“Since It’s About the Death of a Body, We Wanted the Language of the Film to Be Sensuality”: Mazen Khaled on Martyr
Men touch each other tenderly in Mazen Khaled’s formally eclectic second feature Martyr, about the death of a young adult whose self-perpetuated despair drowns him on the shores of the Mediterranean. In this ethereal Lebanese mood piece, the religious interpretation of martyrdom is counteracted with tangible flesh. Rather than glorifying the loss of life as a divine honor, Khaled subtly revels in the presence of desire and the body as constant reminders that being alive is precious.
Unemployed and adrift, Hassane (Hamza Mekdad) only finds respite from his restless mind when tanning by the water with his cherished friends, brothers in pain and uncertainty who are his one unwavering rock. Fraternal affection between them runs deep — far more profoundly than the male bonding depicted in formulaic Western buddy movies. As such, the burden of loss when tragedy strikes is one that can only be collectively carried. The deceased, however, is never entirely absent, even if no longer breathes. His body lingers in the narrative being rescued, being washed, and being caressed by those not ready to let go of his existence.
Mourning expressed as haunting dance, soothing underwater set pieces, unexpected tableaux vivants, and goodbye sessions in an alternative dark space are all part of Khaled’s artistic arsenal in this sensually solemn sophomore work. Filmmaker talked to the director about the possible multiple readings of the film, our bodies’ wisdoms, and choreography as a visual tool. Supported by the Venice Biennale College Cinema, Martyr had its world premiere at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, followed by its North American debut at SXSW this year. The film is in theatrical release and on VOD now from Breaking Glass.
Filmmaker: What’s your take on the concept of martyrdom, and what about its connotations inspired you to make it the central idea in the film?
Mazen Khaled: The word “martyr” is in the news a lot these days, and it’s become equated with war and violence, but if you look at the word in its original meaning, at least in the Islamic religion — though it exists in all religions — it has a broader definition. It doesn’t have to mean someone who goes and dies in war; the meaning actually encompasses someone who drowns, someone who dies from certain types of cancer, and even someone who dies on his or her way to work. All of them are considered martyrs. Martyrdom is changing, and that’s something that got me interested in it.
Filmmaker: The crucial death in the film takes place on the Mediterranean shores. Is this an area of Beirut you personally frequent or how did it become a part of the narrative?
Khaled: I always go to the Beirut Corniche, and what really the started the idea of the film was that I noticed this phenomenon of guys jumping off from the top of the street into the rocky shore. I always found it dangerous and very interesting because they do it in a performative way, so I wanted to look more into it. Then I found out that some of them have died while doing it — I know of at least two guys. There are videos on YouTube that I do not recommend anyone seeing, but I saw them, unfortunately. They can die a very horrible death. Since Beirut is a Mediterranean city, the Corniche, the waterside promenade, limits the area, but below it is a rocky shore. It was also interesting that the area has almost an exclusively male presence. You very rarely see any females down there. The concept for Martyr came from these ideas.
Filmmaker: Once you had the concept, what pushed to apply to the Biennale College? Was it a program you were aiming for from the onset or did it feel particularly fitting for the project?
Khaled: I was screening a film in a small program at Cannes the year before and in the audience was a lovely woman, Jane Williams, and after the screening she told me, “Mazen you should apply to our program, the Biennale College.” I had no idea what that was, so she described it, but at that point I had less than a month to find the producer, to write a treatment of the story, and to make a mood video, a mood board, and all the other requirements. I went back home, and I was very lucky to find a producer very quickly. I wrote everything and shot two really great videos, which I think is what got me into the College. We got in.
Filmmaker: Seems like it was meant to be. What does the program entail and how was it beneficial for you in the development of Martyr?
Khaled: It’s a beautiful process that I highly recommend filmmakers look into. You play with an idea and then they invite you to Venice for 12 days and subject you to feedback and workshops by some of the top people in the industry, from writing, to producing, to directing, to cinematography, to edit. Some people I studied in books, and suddenly I was sitting in front of them and they were talking about my idea. Then you break for a month to write the first draft, and out of the 12 initial projects they select three projects that they will help fund. We were chosen, and they invited us to do another workshop strictly with a scriptwriter, and then you do a third workshop on production. It’s an amazing, very kind, and very professional process. I highly recommend filmmakers and producers all over the world look into it.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the male relationships in the film. Their friendship seems to be very tender and profound in a way that we don’t see in Western cinema.
