Iris on the Move: Lara Zeidan on Ferris Wheels, Improvisation and her award-winning short film Three Centimetres

Written by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

It’s a Friday, and Anna K. McCallum and I are in one of the lecture theatres laying out programmes, arranging chairs and setting up a banner for the Iris on the Move Film Festival. It’s pretty casual, even if we do have the 2018 winner of the Iris Prize sat in the front row chatting with us. The Iris Prize celebrates LGBT+ films and tours its showcase around the country. It was now stopping in Bournemouth, and thanks to the people over at Bournemouth Film School we had been asked to take part in the Q&As, including one with Lara Zeidan, writer/director of Three Centimetres.

‘I was studying graphic design in Lebanon, in a place called AUB also’ she laughs when I ask how she first got into filmmaking. ‘I started feeling that the courses that interested me the most were the filmmaking electives that I was taking. So, when I graduated from there, I started thinking how can I get into filmmaking? I decided to apply to film school in London — at the London Film School’. In fact, it was in her application that she first presented the idea for Three Centimetres, the film that would go on to win the Iris prize and show at over 50 film festivals all over the world.

‘The first year for me was really difficult,’ she explains to us and the audience. ‘I questioned myself a lot […], maybe I’m not in the right place. I felt like people knew a lot more about films than I did’. Honestly, this is something I felt upon joining film school too, so it’s nice to hear it from a now award-winning filmmaker. ‘But after some time — I think I had to put in a lot of hard work at the beginning — but then we were all at the same level, I’d say. For the second year it just felt like the right thing’.

It’s afterwards that Berwyn, the festival director, says how glad he is that she stuck at it so that Three Centimetres could find its way to Cardiff for the festival. The film follows four friends as they clamber aboard a ferris wheel in Lara’s hometown of Beirut. Young, vivacious and curious to explore their sexuality, the girls riff off each other until their conversation turns cold when Manal comes out, to the shock and surprise of her friends.

The film is uncomfortably enclosed and yet unexpectedly exposed, and that was part of the point, Lara explains to us. ‘It started with some conversations I had with friends in Beirut. I wanted to find a setting for it and the ferris wheel is this combination of claustrophobia and at the same time it’s open air. And, it’s a public space, but it’s a space for them to have a conversation in private. There’s some conversations that you really can’t have at home in Beirut, so you have to find another place. […] Not really being able to escape the conversation was important to me.’

Rehearsals took place with five chairs and a broomstick in the middle, but there was more to this period than just going over lines: ‘we wanted to hang [with the actors] during preproduction so we would trust each other and also for my cinematographer — who doesn’t speak Arabic — to just start understanding the body language and how they speak’. She and Pierfrancesco, the aforementioned cinematographer, ‘both had this idea that it was in one shot. We kind of agreed on that without even speaking, it was how we imagined the film would be.’

‘But we also thought that we might be wrong,’ she admits. ‘We had points where we could potentially do invisible cuts if we needed to’, to additional footage caught on the first day for safety. ‘But I was very convinced with one of the takes, so we didn’t have to do this editing process’. The film had 18 takes in the end, each playing a little differently. ‘What take was the one you like?’ Nina asks beside me. ‘15,’ Lara grins back.

‘So, it was my responsibility to say, on the walkie talkie, that they should stop the ferris wheel. And one time — I don’t know what happened — they didn’t,’ she tells the audience. ‘It didn’t come through. It went for another round and this time [the actors] just had to improvise completely. Now the cinematographer had actually no idea what they were saying.’ At that, we all laugh, picturing the poor cinematographer having nothing to rely on but instincts alone. Which paid off, according to Lara. ‘The take was really interesting. It was my second option, it was almost going to be the film.’

Despite technical hitches, the ferris wheel really challenges the film. ‘It gives us a big contrast to where they’re low on the ferris wheel and when they’re open, like there’s just sky and the sea. So, we wanted to play with this light and dark, and the shadows.’ Someone asks if she could have used another setting instead, but Lara shakes her head immediately: it was considered in preproduction amongst some trouble with the fun park, but it wouldn’t be the same. But shooting on a moving vehicle requires careful planning. ‘It was important when Manal comes out that she’s coming out from the darkness to the light. So, we had to work with the actresses to kind of have that rhythm.’

