After watching and thinking about the film Are You Glad I’m Here, I spoke to its director, Noor Gharzeddine.
You were clearly passionate about this project, as it clearly displayed. What was it that inspired you to make Are You Glad I’m Here?
The story was developed by Samuel Anderson, our screenwriter, and I. We wanted to make a film in Lebanon, where my family is form and where he had studied Arabic. We were interested in telling a story about the nuance and complexity of these two very different women and in exploring what a friendship between them would entail. Kirsten is a recent liberal arts graduate coming over from the US to teach English in Beirut and she feels like she has the world figured out, but once she’s removed from her bubble and meets a Nadine her views are challenged. As recent graduates I think Sam and I were interested in that dynamic.
As a Lebanese American it was also important for me to make a film in Lebanon; a film that bridged two cultures and was easily accessible to both audiences. Because I grew up in a bilingual household I also felt like it was important and natural to make a bilingual film, and it was always something I wanted to do.
I got a good feeling of hope and friendship while watching this film. This wasn’t just through the characters but also through how the story had played out, even in its darker moments. Was this your intention? Did you have any other intentions for the film thematically?
I definitely intended to create a genre blend and not get bogged down in the drama of the subject matter. We explore a lot of heavy themes in the film and it easily could have become strictly a dark and dramatic movie, but I wanted to use a playful lens as often as was appropriate. In the end it really became about realism and mirroring reality versus trying to stick to a genre. In reality there are moments of humor even in the saddest of times, especially if you’re surrounded by funny people who want to alleviate your pain. I think this is where the feeling of hope comes from- when the film ends Nadine is about to start a tough new life, but she’s surrounded by a loving family and this gives us a feeling of hope.
Was there any film-maker who you drew inspiration from for the filming?
It’s hard to put my finger on just one influence! In terms of relationship building I looked at films like Persona and Carol. I admire the emotional compositions of a lot of old Japanese cinema- where you’re not necessarily feeling emotion because of the characters faces but more because of the framing /visual scene as a whole. And the symmetry and colors were partly inspired by Volver and Wes Anderson films. When people watch the film the scenes in Kinan’s shop commonly get likened to Tarantino films and the ending to Thelma and Louis– I always love hearing other people’s thoughts!
The subject matter does bring up points about difference in culture and in particular how women’s rights are viewed in different cultures. Was this something wished to explore and make more people aware of with this film? Is it something that you yourself have had experience with?
I want the viewer to feel the difference between Nadine and Kirsten- we see it in age, culture, family life, life experience etc. but to also always feel like they’re both in the right and to view both women with sympathy and compassion. We didn’t set out to preach a certain message or tell the story from just one woman’s perspective. I think we wanted people to be aware of how complicated it is to insert yourself, and your ideas, into someone else’s life without causing some sort of chaos, even if it’s well intentioned, which we hint at in our title – Are You Glad I’m Here.
Making a film is a monumental task. Were there many struggles when it came to filming Are You Glad I’m Here? How did they affect the film, and did you find any of them helped the film as it went along?
Firstly, we knew we had the restriction of a low budget, and much of the script was written with these restrictions in mind; constantly reigning yourself in can be difficult! However, it also allowed us to really focus on our two lead actresses and on building the relationship between them in the beginning of the film, without a lot of other distractions like side characters and plots. Because I’d never worked in the film industry in Lebanon and was trying to do work remotely from NYC at the beginning of pre-production it took a while to lock down a line producer, but once we did meet the right person it was so rewarding and I was welcomed into such an amazing film community; I’d love to go back and make another film in Lebanon.
Your film is a very well written and acted one. How was it working with your actors, how did you all go about realizing these characters?
I was lucky to have time to rehearse with the actors before we got on set and we all had so much fun together. Marwa Khalil, the actress playing Nadine, is a French educated Lebanese woman who rarely uses English in her daily life, and Tess Harrison, the American actress playing Kirsten, was visiting Lebanon for the first time, so many miscommunications happened organically and found their way into Are You Glad I’m Here. Tess I had worked with previously, so I knew we could collaborate well and had been thinking about her for the role. I hadn’t met Marwa until we began auditions in Lebanon- but her audition was so powerful (pretty sure I teared up) that I knew I had to work with her.
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