How Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun found a clear vision: 'I wanted to feel closer to people'
The acclaimed director of photography, who worked on Oscar-nominated 'Capernaum', talks about his visual approach and what keeps him going
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Christopher Aoun is Lebanon’s, or probably the Arab world’s, best cinematographer.
The director of photography is behind award-winning films such as Nadine Labaki’s 2019 Oscar-nominated Capernaum and Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania's The Man Who Sold His Skin, which had its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival this month and won its male lead, Yahya Mahayni, the Best Actor award.
Between Beirut, Berlin and Los Angeles, Aoun, 30, has worked with some of the top artists around the world today, such as Selena Gomez, on the music video to her latest single, Boyfriend, as well as the biggest brands, too, such as Hugo Boss.
However, before Aoun’s career got to where it is, his passion for visual storytelling, and film specifically, started when he discovered photography as a child. Growing up, he watched and helped his father, who was a photographer, develop pictures at home. This process, the cinematographer says, had a huge influence on his life.
“That moment, when the image appeared, was so magical and beautiful,” Aoun tells The National.
From then, he came to understand the power of being able to take someone through visuals into a world not easily accessible to everyone – something he is enthused by now.
“I am fascinated by the process of creating and deciding on how to represent and translate a script into images that feel and somehow become alive,” he says.
When he was 19, Aoun moved to Munich to study film and his primary interest was in documentary.
“I wanted to feel closer to people’s realities; I wanted to dive deep into those lives and try to understand human beings through the amazing tool that a camera can be,” he says.
In 2015, aged 25, he shot his first feature film Ismaii (Listen) by Lebanese director Philippe Aractingi, and after that spent three years working on a documentary called Kalveli: Shadows of the Desert. The film captures the struggle of Indian women whose husbands move to the Gulf for work in order to provide for their families, but who never return home. It was this opportunity that led Aoun to working with Labaki a year later.
He and Labaki’s visions were aligned when it came to Capernaum, a film inspired by real-life stories and one that had real people for actors. It tells the tale of Zain, a young boy who sues his parents for bringing him into the world. It received international acclaim and went on to win numerous awards at the world’s most renowned events, including the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globes and the Oscars.
Aoun says the experience of working on Labaki’s Capernaum is still unlike any other for him.
“The synergy that everyone experienced in the cast and crew on Capernaum was so powerful. I miss that energy very much. It almost felt like we were on a mission.”
Aoun says that Capernaum helped his career tremendously. He received a lot of scripts owing to the success of the film. However, while it opened doors, it also challenged him to look at projects more closely.
“I feel very lucky to be able to dig deeper in my work and research on perception and visual storytelling,” he says. “I’m always asking myself which film to shoot next. It has not been easy for me to be satisfied with a lot of the scripts that I’m reading since Capernaum.”
What Aoun has been trying to find in the films he takes on is continuity, even if that means doing commercial work until the right script comes along. The continuity he is looking for is in the themes that these films are about – little stories that tell a bigger one about the human condition, those about injustice, how one sees themselves versus how the world sees them and that discrepancy.
One that fit the criteria was Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin, and it became the second feature Aoun worked on. Inspired by a real-life story, it follows a Syrian man who, in order to try and get to Europe to be with the love his life, accepts having his back tattooed by an artist. It was shot in France, Belgium and Tunisia.
While filmmaking has taken Aoun around the world, it also keeps bringing him back home – he has taken on a new film that will be shot in Lebanon this year.
“Lebanon is a source of inspiration and also of pain,” he says. When asked how he feels about the devastating Beirut blast on August 4, he is almost at a loss for words.
“I feel I need to be there,” he says. “After the blast, I feel I’m at a point I cannot judge about my view on Lebanon.
"I just feel that I’m lost myself in terms of ‘Is it hope we need or is it trying to get people out because there is no hope?’ and I cannot answer that question right now. That is why I might be flying to Beirut right after the [Venice] festival. I just feel at the moment I need to be there and reconnect.”
There is no doubt that Aoun is not an artist who is confined by space, but rather by work that will continue to tell universal stories.
Updated: September 28, 2020 10:10 AM