Mike Malajalian Interview: Making Short Horror Meaningful

Can you tell me how Reprisal began?

Well it all began when the fantastic festival in Beirut called Maskoon, Fantastic Film Festival launched a competition for short movies.  And this festival is the first of its kind in the Middle East, in all the region of the Middle East.

So, they launched this competition for short movies with the team called Haunted, because the word maskoon in Arabic means Haunted.  So, when they launched this [score] I was like okay, I have to do something for this because it had been a while, I didn’t shoot any movies, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to do something.

I decided to start writing right away a script in the idea of having something Haunted.  So, in Beirut, usually in Lebanon, all the movies are usually about war.  And anywhere in the world when somebody says Lebanon it’s always related to war.  I always disliked this idea because there’s lots of stuff going on in Lebanon and in Beirut other than the war, but there’s some sort of obsession with the war.

And that’s when I started to think about some of the consequences of the war and not the war itself, and what happened in those days when the war was in Lebanon in the Eighties.  And then I started researching a bit, and there was this story of the disappeared people during the war days.

It’s something that’s always talked about in Beirut because lots of women suffered from it.  I thought it’s a good idea to explore.

Fascinating.  So, in terms of the decision to make it a horror film was that a sort of requirement of the Fantastic Fest, or was that a decision of yours?

It was of course my decision, but also it’s Fantastic Film Festival so they wanted to receive like genre movies whether it’s horror, sci-fi, thriller, or whatever.  But as a fan of this genre I thought it was the perfect opportunity to also try to explore my skills in that.

Absolutely.  So, was there something about the sort of medium of the horror story that allowed you to explore the emotions of the film such as loss and grief more fully, or perhaps more abstractly?

Yes, I mean the horror of this situation was really striking me that it should be done in the horror genre.  It’s something that’s usually treated as drama in Lebanon, because this subject has been treated before in some different movies in Beirut, but never in the sense of horror or really like a psychological horror those women are suffering from years ago.

So, I thought it’s the right opportunity to show a bit the psychological side of these women which lots of people know, which I know some of them, and there’s a big, big psychological side to it which is a bit scary.  And the stories that you hear in Beirut about those people are a bit scary because they tend to go like into very hysterical kind of places in their minds because of the suffering they have been enduring for the last 20 or 30 years.

Absolutely.  And it’s wonderful the way you sort of literally render the demons of the mind that they all experience. You mention being a fan of horror films.  How aware were you of sort of general horror tropes?

I didn’t base myself on something specific, I just started writing in a way that I felt natural.  I didn’t like really think of something specific while writing the movie.  But of course, some references popped up all along during the writing.  I could say maybe a bit of Polanski which is a big inspiration to me.

Absolutely.  I love the use of sound in your film, the harshness of a ringing phone, the menace of approaching footsteps, and, you know, the odd cacophony that sort of torments your hero. Was your plan always to mainly explore the main character’s turmoil through sound?

Yes, yes, definitely, that was … that was the very start of the movie also because sound was too … very important to me in this movie because I really wanted to explore what’s going on in her mind.  And also, the obsession with war, I wanted to show it through the sound because at some point in the movie we hear lots of bombing and some strange noises outside, and that was the starting point of the movie.  It was about someone obsessed and haunted with war, the sounds of war, the horrific noises that come out of war.  That was the start of the movie, that’s how I started writing.

So, eventually I developed it even more with the sound of the footsteps, of the … of her lover who’s coming back from wherever he is, and I didn’t feel necessary any talk or any kind of dialogue because the whole point was that her lover is coming back, that’s the whole point of the movie that somebody announced that he is coming back and she is living with the obsession of him coming back and the consequences of the war and the war sounds that she’s always hearing all along the movie.

Yeah.  Absolutely.  I’d like to ask about the aesthetic of the film because you have a very distinctive colour palette of like beige colours and very starkly lit figures against dark shadows, and I was wondering what inspired the look of the film and how you found that look?

Well I really wanted to go into somewhere very dark, very obscure, because to me it was a woman imprisoned in her house so there should be no daylight, no any kind of fresh colours.  To me it was obvious that it should be very dark, and we were discussing whether there would be some sort of looks, and some of the inspirations were Repulsion by Polanski, and also a bit of Autumn Sonata by Ingmar Bergman, so we were seeing kind of these looks a bit because these are some of the movies I really love.