Khaled: Yeah, so much so that when some people see it they immediately read into it an LGBT or gay meaning. There is a lot of toxic masculinity represented in western cinema, and Martyr is not that. It’s really the opposite of that; it’s a tender relationship. Having said that, I don’t want to deny that there could be homosexual love between them, but I don’t see that as the point. I see the point being that those four people really love each other. For a best friend to ever touch his friend only happens after his death, which is the tragic element of this particular story.
Funnily enough, in Lebanon it wasn’t taken with a strictly gay interpretation. Even in the Arab world at large, it’s being perceived as something else. It’s being perceived more as a friendship. But over here in the west, I don’t think we can look at tenderness between men without their minds going immediately to homosexuality. And I embrace all interpretations; I’m not going to say one interpretation is right and the other is wrong, it doesn’t really belong to me anymore.
Filmmaker: Even if Lebanese audiences are more accepting of these intimate bonds between men, were you worried about the nudity in the shower scene or was that not a problem at all there?
Khaled: We didn’t show it in Lebanon; we had to cut it actually. We didn’t want to go through censorship or them banning the film, and we didn’t want the censors to cut the film, so we made a special edit for Lebanon. We didn’t remove the underwater scenes, where you see his naked body; we kept that, and it passed, and that was a really strange thing. They didn’t say anything about it, but we did remove the erect penis in the masturbation scene. We didn’t want them cutting it, we wanted to cut it ourselves. The version that went to Lebanon and Egypt is the self-censored version.
Filmmaker: And you probably didn’t want the film to be defined by that scene.
Khaled: Yeah, if that moment was the main point of the film, I would never have cut it, but the main point of the film was somewhere else, and I didn’t want to lose the main point for a supporting idea. The fact that his sexuality was interrupted is a supporting idea in the film, and it’s still there but we don’t see the erect penis. We still see him masturbating, and we see his father knock on the door, it’s all still there. The cut was really a few frames.
Filmmaker: There are several underwater sequences that add a sort of ethereal quality to the movie. How were those realized from a technical standpoint? Were those costly scenes considering your budget?
Khaled: This was done in two ways. Parts of it were shot in the Mediterranean Sea; the problem with that was that it was winter, and it was really, really cold, so it was very difficult to shoot all these scenes. The slow motion parts were shot in a pool. We had a beautiful accident happen. Since didn’t have the budget for a professional water tank, we did it in a normal pool, and we put black fabric around it. We held the fabric in place with adobe bricks, so on the day of shooting the bricks were releasing a kind of dust into the water, and my crew was like, “We can’t shoot this, it’s too dusty,” but then when me and my DP tested it, it looked like beautiful 16mm grain, and we were like, “Oh my god, actually this is wonderful, we liked it.” The Mediterranean shots were very difficult, especially because we had to cancel shooting for a few days because sometimes the water was too high, the sea was too rough, and we had some pollution problems. We’re dealing with pollution in Lebanon, so we had to cancel shooting for a few days. It was not an easy shooting, honestly, especially the water scenes.
Filmmaker: You also have other moments in the film that are closer to theatrical performances. They exist in this alternative black space, like an underworld perhaps, almost like in a magical realist way. What were you looking to express with them?
Khaled: From the first days of the writing process I wanted the film’s cinematic language to be the same as the language we see in media today. Today in media, for example, if you’re looking at videos on Facebook, you see one video that’s trying to sell you a toothbrush, and the next video is a dead child in Yemen. It’s all mixed together.
We see news on TV, we hear news on radio, in print, everything is mixing together, and it’s becoming a cacophony of voices, so we wanted to present this in the film in the same way that we hear news today. That’s why I wanted to choreographed parts of it. I wanted to bring in some dance. I’m a big fan of dance, and I’ve shot some dance videos. We wanted a multitude of delivery languages.
