Interview

Hope, Fear and the Other: A Conversation With Elie Choufany

Writer and director Elie Choufany talks with our Community Development Specialist about his cinematic education in war-torn Lebanon and accepting the importance and power of his own story in his Screencraft Fellowship winning pilot, The Long Road.

A couple weeks ago, I sat down to talk with Elie al Choufany about his pilot The Long Road, a story about a Romani girl struggling to find a place of belonging in war-torn Lebanon, as well as the state of diversity in the internet-driven content culture.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Elie al Choufany. I was born and raised in Lebanon, at the tail-end of the civil war. For the first few years of my life, I actually spent them in an underground shelter.  Our family was impacted by the war, so I wasn’t really allowed much freedom to go out and explore.

 It was a difficult time, we didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have water, we didn’t have access to food all the time, but after I kind of learned how to walk a little bit I discovered that my parents owned a VHS store right above the underground shelter.

Somehow it was not impacted by the bombing or the shootings, so I would wait for my parents to fall asleep in the middle of the night, and I would steal their keys and sneak upstairs and basically just watch movies throughout the night while the war was raging outside. That was how I was able to experience a certain understanding of life outside of fear and war, and just…darkness.

I think a lot of writers come from a place of isolation where they  develop an overactive imagination, but it seems to me that this might be the most extreme iteration.

It was intense. My parents both are cinephiles, I guess because they also experienced decades of war, so they were also seeking that escapism as well. So they kind of lean towards movies, heavily. For them, as much as for me, it was  a way for them to understand the world outside of the borders of fear. Because that’s all they knew in Lebanon. So they made that space materialize and I was lucky enough to kind of that experience it in the form of that VHS store. They didn’t have that back in the day.

How did they end up acquiring the store?

I don’t specifically know or understand because we were quite poor. They just made it happen because they had to have a business running, to support my mom while my dad finding his way to look for food or work or for extra money during that time. One tape after another, we ended up having a little hole-in-the wall VHS store. It’s actually funny because the way I painted the jewelry store in “The Long Road” is the way I remember the VHS store being as a kid.

That’s a good segue for us to talk about The Long Road. I really enjoyed it. it’s a very cinematic pilot. This is a totally oblique reference, but I think about Fargo, how each episode of the Fargo TV show has a cinematic scope to it. 

You’re a hundred percent right, that was kind of the target. That was how it was supposed to be ideally received as.

Leyla is your protagonist drawing everything forward. I like that she’s got a bit of classic to her in terms of protagonists in the sense that she begins quite naive. Then she has this borderline hallucinatory/narrative relationship with her best friend who you don’t find out until later that she’s a ghost. Even though that’s been used before and you did it to me a second time with that other character,  I was still surprised, because I wanted him to survive!

There’s that sense that you or anyone could die at any moment for any reason and it would be stupid and meaningless and capricious. I think that’s one of the themes you really get across. 

Absolutely. The idea really comes from understanding fear. One of the biggest fears that governs our actions is usually a fear of death. Because it limits everything. It is finite. It is the big period at the end of the sentence. And there’s nothing else beyond that. 

The idea that life and death are intertwined kind of relieves that fear when you grew up in a space that was torn by war. It was, I guess, a coping mechanism — to no longer exist in that space of fear emotionally, even though I was physically there until my adult life, really. I was really governed by not just fear of death, but fear of a sort of ostracization. Coming out was a very difficult process in a place like Lebanon. And then we encountered a second war, and then a cold war. Different forms of fear watching me over and over and over again, and bringing me back every time to that place of darkness when I experienced as a kid– until I had that place of escapism which was the VHS store. 

For the Roma specifically what I was attracted to was their relationship with death:  death is a continuation of life. That really sparked the idea of “home” for me. We always think about home as a spatial idea. Like an actual physical house, or our neighborhood, or our family. 

For Leyla and for the Roma, I really enjoyed the idea of home being a temporary situation for them. Outside of space and outside of time, so their relationship with death and the fact that they have the ability to communicate with the dead kind of creates a home for them outside of the confinements of space, so they can continue their story in time. 

I really wanted to kind of weave that in with the idea of speaking with a spirit. Even if as a trope, it can come off as a little bit tired, but when it is linked with thematic statements, mixed with cultural background, I think it then carries the weight of the narrative.

It seems to me that you very deliberately chose the most marginalized group of people. From a story perspective, there is definitely a benefit to that, in terms of they’re never going to run out of adversaries, they’re never going to have a problem of not enough conflict. 

