After Cannes, Lebanese 'Broken Keys' director Jimmy Keyrouz sets his sights on the Oscars

His first feature film was among the entries at this year's Cannes Film Festival

Jimmy Keyrouz, left, with lead actor Tarek Yaacoub. Jimmy Keyrouz
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Jimmy Keyrouz knows about overcoming challenges.

The Lebanese director, 32, was in the middle of producing his first feature film, Broken Keys, when thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Beirut, halting production and throwing Keyrouz and his team into a rescheduling nightmare.

Then, with the film in post-production, the world, including Lebanon, was hit with a global pandemic.

"The obstacles and the process of the film have been very particular," Keyrouz says.

But earlier this month Broken Keys received its first international nod, being one of 56 films selected by the Cannes Film Festival this year, even though the event has been cancelled because of the coronavirus.

Regardless, Keyrouz still feels "very lucky".

"When arguably the best festival in the world selects us for its official selection in a year when they received a record number of 2,067 films, it's the best push forward," Keyrouz tells The National from his home in Beirut. "Getting the Cannes label is the best push forward. It helps with other festivals, it helps you with distribution, it helps you with, who knows, the Oscars?"

Jimmy Keyrouz, right, with actor Julian Farhat. Courtesy Jimmy Keyrouz
Jimmy Keyrouz, right, with actor Julian Farhat. Courtesy Jimmy Keyrouz

Broken Keys, which is set in 2014, in a neighbourhood that has fallen under the control of ISIS, tells the story of a young musician who struggles to rebuild his piano, which has been destroyed by terrorists in a place where music has also been banned.

The idea came to Keyrouz about six years ago when he was still a student at Columbia University in New York.

"I was finishing my master's in screenwriting and directing and I had to graduate and I had to shoot a thesis film, which is kind of a short film," he says.

At the time, Keyrouz was, like the rest of the world, watching and reading about what was happening in Syria. "It was kind of shocking and when I heard that music was banned that was the turning point for me. It was inconceivable for me that something as beautiful and as innocent as music could be banned."

Keyrouz, who plays the piano himself, was inspired by these tragic real-life events and developed the story into a short fiction film.

Shot in 2015 and released a year later, it launched the young filmmaker's career. Titled Nocturne in Black, it went on to win a number of prestigious awards including the Gold for Best Narrative at the Student Academy Awards in 2016, the Bafta Student Film Award for Live Action in 2017 and a student award at the Directors Guild of America. The film even made the long list for live action short films for the 89th Academy Awards.

Keyrouz has now turned his award-winning short into a feature, which could potentially take him to the Oscars. His script was one of the top six selected for the annual Black List Lab in 2019, the prestigious screenwriters' lab in Los Angeles.

For the film's production, Keyrouz and his team went to Mosul, Iraq, to film in the last neighbourhood where ISIS fought in old Mosul.

The script even caught the attention of Lebanese-French composer and Oscar winner Gabriel Yared (The English Patient), who has composed the film's score.

"He loved the short, he loved the script and it was just amazing to work with him and not just because he's so talented and so experienced, but because he's so inspiring as a person. He's so generous," Keyrouz says.

"Just a few days ago, Gabriel was giving instructions to a team of 70, 80 people in a studio in London from Paris," Keyrouz says, almost in disbelief.

The film's star and lead actor Tarek Yaacoub, (also lead in the short), had to work with a pianist during the film's pre-production. Yaacoub is joined by a prominent cast of Lebanese actors including Badih Abou Chakra, Adel Karam, Rodrigue Sleiman, Julian Farhat, Said Serhan, Gabrielle Yammine, Mounir Maasri, Rola Beksmati and Sara Abi Kanaan.

While the cast is Lebanese, Keyrouz's story is set in somewhere between Iraq and Syria, which meant scripts had to be adjusted and accents had to be perfected.

"It was very tricky at first because we thought: 'Now that we have [written] it, how are we going to shoot it?' They can't talk Lebanese. They can't speak classical Arabic," he says. That's when Keyrouz went to Syrian actor Moe Lattouf for help. For the director, the accent was not meant to be Syrian nor Iraqi, but native to the people who lived close to both borders – a mixture of both – and that's where Lattouf's expertise in accents came in.

"We rewrote the dialogue and typed it in a way that the actors should pronounce it and every actor would sit with him [Lattouf] and go over how to say his lines. He was with us on set."

But these challenges are now all behind Keyrouz as he is busy with the final touches on the film's post-production.

"The plan is to apply to other festivals," he says. "We want to go to a lot of festivals."

Keyrouz is also optimistic about a theatrical release in the fourth quarter of the year, if the world isn't hit with another wave of Covid-19. "And we are working on being Lebanon's official candidate for the Oscars."

Despite all the challenges, Keyrouz is hopeful that the film's message will reach as many people as possible. "It's about never giving up," he says. That's one thing we're sure Keyrouz won't do.