Khaled Mouzanar on 'Capernaum' and working with his wife Nadine Labaki
In the middle of Beirut there is an old non-descript house with stone walls.
It doesn’t particularly stand out from the rest of the buildings on the street, but it is quiet. Inside is a recording studio where Khaled Mouzanar has finished work for the day mixing the audio for the DVD of one of his recent concerts with a live symphonic orchestra.
The concert was part of a whirlwind year for the Lebanese composer who not only wrote the score for the film Oscar-nominated film Capernaum, but was also one of the film’s producers.
“It was the greatest experience in my life,” he tells Esquire when asked of his time working on the film directed by Nadine Labaki—who he also happens to be married to.
“We shot for six months and then took two years to edit it! The thing is, I had never produced a film in my life. I’m just used to composing music for films, but we knew that if we wanted to make the film the way we wanted to, then no one else could have done the job.”
He explains how the first version of the film was an astonishing 12 hours long, with 600 hours of footage shot. Somehow they managed to cut it down to just two. And it seems that the gamble paid off with Capernaum being the toast of last year’s Cannes Film Festival and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.
The success of the film has not only elevated the reputations of both Labaki and Mouzanar as creatives with something important to say but perhaps, more importantly, it has given additional substance to the growing appreciation of Middle East filmmaking and the region’s creative culture in general.
“I feel western art has said what it wanted to say, and now people are curious about hearing something else,” explains Mouzanar. “For me, the most impactful art works come from confronting the big questions like injustice, war and inequality—the kind that people in emerging countries are facing, which is what makes art from those areas so interesting.”
One of Capernaum’s triumphs was the decision to cast non-actors in the lead roles. The film stars Syrian child refugee Zain Al Rafeea as Zain El Hajj, a 12-year-old living in the slums of Beirut.
The film is told in flashback format, focusing on Zain’s life and leading to his attempt to sue his parents for child neglect. “Nadine loves to flirt with reality when she directs,” says Mouzanar who explains their goal to try and give the audience the feeling of watching a documentary more than a fiction.
But this sense of realism presented a unique challenge when it came to creating the score and music for the film. “We wanted it be as close as possible to reality, not to feel you are cheating. Unfortunately, music is used to cheat, the use of music in cinema is here to impose an emotion, to impose a direction of thinking."
"Every time I put music on these real actors, I was adding a layer of myself on them, in a way trying to impose my emotions over their reality. This was very hard to do, the use of music was very delicate with non-actors—especially kids who are so true to themselves.”
The way Mouzanar talks about music is similar to how a sailor talks about the sea—in awe of its awesome potential, but equally aware of its raw uncontrollable ability to dictate and direct the emotions of its recipient.
The son of a musician mother, for Mouzanar a career in music was something he felt that he did not choose but was destined for. “Some people are biologically chosen to express themselves in music, others in writing, or sculpture,” he says. “Sometimes I ask myself if I even like it, but I don’t have a choice. I can’t sleep without doing this. You write music with your blood, with your suffering, with your emotions. It’s not always easy but you don’t always have a choice.”
A choice that Mouzanar continues to make is to work with his wife, who he met while writing the score for Labaki’s 2007 film Caramel. “Our lives are transformed every time we do something together,” he says.
“It’s draining and exhausting, but the result is a really interesting life. The hard thing about working with family is you bring the project with you to bed at night, and you wake up with it in the morning.”
Amid the chaos of Capernaum, Mouzanar actually does most of his writing at night. “I like to work when the whole planet is sleeping,” he says. “I need to feel complete loneliness to write music and the only place where you feel totally lonely and at peace is when everyone is asleep.” Unfortunately, these days when you’re reachable everywhere, silence is very much golden.