Bassem Breche raised controversy with his maternal melodrama “Riverbed” following its world premiere at Cairo Film Festival.
The story, a Lebanon and Qatar production shown in the Horizons of Arab Cinema section, sees a mother (Carole Abboud) and her pregnant daughter (Omaya Malaaeb) reunite under dramatic circumstances.
While it picked up multiple gongs at the fest, including one for Abboud’s performance and a special jury award, it also ruffled some feathers, mostly due to its depictions of female sexuality and abortion.
“During a Q&A at the festival, the conversation ended up focusing entirely on abortion. It was tough for me. I wasn’t expecting that,” Breche tells Variety after the ceremony.
“I don’t think anyone sets out to make ‘controversial’ films. I just have so many questions about families in general, I am interested in them. In the film, I am not wondering if abortion is halal or haram [lawful or unlawful according to the Quran]. This character is a woman who makes a decision about her body,” he notes.
“What happened between these two in the past was serious and maybe irreparable. So how can they reconnect? First, her mother gave her life. Now, she is helping her go through that [ordeal]. I thought that’s the only way for them to find one another again: through blood, birth and death.”
Breche’s take on his protagonists’ complicated, broken relationship also shocked the local audience.
“When they first see each other, I wanted it to be clear that something was wrong,” he states.
“People accused me of [disrespecting] the sanctity of motherhood. They would say: ‘This is not true, relationships between mothers and daughters are the best in the world.’ I asked: ‘How do you know that?’ ‘From films and series.’ Well, that’s not real life.”
“I don’t want to generalize, but according to what I have seen, these relationships aren’t always so perfect. We should be ready to admit it. I knew I wanted to pay homage to my own mother, but not just as my mother. Why do you always have to be something when you are a woman? A mother, a wife? When I look at them, I see two women.”
Breche grew up surrounded by them, he explains. In his film – lensed by Nadim Saoma – men are not only absent, with fleeting exceptions. They are barely mentioned.
“I really wanted to revisit that time in my life and that’s how I remember it: There were only women. And me,” he says.
“I started writing in 2015 so I have been thinking about it for a very long time. It was all about loneliness and womanhood, with both of them constantly clashing in my mind.”
As well as the silence, which permeates the entire story.
“I am a screenwriter too and I write all these shows with loads and loads of dialogue. In this film, I wanted to see what happens if you take it all out. It gave me space to go somewhere else. With the image, the sound, with my actors,” he says.
“It wasn’t just a cinematic choice, however. This area where we filmed is populated mostly by Druze [the religious and ethnic group], and they don’t speak very much. They chit-chat, but they don’t tell you how they are or how they feel. They keep everything inside. I come from that area too, I was born there and left. Now, I am coming back. To this quiet place.”
He thought a lot about melodrama master Douglas Sirk when making the film, he says, admitting he wanted Abboud to become an “Anna Magnani-like figure.” While also keeping in mind some modern issues and questions about representation.
“I really believe that as a man, especially now, you really should sit back and be quiet. Try your best not to ‘mansplain’ everything and just listen to women. This is where I stand and this is where I wanted to be in the film,” he says.
“There are so many details and feelings I can’t access [as a man], but I embraced that distance. It’s my point of view, still. I am always in the film: I am watching them. I am not with them, though. I took a step back: as a man and as a director.”
“Riverbed” was produced by Jana Wehbe, with The Attic Productions and Metaphora attached. Ghassan Salhab co-wrote the script.
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