In the limelight of this improvisation were the actors, all natives to Beirut. ‘Three of them are actually friends of the makeup artist, so when he read the script, he had suggestions for me. […] It was just Manal, the character who comes out, that was really difficult for me to find. I was doing castings in acting schools, but I couldn’t really find the person I wanted.’ Lara cast her actresses to resemble their own characters. ‘I wasn’t going to be with them, so they had to have a lot of room to improvise and to deal with anything that’s going on.’ In the end, Lara asked her existing actresses if they knew anyone for the role, ‘and that’s how we found the actress for Manal, who’s not actually an actress’.

Written for sunset, the first and last takes of the day were designed as rehearsals since the sun level and camera shadows interfered with the technical design of the shoot. ‘I went with them for a few rounds and then the cinematographer went with them for a few rounds. We wouldn’t fit all of us.’ Nina leans forward beside me. ‘Where were you when you were shooting?’ she asks. ‘So, it was me, the sound recordist and the focus puller three booths away. We had this small monitor for the focus puller and the booms from the sound recordist.’

‘I also told [Pierfrancesco] that he as well should be comfortable to improvise and make his own judgement of where the camera’s supposed to be.’ It was a shoot that required a lot of trust, but this wasn’t too hard in the end. ‘It’s a crew of friends mainly. In Lebanon it was my friends and family helping out. In the UK my classmates. So my cinematographer, who’s Italian, who doesn’t speak Arabic, but managed to understand their body language and the way the story progresses to its end. My producer was from the UK, the sound recordist was from Ukraine. My cinematographer wanted to work with a focus puller that he’s always worked with. So that was my UK crew, and then my makeup artist was from Lebanon.’

‘Most of my stories are set in Beirut. Most of the things I think about. Because it’s where I’ve lived the longest and it’s a place that inspires me, so it’s a very big part of my identity as a filmmaker.’ I ask if it’s important to her to show this story within the culture of Beirut, its strengths and its limitations, and she nods. ‘The girl who wants to enjoy sexuality but has to stay a virgin, that’s also one of the things that are struggles in Beirut for certain conservative families. And it is progressing in terms of LGBT rights, but at the same time it’s still considered illegal. But there’s a growing LGBT scene in Lebanon, so then it goes back to how people think.’

‘There’s a really vibrant country there. In a way Lebanese people are very expressive. There’s a lot of emotions and a lot of art.’ It’s asked if, as a filmmaker, she feels any responsibility to represent her Lebanese identity in her films, and Lara’s answer puts into words the struggles I and others have experienced in trying to balance representation and individual identity. ‘If I want to express myself as an artist and filmmaker, I shouldn’t be bound by the idea of responsibility. […] Of course, it represents something about Lebanon, but I can’t think of it as representing Lebanon [as a whole].’

‘In the last few years there has been a lot of attention for Lebanese films, so I think it’s getting better,’ she says when asked how viable it is for creatives to earn a living in Lebanon. Lara moved over to the UK to pursue her career through film school and is now producing films here. ‘There’s work in commercials, and there’s short films that are being made, and now recently there’s really a rise in the film industry. I was reading this economical report of Lebanon, where everything is regressing and the film industry is progressing.’

The Iris Prize offers the largest short film prize in the world: £30,000 to make your next short film. So, of course, we had to ask about Kaleidoscope, Lara’s next project being funded by the festival. ‘It’s a fantasy film about a girl who lives in a grey world and doesn’t want to live in it anymore, so she decides that she wants to live inside a kaleidoscope. And without thinking how — it’s illogical to live in a place like that.’

Again, the story is heavily informed by Lara’s own experiences. ‘It has a lot to do for me with moving to the UK and the expectations I had about it, and illusions about both spaces. Beirut was a bit of an illusion, and so was the UK. So, it’s about breaking illusions somehow.’ The film is set to shoot in the summer, but for now I recommend you go and watch Three Centimetres.

Written by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Bournemouth Film School at AUB is creating the next generation of moving image storytellers, technical specialists and craftspeople.