What is so fascinating about Roma culture is that, since almost the beginning of time, they’ve been cast out and forced to roam the lands because they’re a form of the Other. The fear of the Other specifically right now is very much coming back to life, the fear that “I am different than you and thus I should be afraid of you”. 

That attracted me because I grew up as a misfit, constantly an outsider, whether I was an outsider in my own country, or an outsider in a heteronormative society, or was an outsider within my own family unit. I always felt marginalized by default because I was the Other. I was subject to fear in very different shapes and forms. 

I think I related to Layla because, much like myself, she has experienced the various and intricate shapes of fear that are a little more subtle sometimes than they may appear. Something like her inability to read, and how she is immediately tagged as the Other for the way she dresses or her aesthetic, or how she speaks.

Whether it was Lebanon, whether it was in Bulgaria or Romania, in every specific geographic situation through time and space the Roma have been cast out. It is a global, understandable emotion that I think everyone feels at one point in their life, being the misfit, being cast out, and I wanted to explore that in a very heightened way. In a way that feels otherworldly almost, but has the heart to bring people a little bit together, and that creates the understanding of “we are all the Other”, and so in a way we are kind of the same. So that fear dissipates. 

You explore the way fear impacts people who are vulnerable, people who are likely to be victimized. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the way fear motivates people to become cruel with the four, then three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These aren’t just necessarily representatives of a human condition, they’re existential agents of the universal evil. 

I would presume you would at some point I assume you would have to confront that and ask that question, what is the spectrum of people who join the army of the oppressors? How many of them think they’re doing the right thing? How many of them see it as a way to get power? How many of them see it as not having a choice?

That is actually what is at the heart of what I think is most interesting about the script: the exploration of the intricacies and the nuances of fear because in a way the way that fear manifests in us I think is different from how we think we understand it. It’s kind of like you have a cornered animal, that is a very specific kind of fear that will inspire a very specific kind of reaction. You have the fear that stems from your own insecurities, the fear that comes from a specific kind of ignorance, and so fear is not just a fear of heights or the fear of death.

It’s like the opposite side of the coin where love and fear are both the driving forces of every decision we make. The beauty of exploring these characters comes from exploring the nuances of how fear makes us behave because it comes back to a reaction of how you understand the world. 

Commander Ezra understands fear as a source of good, because if you inspire fear you can have a form of order, so he’s using that as a weapon. Then you have the three Horsemen. Each has a specific type of fear. One has greater physical abilities so his narrative explores fear through physical assault. Another Horseman is the communication officer and we explore his storyline through fear of being watched and being seen and being influenced without knowing. How we react to fear, or the idea of reacting to fear is a form of exposition of who you are, and your past and our understanding of the world.

For right now, what would you say is your thematic statement for this script?

The thematic statement of the specific pilot argues “belonging” at the heart of it. Everything that each of the characters does in the pilot they do with the intention of creating a space for belonging for themselves. Layla, in the beginning, is moving away from her family because she is trying to belong, and that does stem from fear, but the goal is to feel like she belongs. Salma wants to marry the guy without knowing him because that’s how she understands belonging: she’ll now have a family. Commander Ezra wants to create a unified Arab Nation because he wants to create a space where everyone like him can belong.

The story revolves around understanding of how each can reach a place of belonging, and each of them maneuvers that goal through their understanding of fear. So it is, in a way, the opposite of when we try to get to a place of belonging through love, where you have a romantic relationship or a platonic relationship with someone, and you create that safe space where you belong. I actually think fear creates that same space, where it is such a polarizing event that brings people together and pushes them towards those same goals if that makes sense.

More of a fear of being excluded.

Layla’s fear of remaining an outcast becomes a nationwide fear. Each one of the characters is now moving in a different direction trying to gain some sense of control and some sense of belonging.

How do you feel about when you make the decision to enter a contest, and at the same time reckon with trauma and reckon with violence in an experience that’s quite uncommon? How do you deal with the reality of — “okay, I’ve put some of my worst and most difficult experiences into this story and now I’m putting them out to be judged for competition.”

Did you have to brace yourself against a potentially amplified sense of rejection? It must feel more personal. 

I think the day you actually accept yourself as a writer (just because you’re writing whatever parameter you think being a writer being a writer is) when you kind of call yourself a writer, it’s kind of like coming out. I remember the first time I introduced myself as a writer it felt like I’m accepting a form of vulnerability that I’d never allowed myself to exhibit before. 

