"Ghadi”, the soon-to-be-released Lebanese movie, is not about the civil war, nor about sectarian tensions; it is about accepting someone who is different. A story with a fantasy twist, it’s a tale of tolerance and of hope; a timely message for the Lebanese in these challenging times. Local movies of its caliber are unfortunately rare, largely due to a lack of financial backers willing to bet on the country’s fragile movie industry. But Ghadi is a story that the producers were determined to bring to the screen with or without significant financial backing.
An unlikely protagonist
The film revolves around the eponymous Ghadi, a young boy with Down syndrome. The specifics of his disorder, also known as trisomy 21, are not as important to the plot as what they represent: difference. The movie is about “accepting people that are different” says Gabriel Chamoun, the film’s producer and CEO of Lebanon based production company The Talkies.
“He was born like this. If we don’t accept him, how can we accept the other differences in life?” asks lead actor and scriptwriter Georges Khabbaz.
Behind a window in a small town
Set in a timeless Christian village, the movie tells the story of music instructor Leba, played by Khabbaz, who marries his high school sweetheart and becomes the father of two girls and Ghadi. Sitting by a window, Ghadi screams day and night, which bothers the local villagers; unable to bear the noise any longer, they demand that Leba send his son out of the village to an institute for children with special needs. For Leba, this is out of the question. Armed with knowledge of sins committed by his fellow villagers, Leba decides to teach the locals a lesson of tolerance. From here the tale takes on a fairy tale twist, as he convinces the villagers that his son is an angel and only makes noise when one of them — a corrupt butcher, a bad-mouthed barber, a thieving policeman, a prostitute, some gossip hungry women among others — commits a sin. Rumors spread that the angel is also capable of fulfilling dreams. Suddenly, the window through which Ghadi looks down on them brings the village’s sinful behavior into check and becomes a window of hope for villagers praying for the fulfillment of their dreams.
Is Lebanon in need of Ghadi today? “Of course,” Khabbaz says. “Lebanon needs hope.”
Inspired by experience
The idea for the script came to Khabbaz out of his experience in the past five years as a theater professor for the children of Lebanese civil association Acsauvel, which provides care for mentally challenged children and adults. Eleven-year-old Emmanuel Kheirallah was handpicked by the film’s director Amin Dora, from Lebanon’s Sesobel association for disabled children, to play the role of Ghadi. Khabbaz wanted them all to play the role.
The villagers of the town believe Ghadi is an angel
After extensive casting, Dora kept going back to the pictures of Kheirallah. “I felt this boy needs to be the main character, he looks like an angel” says Dora. The cast also features prominent names such as Antoine Moultaka, founder in 1965 of the Lebanese University’s dramatic art department, scriptwriter Mona Tayeh and actor Camille Salameh, whose theater career began in 1972. Choosing the cast was not the hardest bit for Dora. “To treat the script in a fantasy way without losing its essence” was the most challenging aspect. It’s an endeavor in which he succeeded, bringing home the film’s powerful message while maintaining its fairy tale character.
A risky venture
This is the first time Khabbaz, a renowned theater director and actor in Lebanon, has acted in a film he wrote himself. His previous film experience is minimal, but includes the 2006 movie “Under the Bombs”, which was shown at the 2008 Sundance film festival. When The Talkies’ Chamoun reached out to Khabbaz at the end of 2011 with the offer of producing a feature film, he seized the opportunity. Within two months, he had the script — which had been running for years in his head — laid down on paper. Khabbaz and Chamoun quickly agreed on who would direct the movie: Dora, director and winner of the International Digital Emmy Award for the world’s first Arab web drama series “Shankaboot”. Dora is also behind the Beirut Duty Free’s flashmob commercials, which have over 4 million YouTube hits.
Ghadi's appearances become a major event in the town
Production company The Talkies are also new to the movie industry, having never produced a feature film before. Since 1998 they have specialized in television commercials, with clients including Samsung, McDonald’s and Qatar National Bank, while its movie experience has been limited to two short films. After failed attempts at producing feature films due to financing issues, Chamoun was determined to go through with the project, even if that meant — as it ultimately did — bearing the bulk of the not-so-little $1.5 million cost himself.
A costly gamble
With investors squeamish about taking a share of the movie partly because of their reluctance to invest in the Lebanese cinema industry and partly because of the fact that the company was a newbie in the production of movies, The Talkies ended up with a 70 percent stake, compared to an ideal target of 30 percent. The remaining share was taken up by friends of Chamoun: Anthony and Celia Sakkal, and construction company J. Matta Holding represented by Fadi Matta and Samer Dadanian.
“I knew it would be a struggle to fund this movie because it’s our first and there are not many successful [Lebanese] movies other than the ones of [actor and director] Nadine Labaki”, he says. One financial institution that has been venturing into the movie business of late is Lebanon’s FFA private bank, which recently co-financed the Hollywood action movie “Two Guns”, but when Chamoun approached them, they turned down the investment opportunity because of the “high budget for a Lebanese movie,” he says. The Talkies also struggled when it came to sponsors, only managing to get Societe Generale de Banque au Liban on board.
Beyond Lebanon, they secured a grant from Qatari cultural organization the Doha Film Institute, which will be assisting with the marketing of the movie for an international audience. Given that the message of the movie is universal and not specific to Lebanon, Chamoun is convinced the film could do well in countries abroad “especially South America because of its large Christian following”, he says. This is key since to break even Chamoun needs to sell tickets beyond Lebanon. Even if “Ghadi” ticket sales match Labaki’s “Where Do We Go Now?” 325,000 entries record in Lebanon — or just under $1 million in revenues — they will still fall short of covering the movie’s cost. Chamoun is hopeful that 50 percent of the return will come from Lebanon ticket sales, with the remaining from sales of international distribution as well as additional items such as DVDs and Video on Demand, all within 12 to 18 months from its launch date set for October 31.
It remains to be seen whether “Ghadi” will prove profitable for its backers. With a lack of public funding supporting homegrown movies, its financial success could be critical to entice investors and advertisers alike to back the country’s struggling cinema industry. It would be a shame to see the floundering of a Lebanese industry that has been around since 1929, beginning with the silent movie “The Adventures of Elias Mabrouk” followed by the first sound film, “In the Ruins of Baalbeck” in 1936. In the sixties Lebanon’s film industry even competed with Egyptian cinema, the Arab world’s center of filmmaking.
A traditional Lebanese setting with high quality acting and a touching script makes this movie one not to miss. It is all the more essential given its message of tolerance, whether for physical, mental or religious differences. Without crucial support, efforts of this sort — which should be seen not just in Lebanon but throughout the world — will not hit the screens nor be able to give our homegrown talent the audience they deserve.