Laeticia Semaan On How Her New Film Heaven Without People Sheds Light On The Everyday Taboo In Lebanon

BY Céline Semaan / Jul 19 2020 / 21:00 PM

From fashion’s hemline index to beauty’s lipstick effect, socio-cultural tribulations are always reflected in both art and self-expression. And sometimes, it’s humanity’s darkest moments that give way to our most important creations...

Laeticia Semaan On How Her New Film Heaven Without People Sheds Light On The Everyday Taboo In Lebanon

The chaos of war, conflict, violence and oppression are, thankfully, unimaginable to many in the world. But for millions of people currently living in such situations, on all continents, the reality is that in extreme circumstances, the ability to explore key human activities such as artistic expression, self-fulfillment and discovery of personal identity are mere luxuries.

From this perspective, the simple act of creating art – cinema, music, dance in times of strife, is in itself a radical act of resistance. Even a global pandemic has engendered innovation and creativity by virtue of necessity; we have simply had to think differently in order to keep our heads above water. As the adage circulating online right now goes, Shakespeare wrote King Lear whilst isolating during the plague. Art and chaos? Beauty and darkness? They’re old bed fellows. And to create images and stories of ourselves, to produce and control a narrative about our culture is one of the most powerful acts of defiance, progression and self-affirmation there is – but it is also one of the most crucial. 

How we create these stories can take many forms, from the fantastical to fictional realism – and this can add to the art’s creation as much as the content itself. In cinema, for example, a film making style emerged from Denmark that enlisted a strict set of rules for a minimal, elemental genre called Dogme 95, aimed to create an intimate, almost homemade feel.

This intimate, hyper-realistic style is the base of inspiration for Heaven Without People, the latest award-winning film by Lucien Bourjeily, currently streaming on Netflix. Lucien explains, “It’s not actually 100 per cent dogme because Dogme 95 has different rules which were not followed, but in the film there is indeed the essence of why they began the dogme movement in the firstplace; the objective being to bring back total creative freedom for the artist to make films without funding or production constraints while concentrating on the essence of storytelling: theme, story, acting and cinematography.”

He continues, “ This movie discusses a lot of controversial topics and is made with bold artistic choices, so in a normal production process this might have been altered or toned-down to suit the investors. In the guerrilla, indie-film making process we used, however we managed to go beyond censorship restraints to enable us to make ‘safe’ creative choices.”

I caught up with one of the  film’s leading actresses, Laeticia Semaan, who also happens to be my sister, whose role pushed boundaries in a number of ways; from a cultural swap (having actors from contrasting backgrounds play reverse roles), to perhaps the first appearance of a bathroom on Lebanese film. Laeticia stands among the stellar cast bringing the powerful story to life...

HBA: There is something deeply healing in acting. Do you feel that is why we tell stories and act them out?

LS: We tell stories for a few reasons; to convey a specific message, to represent an experience someone might relate to, and/ or to show and say that it is ok to feel a certain way. I’m reading a book right now called The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks, and I realised that acting makes me feel in my ‘Zone of Genius’ – a concept from the book where we can excel and do our best work, seemingly effortlessly. By studying a character and embodying them, it allows me to feel the most myself, at total ease. It is a challenge and with every character I learn more about myself and connect with myself on a much deeper level. It’s incredibly centering. 

HBA: Acting in Lebanon sounds like a difficult endeavour. How can one indulge in the arts when other needs can be an issue?

LS: Heaven Without People addresses a lot of issues we face daily in Lebanon, most of which are taboo and rarely actually addressed. These contribute to the systemic problems that have resulted in the lack of some of these basic needs. In many ways, our work and the arts highlighting these issues and raising awareness is extremely powerful.

HBA: Your path to acting wasn’t easy. How did you start?

LS: Yes, starting wasn’t easy, especially finding the acting path that I wanted in Lebanon. In my early 20s I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I studied Economics at university in Montréal, but it wasn’t my thing. Everyone around me would call me an‘actress’–I loved doing impersonations but never thought it could be my career. When I moved back to Lebanon, I started an acting workshop with actress Raïa Haïdar and then continued doing improvisation workshops with Lucien Bourjeily. I did those as well as an ‘acting in front of the camera’ workshop that he teaches. During this period I went to London representing Impro Beirut, the first professional improv theatre group in MENA. I then participated in stunt awareness campaigns against domestic violence in Lebanon.

HBA: The film touches on dynamics some of us are familiar with and conversations we have that seem to remain unresolved. What was the most challenging subject or moment to film?

LS: The most intense by far was the one involving a migrant worker; an Ethopian woman who had to act in a domestic violence scene. According to Amnesty International, ‘Lebanon is home to more than 250,000 migrant domestic workers, mostly women, who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households.’ Some face racism and violence on a daily basis. That scene was able to create such uncomfortable tension in the cinema when the film was screened.

HBA: As we’re scattered around the world in the Lebanese diaspora, seeing you on Netflix is in itself a victory, and to hear our language and see our culture on this platform is so needed! How does that make you feel?

LS: It makes me feel so excited and proud to be a part of this film. It has been an awesome journey and I loved every step of it. There isn’t enough Lebanese film and art that reaches such a wide audience. The Lebanese experience is so unique and special for every single person, I just want us to keep creating so there is more and more representation.

HBA: What’s next for you?

LS: Well, hopefully more acting experiences so I can make acting my full-time job. There is so much talent and so many stories to tell in Lebanon. Heaven Without People is just the tip of the iceberg for us.

From Harper's Bazaar Arabia Summer 2020 Issue