Maria IVANOVA SURAE: «Wrath — is the film about an Oriental girl with a Russian character»


On February 2, the first ever joint Russian-Lebanese feature film "Wrath" by Maria Ivanova Surae will be released in Russia. Maria Ivanova Surae is a director, screenwriter and producer with more than 16 years of experience in the film industry, including years working in Lebanon. I came to a feature film from a documentary.

In 2014, the short feature film "The Last One" (Sonuncu), produced by Maria, entered the main competition of the 67th Cannes Film Festival, then entered 87 film festivals and received 9 awards. In 2017, Maria directed a feature-length documentary about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, "Escape from War". The film won a special UNHCR award and the Critics ' Choice Award at the Stalker International Film Festival. In 2021, Maria completed work on her feature film debut, Wrath.

мария иванова сурае - режиссер фильма гнев

- Maria, tell us how Lebanon came to be in your life. How did it happen that you shot your first feature film as a director in the Middle East?

- Lebanon came into my life by accident. In 2015, together with the cameraman Zhenya Rodin, we went to Syria to shoot my documentary about Syrian refugees "Running away from War". We flew to Beirut, and from Beirut we were supposed to go by car to Damascus. It's only 100 kilometers away. Imagine, on December 31, snow falls extremely rarely in Lebanon-palm trees, plus 15, and suddenly, unexpectedly, the road to Damascus was covered with snow. Three days pass, and still the road is not opened. And then we started shooting in Beirut.

For me, Lebanon was terra incognita. I've heard and read a lot about this country, but seeing it with my own eyes is quite another matter. To be honest, in the beginning, I was even afraid to walk the streets alone. There was some stereotype that it was dangerous in Lebanon and so on. But this is not the case at all. We shot in Beirut for five days and finally I found a plane ticket to Damascus. We flew, fell into the hands of scammers (and all this during the war), but this is a completely different story. Then they ran away from Syria back to Lebanon and spent the remaining two weeks making a film about refugees in Lebanon. We visited the Bekaa Valley, Baalbek.

I managed not only to make a movie, but also to get to know the country better. I was in the Middle East for the first time, and it was a delight! Nature, rich history, the oldest port in the world Byblos, the Phoenician ruins of Baalbek, friendly people – all this is very attractive. Lebanon is a small country, 100 km in any direction, smaller than the Moscow region. It is a secular state, multi-religious, 50 percent Muslim and 50 percent Christian, and only 18 religions get along together. I fell in love with this country, and I think it's mutual. That's why, three years ago, I decided to shoot my directorial feature debut in Lebanon. By that time, I was living between Moscow and Beirut, studying the culture and mentality of the Lebanese. I managed to understand a lot, but there are still a lot of riddles. The script of the film "Wrath"was based on my observations and real stories.

– How and when did you come up with the idea to make this film?

– The idea to write the script of the film "Anger" - as one Lebanese journalist said, about an oriental girl with a Russian character, appeared during the film market in Berlin in 2020. One of the events that influenced the idea of the film was the terrorist attack that happened during the festival in one of the German cities. The killer came to a Turkish cafe and shot the customers. Then it turned out that the terrorist adhered to neo-Nazi ideology. I also wrote a synopsis at the film market and immediately started looking for producers. You won't believe it (!), I found three. When I returned to Moscow, quarantine began due to Covid-19 and I had to stay at home for three weeks. I used that time to write the script. At the same time, I was looking for music for the film, and this helped me write, set me up for the right wave. I write quickly and in three weeks the first draft was ready. Then I gave the script to the editor and started looking for an actress to play the lead role. Over the Internet. When I saw the photos of the French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa, I immediately realized that she was the main character. I wrote to her personally on Instagram and she quickly responded. We started talking, and she read the script. She liked the role... but there was a problem, Manal was supposed to be in the movie Swimmers (dir. Sally El Hosaini), but due to quarantine, filming was postponed for a year. And we planned to shoot our film in the summer. I started rehearsing with her on zoom and at the same time looking for an actor for the main male role. The French actor Aurelien Chaussade found quite quickly. It was already May and we were preparing to go to Lebanon for the preparatory period. But again, measures were intensified due to covid and several producers left the project – they did not believe that the film could be shot in the summer. Part of the funding went with the producers. I had to rewrite the script to reduce the budget, and move the entire action of the film to Lebanon. Many people said that after the alterations, the script became even better.

