Monday, October 20, 2008

Beyond the Wall

An interview with ADAM’S WALL director, Michael Mackenzie

Keep walking up past the downtown core, past the Latin Quarter, even past the plateau and you will reach a neighborhood Montrealer’s affectionately call Mile End. This trendy stretch plays home to just as many artists as it does professionals and families. It encompasses a wide range of ethnic backgrounds and religious practices. It is known for its untapped restaurants, signature style shopping and cozy vibe. I think there are a number of watering holes too.

Now, everything that makes Mile End one of Montreal’s most liked neighborhoods, has been captured in Michael Mackenzie’s latest film, ADAM’S WALL. The film can be summed up as a modern day “Romeo and Juliet” but that would be a total oversimplification considering the Romeo is a young Jewish boy and the Juliet is a young Lebanese girl. What stands between them and the love they deserve to have with each is no simple family feud but rather a conflict that has always been heavy and violent and is now reaching catastrophic heights. As if that weren’t enough, Adam has a wall all his own waiting to keep love at bay in case the Israeli conflict were not enough to begin with.

Michael Mackenzie, a Mile End resident himself, may be a playwright by nature but his forays into film are proving to him to be an altogether distinct form of expression. After the critical success of his first feature, THE BARONESS AND THE PIG, which incidentally was based on his own play of the same name, Mackenzie took his time searching for his next project. The search may not have been frantic but when he wasn’t looking, he ran into ADAM’S WALL.

Joseph Belanger: Congratulations on your film. I caught a screening at the Festival Nouveau Cinema just the other day and the response seemed to be overwhelmingly positive.
Michael Mackenzie: The festival response was great. That was where the premiere was. The response was particularly gratifying because it was not just festival filmgoers at the screening but also members of both communities the film depicts. And they really liked it.

JB: Now, this is not your original story but you did co-write the screenplay.
MM: Yes, Dana Schoel, I have to give him all the credit for the original story. He came to me with the script about five years ago. The subsidiary program that was supporting his writing insisted that he have some sort of mentor to be eligible for the assistance. He had seen my first movie and had liked that so he asked me to be his mentor. We met and talked about the story and I was very drawn to it. I also really wanted to make a movie about Montreal. I think it is a beautiful city and I had never really seen Montreal reflected in a movie with the things that I love about the city. It’s such a great city with such wonderful visual paradoxes.

JB: And you are a Montreal resident, right?
MM: Yes, I have lived in Mile End now for many, many years. I actually live in what I am told is apparently the most diverse ethnic neighborhood in all of Canada. I’ve always been very interested in the issues that are raised in ADAM’S WALL. As an immigrant myself, well a less profile immigrant anyway, I’ve always been interested in the communities. I’ve always been very aware of the diversity in the neighborhood and I’ve also been aware of the tensions that arise sometimes. That was something I really wanted to investigate.

JB: And as this is your second feature, as you mentioned, what was easier this second time out?
MM: Uh, well, I think … everything. That’s the quick answer. Having worked in theatre, I’ve always known how important it is to be able to work with actors and I’ve always had a great relationship with actors. This is a real big plus. It was a lot easier because putting a movie together, well the only way to get it is on the job training. There’s no way you can read anything or see anything or hear anything that is going to get you doing it until you’ve actually done it. I can say the second one was easier because I understood this process that was unbelievably complex.

JB: There is this great balance in ADAM’S WALL between this omnipresent Middle Eastern conflict that is on the characters’ minds, mostly with the older characters, often driving their motivations and thinking. Underneath all of that is this simple love story. How difficult was it to balance these two opposites when the film was being put together?
MM: The film was in development for such a long time and we had to work hard and long to raise all the money necessary so it meant that we could have absolute preparation and fully understand what the challenges would be before we started shooting. I understood that this was always going to be a big issue in the material. It isn’t just a balance between those two things. Those two element do affect each other but when you look at the elements of the love story itself, the biggest challenge was to make that love story credible. I think we really pulled that off and I have to say it has everything to do with our two lead actors, Jesse Aaron Dwyre and Flavia Bechara. They were exquisite in their performances but we also really had to set the right tone for them be comfortable with each other.

JB: There is something distinctly generational about ADAM’S WALL. As you said, your two younger leads were very strong – they had a very simple language between them that exhibited a hesitation but also a strong pull. In contrast though, some of the older characters just seem to be holding on to so much anger. What are your feeling about what the film is saying about letting go and healing?
MM: Letting go is a great way to put it for the older generation. We didn’t want to pull any punches in this movie. We didn’t want to make nice. There is enormous anger surrounding this conflict. In Montreal, it is resurrected here, but of course, it originates in the Middle East. This is incredible anger on both sides and it would have been a copout on our parts to try to resolve that in the film. Dana and I always agreed that this film would not have any of these copouts, that there would be no “walking into the sunset” happy ending. At the same time though, we didn’t want a movie without any vestige of hope in it.

JB: I’d read in your production notes that your view on ADAM’S WALL is that it doesn’t propose any solutions to these conflicts but rather chooses to focus on the little miracles that take place within this conflict. What is it that you ultimately hope people will take home from ADAM’S WALL.
MM: Well, a bunch of things. On a very non-controversial level, I hope people take away what a beautiful city Montreal is. That is very important to me and I think we’ve done very well with that.

JB: Yes, I would say that is a guarantee.
MM: One of the most fascinating things about showing and promoting this film is that I’ve done Jewish press and Lebanese and Arabic press. I’ve had conversations on both sides now where how potentially controversial the film is but the Jewish press is always pointing out what they think the Lebanese community will find offensive and the Lebanese press is pointing out what will upset the Jewish community. There’s something very sweet about this response. The important thing about a movie like this is to try to get people to see other people they have seen previously but as nothing more than objects and get them to see them as human beings.

JB: There is certainly a strong fairness about ADAM’S WALL. By focusing on the love story in the context it finds itself, the film doesn’t take any sides.
MM: The fact is that there is no immediate solution to any of these conflicts but it’s important to feel that small things can help. A grain of sand can one day become a heap.

ADAM’S WALL is so much more than a grain of sand and after having seen it, I’ve no doubt it has the potential become it’s own heap. It is currently playing in Montreal and looks to expand across Canada in the weeks to come.

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