Beirut, I love you

witter may have done wonders in fuelling and sustaining revolutions, but for emerging Lebanese cinema and film, YouTube seems to be the vehicle of choice.

In September 2009, 20-somethings Mounia Akl and Cyril Aris from Orange Dog productions produced and directed a 10-minute video titled Beirut, I love you (I love you not) about a fleeting relationship between two young Beiruti lovers, Yasmine and Tarek. The clip was then posted on YouTube, only to be picked up two years later by the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) television for a tri-weekly mini-series.

Akl, who plays the role of one of the protagonists Yasmine, told NOW Extra that she and Aris had only made the video for the fun of it, “but it went viral.” Within months, the clip –a tribute to Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of French box office hit Amelie – had circulated between Lebanese locals and the diaspora, accounting for the video’s almost 130,000 hits.

The video had done so well that it even won the award for Best International Film at the Swansea Bay Film Festival UK in 2010 and, to Akl and Aris’ surprise, Yara Daher, head of the digital division at LBC, contacted them last November to discuss the possibility of turning the video into a series. 

“[Daher] reached out to us saying that she loved the [video] and that LBC wanted to help promote young Lebanese talent while promoting the image of the country,” Akl explained.

During an interview with NOW Extra, Daher said the video was a breath of fresh air compared to most current media, which often focuses on the glitz and glam of Beirut. The plan was to take the two protagonists from the original Beirut, I love you video and develop their characters, their story and their surroundings.

But it may come as a surprise that Akl and Aris are not film students. Twenty-one-year-old Akl combines her passion for filmmaking with her full-time studies in architecture at the Academie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts (ALBA), while Aris, a full-time consultant with Booz & Company, dedicates half of his week to cinema.

Regardless, Daher put the young directors in charge of the series’ scriptwriting. Akl said she was particularly happy with the freedom the station gave them. “We have enough leeway, because Daher trusts us.” 

The mini-series includes three new characters: Panos Aprahamian, who plays Walid, a hopeless romantic waiter; Mardig Troshagerian, whose character, Hady, was emotionally wounded and consequently turned into a womanizer; and Carlo Mouzannar, an obsessive compulsive job-hunting maniac also named Carlo. Akl plays the part of Yasmine, the day-dreaming movie-obsessed waitress, while Aris plays Tarek, the overly cerebral and rather reserved wannabe actor. When asked whether they shared certain traits with their characters, the two directors laughed off the suggestion.
Although it is a bit idealistic and romanticized, the mini-series captures an endearing and light-hearted picture of Lebanese youth that complements Akl and Aris’ other movie, Cheers to those who stay, which talks about Lebanon’s diaspora.

“This opportunity [to work with LBC] is interesting because we are getting aired on [national] television,” said Aris, although the team’s ultimate goal is to make it to the big screen with a full feature.
As for Daher, she told NOW Extra that she is satisfied with the project. “I think it was a bit risky, [because] TV is not necessarily the safest [outlet]… [but] it was more of a passion project on both ends… We’ve been getting very good feedback online.”

The series started airing on March 18 and will be showing at 7:40 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. In case you miss any of the episodes, you can visit the Beirut, I love you website here.