– You talk about the script, casting, rehearsals, and music search so easily, but you don't have a classical directing and screenwriting education. How did you do it?

– Well, first of all, I am a journalist by training and worked in my specialty for five years. I've been a producer for 10 years. I have accumulated both experience and an understanding of how it should be and what it means to write well and make great films. The films that my authors and directors made were really very high-quality. I often participated in the creative process and enjoyed it, but surprisingly, we had a complete understanding with the directors. Of course, it was not easy to start my first script, but I understood that there was only one chance to make a film right now and I had to use it. It was very difficult for me to be a "three in one, more precisely, in one" - producer, director and screenwriter. But it is difficult for a debutant to find a producer, especially for a Lebanese film. Now, I dream that someone will take off my duties as a producer. When I made Wrath, I realized that being a director was my destiny.

– Initially, the film was called "In her Head", but then the name "Anger" appeared. Why did the name change happen and what is your film about?

– The name has changed several times, yes. This is a common thing in movies. Moreover, I was a producer, director, and screenwriter, and I didn't have to agree on a name change with anyone. The film is about finding a way out of even the most seemingly hopeless situation. About connections with the roots, with the past and, of course, about a strong woman.

– The film was highly appreciated at many Russian and international festivals, tell us about its festival movement, what was particularly memorable, how it was received by the first audience? Are there any other plans to participate in the festivals?

– I remember that I went to the first premiere of my film in Tunis for the ancient Carthage Film festival in the Middle East with a broken leg. Two weeks before that, I was playing volleyball and broke my leg, and on the second one, my ligaments were damaged. And I rolled out of the airport in a wheelchair. Tunisia is not intended for people with disabilities, there is nothing for people in wheelchairs. I suffered terribly until I got up and started walking, stepping on my broken leg. Sometimes the halls were on a floor without an elevator. And I had to go up there. Five screenings in five days, the grand opening of the festival, a lot of interviews and I was in a cast everywhere. But the audience took it very well. There were so many reviews. Both from the Arab public and from Europeans.

So far, the film has participated in 36 festivals and won 9 awards. This is very cool. I especially remember the screenings in Lebanon, Switzerland and Russia. Anger was also taken to the main festival in Iran, the 41ST FAJR INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL — I have always dreamed of going to Iran and will soon go there.

– After the success of the film "Capernaum", when it was nominated for an Oscar, the Lebanese cinema in the world started talking in a new way. It is stated that the same team worked on the film "Wrath". Please tell us more about this collaboration, its significance and the cast.

– Yes, on the film "Wrath" worked the same production as on "Copernachum" - one of the world's most talented directors Nadine Labaki. On "Anger" worked a wonderful executive producer Pierre Sarraf, production designer Hussein Baydun, my friend sound engineer Shadi Rukoz, as well as a dresser, make-up artist, casting director. Director of photography Tomasso Fiorilli was the cinematographer of the film "Insult" - also a Lebanese film nominated for an Oscar. And the editing director Vesela Machlevski worked with Vadim Perelman on "Lessons in Farsi". Post-production was done by one of the best film companies in the world, the German Post Republic, which became co-producers of the film. My team is strong and, most importantly, bold.

I found the rest of the actors already in Lebanon, the casting lasted two weeks. I love the actress Julia Cassar (who played the mother of the main character), Hussam Sabbah — the father of the main character, who unfortunately died in a car accident the year before last, and Mohamed Akeel - he is the uncle of the main character. These are people of unique talent.

– During the filming process, there were a lot of tests, a pandemic, an explosion in the port of Beirut. How did this affect the final result and the film as a whole, relative to what was originally intended?

- The tests began even before filming, when several producers left the project due to the coronavirus and we were left without part of the funding. We arrived in Lebanon in June, but I didn't return home until September. Because of the explosion on August 4 in the port of Beirut, our main location – the apartment of the main character-was destroyed. At the last moment, we changed the shooting schedule and started shooting the film with the episode "village" — this saved us. At the time of the explosion, we were 40 kilometers from Beirut. In the evening, we heard two pops. We ran out into the street, and my group started calling friends and relatives. No one answered the phone. The group started to panic, there was no news yet. I called the Russian Embassy and said that if war broke out, we should be evacuated. We went back to the set and continued shooting the movie. After some time, the first news appeared – an explosion in the Beirut port – hundreds of dead and injured, several districts of the city were destroyed. I gave everyone the day off and went to Beirut to make a documentary about the bombing.