So in that sense, that realization alone kind of prepares you from now on using your voice on the paper is basically allowing yourself to be vulnerable to strangers, to anyone. That vulnerability comes with the goal to hopefully create an interesting piece that influences a change in someone’s point of view, where that same vulnerability activates evokes an emotion in a reader or an audience member that they hadn’t necessarily thought of or experienced before. 

That’s the ideal goal in every piece I’ve tried to write, so the answer is I guess, no, I don’t feel more or specifically, or particularly distressed about writing stuff that comes from personal trauma. In fact, that’s part of the reason why I decided to push through because being a writer is a difficult journey, but the rewarding part is when someone understands and empathize with your vulnerability, gain a little more insight and hopefully little more understanding of something they did not understand previously– while being entertained at the same time. It’s a difficult balance. 

You’ve entered mostly fellowships. Would you say you expressed a preference for that? You won a student prize at Austin but in terms of the difference between looking at applying in the context of advancing your work, as opposed to necessarily advancing your own personal study and your own personal journey.

I started applying to every contest that I could and then as the years passed you understand that it’s not really how it works and then there’s also a financial perspective that that needs to be taken into consideration as well. I started understanding what each competition was offering and what I was specifically looking for in entering a competition.

So the competitions that I started applying to over the years grew fewer and fewer until I narrowed down to the specific competitions that I knew were going to help me achieve the very specific goals that I wanted to achieve. Screencraft Fellowship was one of those competitions. I stopped applying to everything, and kind of focused on understanding what they’re looking for, what I’m looking for and if there’s kind of a way to merge those two things together. 

You’ve talked about the Other in the sense of in terms of the diverse demographic of people who are building their careers in Hollywood, being both Lebanese, and Arab, and gay, I would be interested to hear more about your experience and whether you feel that you have received a little bit more of an alternate reaction from professionals reading your work. 

Absolutely and not understanding that’s the situation would be a little bit ignorant, to be honest. I mean, again, this is its own arena, its own battleground and it has its own set of rules.  I think it’s very important to understand why those rules are there, and how you fit in that specific arena. In that specific world, every resource that I had access to I definitely used. 

Because again I started out writing stories that I thought were Hollywood material, not in an inauthentic way, but they aren’t really my stories. I was rehashing what had already been told in the same way that it’s been told, and trying to mimic that. And that’s how you understand your voice or how I understood my own voice, making other voices and seeing how it reflects on what I think and my beliefs. 

I realized throughout the years that it wasn’t working. I wasn’t placing anywhere, and people that were reading my material yeah this is correct but that’s as much as it is, it is a correct piece of narrative. that’s not really what you want to hear when you’re giving someone a story, so again coming back to the idea of accepting that you’re going to be in a vulnerable state to strangers, you’re gonna be okay with that,  and you’re gonna allow yourself to explore that vulnerable state and use that in an effective way.

I came to terms with that, and then I wrote the Long Road.  The Long Road is the first narrative I ever wrote that has to do with both politics and Lebanon because those are two things I swore that I’d never write. But I considered where we are today, and having lived in London and the US, and understanding how I personally couldn’t find the home I was looking for. And with the current political climate and the direction that the world is taking, I feel that the Long Road has something to actually say rather than it just being about me. 

And when I wrote it, it was during the whole movement towards diversity in Hollywood, and I genuinely thought everyone is going to pick that up and be like where the “hell is Lebanon?”, and they’d have to google where that is and I’d lose half of those readers. That was definitely scary because it’s one thing to say “yes” to diversity, and a completely different thing to act on it.

And the box office can speak more than I can. The Oscars just came and we can see how many female-directed movies or movies that were filmmakers of color — they were quite palpably absent, even though we’re at the height of the Me Too movement, and the diversity movement. I didn’t know how The Long Road was going to be received, but it felt like it was the correct time to write a narrative that deals with the specific things that mirror where we are right now and what might be coming. Because you know, history repeats itself. 

It was very well received I think because the political climate that we live in and definitely the movement towards being more inclusive,  getting more diverse voices in the sense not just to fill the requirement from the studio, but to act with actual interest in what that person has to say regardless of where they’re from. 

If we just accept the premise that the Academy does not necessarily represent Hollywood, I think that the two tend to be…

There’s a disassociation there.

TV has definitely (though probably less than we think in spite of what we see) become a much bigger playing field — a much more diverse realm that seems like it’s a little easier to access using your own, diverse background than say, making a feature film.

I absolutely agree. I think it has to do with the internet, largely due to how the internet works right now, how we consume content.  TV was able to adapt to that very massive change in how we consume content and cinema is still struggling and has not really adapted fully to the times. 