And also the fact that I  really wanted her to stand out in the middle of this darkness, so as we are always focused on her we have nothing else in the movie, even the set is quite minimalistic, like there’s not too much props, there is not too much stuff going on other than her being stuck in this house and, you know, having these  thoughts, and everything that’s happening around her.

Lisa Debs is fantastic in the lead, and almost only, role.  How did she involved?

Well Lisa, Lisa Debs is a Lebanese actress.  She’s quite famous in Lebanon because she plays in some TV series here in Beirut.  She’s an acting student from the Lebanese University, and we have been friends for 10 years since our university days because she was majoring in acting and I was majoring in cinema studies.  We did some of my previous projects together, we worked together on my previous movies.  And being a close friend of her I kind of knew that she could really capture the feeling that I really wanted to give on screen.  But, yeah, of course it was the first time that she’s acting in a kind of horror/thriller kind of movie as those movies are not really present in the Middle East in the Lebanese scene.  You don’t see quite a lot of horror movies or thriller movies.

So, it was quite a challenge, we both pulled together, and, yeah, I’m very happy of the collaboration we had.

Excellent.  Is that something you see yourself sort of continuing to try and redress is sort of challenging that lack of horror and thrillers in Lebanese cinema?

Yeah, yeah, definitely.  Definitely I see that.  I would love to continue doing these kind of movies because we lack these movies and there is no sort of rise of this genre in the Middle East because we do have lots of stories that can be treated in this kind of genre.  And not a lot of people did that before.

And actually, while I was doing the movie some people were watching my movie.  There were like comments like “wow, you really kind of captured the really Lebanese story and made it into a genre movie” which was quite a nice comment to me as nobody really explored those themes in these kinds of genre.

And also, the presence of this new festival which is Maskoon which is in its third edition it’s becoming a platform to inspire and encourage people to create more and more these kind of movies in the region.

Yeah, there’s definitely a feeling of a very profound truth at the heart of it in addition to being a really effective horror film.  For you, what are the advantages of making a short film?  Is it limiting, or does it sort of inspire innovation for you?

Well the short movie is quite limited as the time is quite limited, so it should be very compact and have like one straight message coming out of it.  I think it is quite a difficult task to pull a short movie and be able to touch different people in different countries and different places.  But I think it’s a very nice challenge, it’s quite different from a feature film which I’ve never done.  I haven’t done already a feature, I’ve done many shorts until now.  But I think that it’s really a nice format, I think, to be able to send a certain message, to send a certain feeling, to work on like one simple idea and let people feel those kind of feelings that we want to convey in the movie.

Excellent. And do you intend to continue on in this format, or is there plans for a feature at some stage?

Like all filmmakers I think we ultimately all want to do features at some point, of course.  But I wouldn’t mind keep on working on this format as long as the ideas are there and the fundings are there.  But also, it’s quite hard to get funding for feature films for filmmakers that are starting out even though I did many shorts before.  But to get to the stage where we are getting funding and to be able to find a producer to do a feature it takes some time of course.

But it doesn’t mean that we’re doing short movies only to get to the feature. I think the short movie is quite a nice format to keep on doing it.

Definitely, and this is a very, very fine example.  How can people experience Reprisal?

Yes, well actually it’s going to be in the Abertoir Film Festival in Wales.

Oh, lovely.

Yeah, I am so happy about that festival because I really wanted to get to that one, and it’s actually in the official selection, but unfortunately, I am not going there. It’s playing now also in Mexico in a festival called Stuff MX, and then there will be another festival in Bulgaria in January, and hopefully some more coming up.  But eventually it will be online on Vimeo. You were there at Fright Fest, right?

I was, yes.  It was a very enthusiastic audience, I think.

It was really great.  Yeah, people really loved the movie. And I was really touched because people really understood the film even though I was thinking maybe it won’t really affect people as I want to. I didn’t know how the UK audience would react to the movie but actually there were lots of people who talked to me and really understood and loved the movie.  I mean when I say they understood the movie, it’s not because it’s not understandable but it’s because a really Lebanese subject which is very common here in Beirut, but I wasn’t sure if it’s going to be as common in other places in the world.  But like in the screenings in Mexico also it had lots of great feedbacks because they kind of related to it, and also to the idea of the dead which is quite present in the Mexican culture.

Yeah, I think what you’ve captured within the film is something that is really universal, and it is this sense of sort of grief and loneliness, and the way in which the past returns to haunt the present.

Yes.  Perfect.



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