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Will Denis Villeneuve's 'Incendies' light a fire under Oscar? Add to ...

Translating - from one medium to another, or one language to another - is always a well-intentioned act of arson.

For Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, transforming Wajdi Mouawad's powerful play Incendies into a movie meant that he had to torch much of what initially drew him to it.

"I kept the characters, I kept the dramatic structure, but all the beautiful words: I had to burn them," says Villeneuve, leaning forward and speaking softly, as if confessing a crime.

"My dream was to get rid of all the words - to make a silent film - but it was too expensive. The only way to respect the play was to be totally far away from it."

Villeneuve's willingness to wage a scorched-earth campaign against Mouawad's wrenching, poetic dialogue is ultimately what has lifted Incendies above so many films based on plays that retain a lingering whiff of the stage.

By substituting in equivalent poetic visuals shot by cinematographer André Turpin, Villeneuve's film, which opens this week in Toronto and Vancouver, has been winning acclaim from festival audiences around the world. Since the Toronto International Film Festival in September, Incendies has been sold to more than 30 countries, named the year's best Canadian film by the Toronto film critics and was selected as Canada's submission for the foreign-language film category at the Academy Awards.

On Thursday, Villeneuve - a Genie and Jutra winner whose previous films include Polytechnique and Maelström - will find out if Incendies has made a short list of nine for the Oscar. As Villeneuve tells it, the story behind the success of his film begins in 2004 when he went to see the original play, directed by Mouawad, at the 160-seat Théâtre de Quat'Sous in Montreal's Plateau Mont-Royal.

It was, Villeneuve says, a " coup de foudre" - or love at first sight. "It was just totally astonished - it was like when I saw Apocalypse Now for the first time," he says. "I had this strong intuition that I was in front of a masterpiece - and that the author was still alive and was my neighbour."

After the performance, Villeneuve immediately brought the play's script to producer Luc Déry, who read it overnight and agreed to work on it.

It took longer to convince Mouawad. At the time, the Lebanese-born playwright and director had just finished ushering an earlier play of his - Littoral, or Tideline, in English - to the screen, a process of self-inflicted arson he had found sapping. He was skeptical that Incendies would make a good movie.

Villeneuve didn't give up, however - and after writing several scenes of a screenplay and showing them to Mouawad, he won the playwright over. But just as Villeneuve had needed distance from the play to make the movie, Mouawad wanted to keep his distance, too. "He said, 'I trust you; I give you carte blanche,' " Villeneuve recalls. "'I'm going to be your friend, but I'm going to be far away.' "

Villeneuve's film retains the same intriguing set-up as the play: After the death of their mother, Nawal, twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) receive two letters from her notary. The first is to be delivered to a father they thought was dead. The second is to be delivered to a brother they didn't know they had.

Jeanne and Simon head to the unnamed, war-torn Middle Eastern country of Nawal's origin on their individual quests - and, along the way, the harrowing details of their mother's pre-Canada existence are revealed to them (and shown to us).

Many reviewers have assumed the country in Incendies is Lebanon, which Mouawad's family fled for Paris and then Montreal at the start of the civil war. But the place names in the film are all imaginary, while the film was shot in Jordan.

Villeneuve toyed with setting the film during the Lebanese civil war, but decided it would distract from the insights about the cycle of violence that Mouawad had tried to keep as universal as possible. "The play and the movie are about anger, an exploration of anger - but they don't want to provoke anger," Villeneuve says. "The movie's talking about politics, but it has to be apolitical."

Maintaining the non-specific geography of Incendies turned out to be particularly tricky in a film context from a linguistic standpoint.

Onstage, all the characters can speak in French, whether they are actually speaking French or Arabic, and an audience will accept it. But onscreen, where realism and subtitles reign, the characters speaking Arabic actually speak it - and it's very difficult to speak non-specific Arabic, since the language varies significantly from location to location in the Middle East.

"With the accent, we can know where people are coming from," Villeneuve says. "I didn't want them to speak with a Lebanese accent, and I didn't want them to speak with a North Jordan accent."

Complicating matters, Villeneuve didn't speak Arabic and his assistant and translator in Jordan didn't speak French - and this is where the process of translation burned once again.

During the shoot, Villeneuve would translate his instructions into English in his head and deliver them to his interpreter, who would then translate them into Arabic for the cast. Feedback on the takes would come back to Villeneuve through the same game of broken telephone, reversed.

"It was a nightmare," Villeneuve recalls, with a smile that suggests it was a worthwhile one. "At the same time, the Arabic language was so poetic and very beautiful. … It was a privilege to work in it."

Whether Incendies makes it to the Academy Awards short list or not, Villeneuve is already content. "This is the first time in my life that I have a film that I knew existed in the Academy Awards members' minds," he says. "That is a huge honour for me. … I'm thrilled, but it's a very long shot."

And at this point in his journey, Villeneuve - unlike Jeanne and Simon - doesn't need to be reminded of where his story originates and who he owes for where he is now. "I have to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar," he says. "I'm aware that the movie's success belongs in large part to Wajdi Mouawad."

 

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