So it’s that old question – should we move from black and white to color? Should we still be silent or add audio? Should cinema adapt to the modern times? And this is one of those moments in time where we where time is the biggest product right now, how much time we spend on consuming content.  What time and what space we can consume content in all affects the movement towards diversity, and specifically in television. 

People still have a hard time with the attention span. We have a hard time going to a movie and watching Scorsese’s Irishman for three and a half hours in the theatre. But if it’s on Netflix, we can watch for an hour and then we break, and days later we watch another hour, and then we break. That really shapes how films are made and television series are made.

Right now there’s a conversation that’s being had every day between the content creators and the audience members. In Cancel Culture, you can no longer rise above your audience’s needs and expectations and the global moral compass in a way. You have to be more respectful and inclusive. And represent the story in the correct way because the responsibility of creating content right now I think has grown. I grew up watching obviously Hollywood movies in Lebanon and developed a sense of hatred towards my culture because of how my culture was represented in US movies. The Arab was always the terrorists or the bad guy, they always had ulterior motives, and that no longer works anymore because of the responsibility that the audience is holding these content creators to. 

There’s a specific standard, a certain standard of representation that you cannot cross anymore and it is creating a form of compass that is leading the entertaining industry towards a more positive and inclusive place, where this is more empathy instead of just mimicking empathy on screen.

At the end of the The Long Road, Leyla meets John, a war reporter. You have these two characters who have run into each other from these wildly different backgrounds. Leyla has her identity as Romani, has her kind of spiritual familiars who stay with her, and a perspective that comes from more an absence of belonging than for belonging.

Then you have this milk-fed American who’s a foreign correspondent of that time, a bit cowboy in the sense, but who can always call up the embassy if he gets in trouble. He’s coming from exactly the opposite where belonging and love are — that’s the  reality for at least for him.

He doesn’t necessarily have to be white, but I made an automatic assumption that he’s white.

[Laughs] He’s definitely white

He comes from a society where his status is protected, his safety is assured – he has never in his entire life understood what it feels like to be ostracized based on a reduced status. But then the two of these people now together raise the question of that whole dynamic of belonging or not belonging. That becomes so much more energized and interesting once you put the two of them together.

Exactly as you said, John comes from a place where all he knew was that he is, that his existence in the world is “right”. it is “correct”. There’s nothing that challenges his aesthetic, his ideologies, his belief system, everything about him clicks in the society he grew up in. Then to place him in what it is a polarizing and different state where he is now the minority, he is being exposed to certain forms of ostracization and certain forms of hate and fear that are being spewed against him for the colour of his skin, or his accent, or his belief system. And now he has a little bit of a clearer understanding of what it is to be the Other. 

What I love about his approach to Leyla is that he was there to write about the Lebanese Other but he found an, even more, niche point of view, which is an outcast even within the outcast so that’s going to kind of embolden both of them to become the representation of what empathy would look like. What understanding would look like when we examine the nuances rather than highlight the differences. 

The thing is John and Leyla’s relationship is based around “you are the Other for me” and “I am the Other for you” but rather than engage from a place of fear, let’s engage from a place of interest– and that leads them towards at the end of the season and they’re engaging with each other from a place of empathy. As you kind of predicted, John will kind of get to a point where he has to go against the wishes of the embassy and lose his immunity to side with Leyla and help her on her journey. And his story transforms into being one of writing about the central theme which is “creating a space of belonging” rather than write about a war in the middle of nowhere and basically popularizing and advancing words of fear in the world.

Because often the Middle East is represented as a place of conflict and it is painted as a place to be avoided where conflict is first and then is spread into the world like some sort of hub for disease, and we kind of explore the arc in which John goes from intending to write a piece like that, to writing about how beautiful and rich and interesting the micro is within the macro, and that the Other we were afraid of is actually beautiful and interesting. So he’s a loudspeaker in a way, and once he engages and understands himself in relation to his current society in Lebanon–  in a way that’s very interesting to see on screen from that very specific American, blue-eyed point of view. 

Being able to see these points of view is one of my favorite parts of reading scripts or watching new TV shows.

My goal is to encourage other writers that have stories to tell to learn to be okay with the vulnerability of having a voice and actually following through. I think we need more of that, and more empathy in the world. I think that is the key to understanding each other that understanding begins with the conversation and what better way to start a conversation than by watching a TV show and talking about it?

You can request The Long Road and Elie’s other screenplays at his website, eliechoufany.com

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Victoria is a writer and reader of scripts, giver of notes, and the Community Development Specialist for Arc Studio Pro