Though Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri has spent most of his cinematic life in America, his second film Lila Says tackles the Arab underclass living in the suburbs of many French cities — and the sexual danger created by a relationship between a teenage Arab boy and Polish-born girl living near his home.
The L Magazine: There are parallels between the scenario in your film and American culture — was this on your mind?
Ziad Doueiri: It’s almost exclusively what was on my mind. I’ve spent half my life in the United States. And I’ve built enough time to understand the psychological nuance, to read the humor that I had no psychological attachment to France. None whatsoever. And when I finished the screenplay, it was written in English with the intention of shooting it in the United States in an Arabic community in Dearborn, Michigan where there’s this all-American blonde girl who lands there in an Arab community living post September 11. So, that’s why a lot of the humor, the French didn’t get it.
The L: That’s curious…
ZD: Chimo [Karim Ben Haddou] says “If I have to choose between a free Palestine and pussy, I’ll take pussy.” This is very typical American humor. This is not French humor. We lost it.
The L: How did the Arabic community receive it?
ZD: They went berserk; they loved the film because they were able to see, on film, an Arabic hero, and a blonde girl falling for him. And they felt pretty great about it.
The L: How did you cast this movie?
ZD: I liked him immediately. I thought, that guy is sensible, sensitive, fragile, insecure. The bitch was finding her. That took a year, and more than 500 actresses to find her. It was really hard. I just kept on giving them these lines, like, you know “I’m like an angel, I’m like a Ferrari in a junkyard so, would you like to see my pussy?” And I heard it, heard it, heard it… and kept on doing castings. Nobody would say it right, it just would not come out right.
The L: What was it about this actress, Vahina Giocante?
ZD: We knew we could work around it. I liked her because she understood the role. The most important criteria for me to have picked up Vahina is because she’s not French. She grew up in Corsica, and Corsicans are different. She didn’t have the French manner. I did not want that, I really did not want that. I wanted someone who is atypical of their culture. And I kept on having the same thing with known French actresses, who would have made it easier for us to get the budget anyway.
The L: She’s made a bunch of movies but she hasn’t broken out.
ZD: She’s made about a dozen movies, but she’s never made it big. This was her biggest film, and the press in France are saying she’s “the new One.” She’s very hot, but she’s a real bitch. But she’s good. I had to put up with her because I knew I could get what I needed from her. As a person, she’s a pain in the ass. She’s a tease, an incredible tease. And she created a lot of havoc, on the set. She knew how to come and throw enough problems between the boys who are already built up with testosterone that she created conflict among them, and she would sit in the back and laugh at them, when she had provoked the fight, going ‘you are fools’.
The L: You hit on a lot of signature points that go on in France. This issue of the sexual danger of the dark Arab seducing the French girl…
ZD: Yes, the clash of Civilizations, and the many in a small town, this is what it is. We had to update the film since the book [it’s based on was] written in 1996 — before Bin Laden, before terrorism, before Muslim Fundamentalism. I felt, well, we have an opportunity to update the story and let the audience see what is going on today in those people’s lives after September 11. Suddenly their love relationship, their sexuality, has more meaning, after September 11. Believe me, because it added more stigma, more taboo, more conflict. And that’s why there’s a phrase at the beginning of the film where Chimo looks out, and says, “And since those fuck ups blew up New York, we here are paying for it.”