Since it’s about the death of a body, we wanted the language of the film to be the sensuality. It’s a sensual film. When we die, what really dies is our desire; that’s why desire has to be brought in. It dies with the body, so if you can’t have the body expressed this grief, then you’re not really dealing with the subject matter as it’s supposed to be. We didn’t want words to be the only language of the film; we wanted the language of the film to be the body, the skin, the desire, and the touch, and all of this came together through dance.
Our bodies are smarter than our brains. Our brains are often wrong, but our emotions and our senses, I think they’re smarter, so we wanted the body to be the language of the film, and what better way to express the body than through dance and choreography. All of the scenes, not just the dance, but also the pulling up of the body, it’s all choreographed. Everything was studied in a choreographic matter to achieve this.
Filmmaker: Hamza Mekdad, who plays the martyr in the movie, gives a potent performance even when not moving. Why did you select him to play the part?
Khaled: I had Hamza in mind very early when I was applying for the Biennale College, long before I started writing the screenplay. Even though everybody around me wanted me to reverse and give him another role, I was convinced that he would be a really good Hassane. I met him in a restaurant and when I looked at him I thought, “That’s him.” I approached him and he was very supportive and we became close. Then he introduced me to Moustafa Fahs, the guy who plays Hassane’s best friend. Hamza is a really amazing guy.
Filmmaker: And was he aware of how some of the material in the film could be perceived?
Khaled: For the main two characters, played by Hamza and Moustafa, I wanted the actors to be okay with it from day one. I asked them, “What if this is interpreted as such?” and they said, “We have no problem with that.” They both love each other for real outside of the movie, they care about each other, and they don’t care about being labeled. Like I said, in Lebanon no one labeled it as a gay love story oddly enough. There are emotional elements in the film that supersede the labels of gay, straight, or bi. It’s about loss. We’ve all experienced loss and we’ve all grieved. Of course you can question whether they are gay or straight, but when you see the film there is something bigger there, I think.
Filmmaker: For most of the film he plays the character that’s passed away, was that a uniquely emotional obstacle for Hamza? How did you tackle those moments with him?
Khaled: The single most difficult part for him was when he was in the shroud. Throughout the whole washing process, I had instructions to the actors to always touch him, always have a hand on him, so he could feel reassured. But then, when they wrapped him with the shroud, someone touched him, and he screamed, “Don’t touch me!” He had a really bad panic attack in the shroud. That’s the scene that really got to him, partly because he had no breathing room. Later, Hamza told me that he’s never been the same since then.
I had told him beforehand that it was going to be difficult, and to be fair; I made these videos in tableau vivant style of myself in his position. I wrapped myself in the shroud, and I played all the positions he was going to be in, and then we went together, he and I, and we took a physical acting workshop, because I wanted us to relate to each other. He still tells me that he’s never been the same, but in a really good way. He thinks it gave him something, like a real experience.
Filmmaker: Continuing with this idea of the depth of the relationship that these friends have, is the washing of the body the ultimate honor for a friend, or where did the idea of the friends washing the body come from?
Khaled: These friends are kind of marginalized young men. For example, our protagonist, he couldn’t make it in the mainstream workforce and now he is unemployed. Before that, his parents didn’t want him to get into a politicized environment, so they removed him and had him work and go to the job market, but when he didn’t find his place there, he was left without either. Hassane’s choices were either follow these radicalized men we see on the street who want to die as martyrs, or go to work. He couldn’t find his place in the workplace or in the politicized street culture, so he was left with nothing, with nowhere to exist.
Hassane’s father knew that his son’s friends all had the same choice ahead of them, so he wanted to explain to them what death is. Among these four friends, it’s not a normal thing for a friend to wash his dead friend, but the father is the one who says they have to do it, because he wants to teach them a lesson about the meaning of life. Death isn’t a beautiful thing. It’s the really a cold reality of a cold, lifeless body. I think the beautiful contribution by the father’s character in the story is that he teaches them that death isn’t this glorified thing, like martyrdom. It’s not really a normal thing to have friends wash their dead friend, but it happens in this story.