Michelle Keserwany: The Lebanese musician, writer and filmmaker co-wrote the screenplay for Capernaum (2018) with the director Nadine Labaki and since then has been developing her own film projects. In 2019, she received a residency scholarship for the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and she has been living between Beirut and Paris ever since. She wrote the screenplay for Les chenilles, her debut short film which she co-directed with her sister Noel Keserwany.
Noel Keserwany: The Lebanese musician, writer and filmmaker works closely with her sister Michelle Keserwany. In 2021, she received a residency fellowship for the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris and, since then, she has lived between Paris and Beirut. In Les chenilles, her debut short film which she co-directed with her sister, she also played the main role.
What was your starting point for “Les chenilles”?
The inspiration of this story was triggered by an article by Fawwaz Traboulsi that explores the relationship between women from Mount Lebanon and foreign silk factories in the 19th century. In a provoking passage Traboulsi says: Around the year 462 In the context of breeding silkworms to create silk, a Japanese prince said: “it’s in between the breasts of women that cocoons should be placed to hatch”.
The very idea that women in Mount Lebanon had to bear cocoons between their breasts to breed silkworms felt extremely disturbing. Inspired by this imagery and by the difficult conditions of women’s work in French silk factories in the 19th century in the Levant, and especially in Mount Lebanon, we created a modern story of displacement that goes back in time in order to tackle contemporary aspects of migration: work conditions, gender dynamics and the effect of historical events on our modern lives.
Besides, between 2019 and 2021, we both found ourselves leaving Lebanon to start a life torn between Paris and Beirut due to multiple pressures and crises that the country is going through. The core idea of the film came from here. Going through an abrupt and unplanned migration was an intense experience full of events and encounters that are at the heart of this film.
Do you have a favorite moment in the film? Which one and why this one?
Noel Keserwany: My favorite moment while shooting was the “walk along the silk road” scene. This part was based on discussions Masa, Michelle and I have had. But no dialogue was written, we wanted it to stay raw and instinctive in a way.
I felt a lot of pressure while shooting because this scene was at the core of the film and it was difficult to play my role as “Sarah” in the film and disconnect from the directing part. In the same time, I was very sure of the vision Michelle and I had, and in our ability to play complimentary roles in order to get there. I also trusted the whole team fully, especially Masa (actress) and Karim (DOP). It was a long scene to film, and it was based on the relationships we all built while preparing the film, and through our work together for years in the case of Michelle and Karim.
At the end of the day, once this scene was done, I felt that we definitely caught the vision we had imagined for this film. And it felt really good.
Michelle Keserwany: My favorite moment in the film is when Asma (Masa Zaher) runs after the clients who didn’t pay the bill and Sarah’s (Noel) internal text that goes with it. It’s a moment that merges many internal and external conflicts I often think of; from historical injustice and social oppression to men who take the lighter and don’t give it back, unfaithful entitled partners or bosses who don’t pay employees their overtime… We see her run with all the strength she has, merging force with vulnerability, as if she’s letting out all the anger that she contains as a woman not only from her actual present life but from past lives in which women have endured so much. In this scene and through Sarah’s calm and understanding voice and text we also notice for the first time that Sarah sees through Asma and deeply understands her. That their struggle is one. It often happens in real life as well when we encounter strangers that make us feel, through minimal indicators, that we deeply understand what they have been through.
What do you like about the short form?
Michelle Keserwany: We stumbled into the audiovisual field without any formations or studies related to film and explored the camera, text, music and performance through short political videos that we have been producing for a decade now. The short format made it possible for us to create independent films and videos without having to rely on any funds because of the political content that our music videos contain, and the total freedom required to create them. The short format also offers freedom of exploration; we always start by feeling the streets, by filming random situations translating feelings to visuals with no reference other than what is happening around us, merging phone footage, images from the internet, animation, archive etc. to channel what we feel like saying. In our short film, we worked in the same way, relying on our instincts and improvisation in many places, then mixing fiction, documentary and music in the same narrative. The short form permits all that! It is a rich form that we will always go back to even when we start our feature films.
Noel Keserwany: What I like about the short format is that it is a space that allows experimenting. I feel that shorts can be very effective with trying new ways of telling stories and developing a cinematic sensibility that can grow later on to become a personal language that could be more easily used in other shorts or longer formats.
Besides, I find the challenge of diving into a subject with the limit of time interesting. The process of working with a limited time brings up new ways of communicating and can be very effective in developing and refining storytelling skills.
Even as a viewer I like to watch short films as I feel they have something raw and free about them.
„We are used to showing only our strength and only channeling the massage of being resistant. In this film we were very happy to be able to explore also the theme of fragility and saying that sometimes, we need to take a breath to be able to continue, because the road is very long […]“
interview with the Golden Bear-winners and German Film journalist Knut Elstermann here.