Thank God no one close to my group was injured. When we returned to Beirut, we saw that our location was destroyed. We had to postpone filming and start building all over again. After the explosion, riots broke out in the city, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets and began setting fire to and breaking storefronts, shops, and other buildings. They were calmed down by the army, but the next day it all started again. It was impossible to pass through, the city stopped moving. Our hotel would be destroyed and we would all live in different parts of the city. But neither then nor later did I have the idea to finish filming. And the whole group was also ready to shoot even in such difficult conditions. I learned a lot about the Lebanese, because to get to know a person, you need to be in a difficult situation with them. And the Lebanese behaved surprisingly boldly — this is a strong nation, I was in a good way amazed. After that, I slightly changed the words of the main character in one episode, where she talks about her compatriots.

But that's not all.

Then the quarantine started, and we took tests every day. They were especially worried about filming in prison, because if only one person got sick, they wouldn't let anyone in. But a miracle – no one got infected.

We finished filming and I returned to Moscow – tired and exhausted. She said that such a debut would not have been a nightmare. And in October, I was already in Berlin for installation. In general, I can say one thing – everything, of course, ends both good and bad, but it also depends on you how exactly. The director always has a motive and meaning, and this is the main thing for achieving the goal.

– It turns out that this is the first experience of Russian-Lebanese cooperation in the field of film production? What role do you think this will play for cultural cooperation between the two countries?

- Yes, the film "Wrath" is the first experience of cooperation between Lebanon and Russia in film production. But not yet at the state level. Funding came from private investors. In Russia, I did not apply to the Ministry of Culture. And in Lebanon, unfortunately, there is no state support for cinema and we can only rely on investors. The example of the Lebanese film "Capernaum" showed that art-house cinema can earn money. With a budget of $ 4.5 million, Copernachum raised $ 64 million. This is a rare success and I am glad that the Lebanese film was lucky.

Before the film, I did several cultural events between Lebanon and Russia. For example, in 2016 I held the first Russian film festival in Lebanon. We brought 12 Russian films and journalists to Beirut, held press conferences, and made screenings in the best cinemas in the city. The film "Wrath" is a continuation of cooperation and I hope that the Russian audience will love this picture as much as the audience of the Middle East and other countries loved it. 
In 2022, I finished my documentary film "I am not a Lakit" in Lebanon (co-production of Lebanon and Romania) , and if we talk about future projects, then I'm also going to shoot my next feature film in Lebanon.

– Was there any support? Where did you find funding?

– Initially, the film had five co-producers, at the EFM film market in Berlin in 2020, I found three: from France, Georgia and Lithuania, and in May there were only two companies left – Russian and Lebanese. A German company joined the post-production team. When the French co-producer left the project, he said that he did not believe that the film could be shot this summer (it was about the summer of 2020). It's impossible! But for me, the word "impossible" rarely has a direct meaning. Yes, it was on the verge of impossible, but we did it.

– On February 2, the film will be released in Russia. For the Russian film distribution, Lebanese cinema is quite rare. Why did you decide to release it now? Has it been released for film distribution in other territories?

- Russia is the first country to distribute the film "Wrath". Next in line are the countries of the Middle East. Why now, in February? We think this is the best time for our film. People will return from their holidays, by the way, I celebrated this New Year in Lebanon and noticed a lot of Russian tourists. These people will definitely come to the cinemas to see Lebanon again

As for Lebanese cinema in Russia, everything is very simple – Lebanon is a small country, not so many films are shot there, about 10 full-length films a year are co-produced in different countries. Some films are made exclusively for the domestic Middle Eastern market. Serial production is booming in Lebanon right now. Hundreds of projects are produced per year. Some of them are released on Netflix. I hope that "fashion for Lebanon" will only expand.

I really hope that the distribution of the film "Anger" in Russia will be successful and we will be able to say that the first Russian-Lebanese film really turned out!

- Tell us about your future creative plans in the cinema.

– I don't like to talk about what is still only at the beginning of the journey. I can say that the next film will be based on a real event that took place in the Middle East. I found out about this story seven years ago, but I only wrote a synopsis now. I learned to live by the principle of "everything has its own time" in the east, which helps me to feel calmer about everything that happens-good or bad - and to trust myself more.

– What would you like to wish the audience?

- Trust yourself! Come watch Wrath. And leave your anger in cinemas – enter the new year with a new Self.

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Materials provided by "Base development" company