2013) pp 243-259

[2] Hopscotch Films Australia (2011) Incendies- Production notes. Hopscotch films: Production Notes

[3] Rushdie, Salman (28 february 2009) A fine pickle. Guardian Books

[4] Hopscotch Films Australia (2011) Incendies- Production notes. Hopscotch films: Production Notes

[5] Rushdie, Salman (28 february 2009) A fine pickle. Guardian Books

[6] Williams, Erin. From Oedipus to Incendies. CHS Sunoikisis Undergraduate Research Syposium. Harvard University . (1rst December 2012) 

[7] Zarah, Omar. Breaking the thread: Structure and Exile in Wajdi Mouawad’s Incendies. California State University Long Beach. Department of Comparative World Litterature and Classics.

[8] CBC News; 19 september 2008, Hot Topic, by Martin Morrow http://www.cbc.ca/news/arts/hot-topic-1.701170


[9] Centre National du Cinéma (July 2012) Livret Incendies pour Lycéens et Apprentis, Written by Boris Henry

[10] Austin, Guy, “Against amnesia: representations of memory in Algerian cinema”, Journal of African Cinemas, vol 2 Number 1 (2010), pp 27-35

[11] Euromed Audiovisual,(22 April 2013). Euromed audiovisual newsletter, Sleepless Nights: amnesia of the Lebanese civil war, Written by Anais Renevier and translated by Nasima Akaloo

[12] Croteau, Stéphane. (2 may 2011) Incendies : qunad la douleur perd ses repères, Hors Champ Available from : http://www.horschamp.qc.ca/spip.php?article446


[13] Incendies : qunad la douleur perd ses repères, (2 may 2011), Written by Stephane Croteau

[14] Sochová, Kateřina.2012. Wajdi Mouawad : Incendies

(Analyse comparative de l'œuvre littéraire et de son adaptation cinématographique). Thesis. Masarykova Univerzitafilozofická Fakulta

 

Aude Konan