Upper West Side
Born from a long line of female artists, it’s no surprise that Noor Gharzeddine has forged her own creative path as a film director. More surprising was her gutsy decision to shoot her first movie, not in her hometown of New York City, but in her ancestral homeland of Lebanon more than 5,000 miles away.
You’re a New York native?
I was born in New York. My parents are both from Lebanon, and actually grew up in tiny villages very close to each other, but they didn’t meet until they were in New York. We’re very connected to Lebanon, and went back there every summer growing up. I was always amazed when friends at school would visit their grandparents over the weekend. For us, it was always a very long trip to see any of our extended family. At the same time, the trips were always incredibly special and all the more important to us because of how infrequent they were.
It must have been amazing to experience two cultures so deeply as you grew up.
I was lucky to be aware of the world outside America. People can complain about the US all they want, but in the end, we do take things for granted here. In Lebanon, losing electricity for hours is just part of life, the Internet is not very reliable, and there is a lot of corruption in the government that makes people's lives unnecessarily difficult.
It’s such a beautiful country, and the Lebanese people are so kind and welcoming. The whole region has such a long history, and it's a small country so you have access to so many cool things—you can be at the top of a snowy mountain and in the sea in the same day. It’s a beautiful place. It just needs to have a few years without conflict to let itself flourish properly.
I’m excited, now that I’m older, to actually see more of America. I went to college in upstate New York, and it was a totally different experience from New York City. Bard was like being in some sort of magical fairy kingdom. It’s so beautiful there.
What did you study?
I studied film production. Growing up, I really liked acting and writing. I was always directing these little plays that my sister and my neighbor were in. When I was in second grade, there was this Arabic picture book about a princess who had the same name as me, Noor. Of course, I became obsessed with her. I translated it from Arabic into English and put it in a play format and cast people in my class. I don't know how they all agreed to do that. [Laughs] They all came over to my house and we taped it like a film. I wish I could find that footage! I would work on my little novels during recess at school. I acted for a while, but I always felt the need to be directing everybody else, as well. Film was a good combination of all those things I was interested in.
So did studying film at Bard solidify that passion for you?
It did. It was a real awakening, in many ways. You know, you have this thing you love to do and it feels like your thing. Then you go to study it at university and realize that so many other people feel the same way; it’s both discouraging and inspiring. You also quickly learn that you have to start taking all aspects of film seriously. There was so much theory we learned in our program. You’re injected with so many different styles, methods, theories and classical ways to do things. You can start to feel a pressure to label what you’re doing, to find “your” style. It can be a lot of pressure. You're like, "Is this art if I don't have a style?”
I definitely felt a similar pressure when I studied photography at university.
You start thinking you need to create things in a very specific way, which is not necessarily the right way for you. That restrictive way of thinking has really disappeared for me as I complete this first feature. I just want to create something that is important to me, and makes me feel something. Film is such a relatable and accessible medium. It is a very universal language and that's definitely something that I like about it. I feel reassured that when I’m making something I find interesting; it's probable that at least a few other people are going to feel the same way.
You’ve just completed your first feature?
Yes! We’re finishing up post production and mainly focusing on our score at the moment. Soon we’ll need another round of fundraising to cover all the costs that come once the film is done. At every step, you're like, "Oh I need more money." [Laughs] Even just submitting to film festivals costs thousands of dollars.
I had no idea!
Getting into a good film festival is like getting into an Ivy League college. You submit to as many as you can, in the hopes that you’ll get into the one you really want. There’s so much strategy around it. You can't premiere at just any festival, because then if you get into a better festival after that, they'll say, "Oh, but you already premiered. We don't want your film." It's scary because there’s a chance your film could be done for a full year and nobody will have seen it.
How did you get to the point of actually making your first feature?
I’ve made a short and a medium length film before, which was my senior thesis at Bard. That was a very low-budget student film, but it definitely taught me about the process of creating a film from start to finish. If I hadn't done that, I definitely wouldn't have made the decision to take on a big project like a feature.
Because it is an independent film, I’m also playing a lot of roles. If I had a big production company involved things would move differently; as the director, I would be playing a much smaller role for a much shorter amount of time.
Basically, I developed the story with my boyfriend, who is a novelist and screenwriter. When we were coming up with the idea, I was working in TV production. The job was really intense; I was working 15-hour days, so while I was doing that my boyfriend was writing the script. When my job came to an end, we made the decision to really take the film seriously. I started reaching out to producers in Lebanon, which is where the film is set. Getting a producer was the first step—it was the first thing I knew I couldn’t do by myself. I needed someone on the ground, who could pull together a team, find locations, and know how everything ran over there. I almost feel like that first step was the hardest part of this whole process. Here in America, we are used to organizing everything over phone or email. But in Lebanon, everything is done face to face. I’d be reaching out to people and they would take a very long time to respond, and then say, “Let’s talk in person when you’re in Lebanon.”
It was also hard to find a producer because we weren’t a big-budget production and no one knew who I was. Eventually, we found a great producer and once we had him on board, things came together very quickly. He had so many great contacts and introduced me to cinematographers, assistant directors, casting directors etc. We built a really nice, little community together over there. Most of the crew and cast already knew each other. We had one American actress in the film, but the rest of the cast were local. We got a great Lebanese actress for the lead role.
It took a while to lock down the producer and crew, then casting and prep took about two months, and then we shot the film in three weeks, which was very intense. We worked very long days. In total, I spent five months in Lebanon.
And this was last year?
Yes. It’s almost been a year since I was there. I came back and started editing the film with an editor friend from college, and then moved the project to a post house for the final touches. It was good to get a separate set of eyes on it.
There are lots of scenes in Arabic, so I had to edit those because nobody else speaks Arabic. It's very life consuming, but it's also really fun. It is interesting because I’m not working for anybody and so it’s hard to tell whether or not you're doing a good job. There's nobody to reward or guide you. So, you kind of just have to tell yourself, "You're doing a good job. You're doing it."
What is the movie about?
It tells the story of Kirsten, who is a millennial girl teaching English in Beirut. She's there seeking some sort of adventure but she's a little bit lonely and not really taking full advantage of her surroundings. She meets her next-door neighbor, who is a housewife named Nadine, and they form this unlikely friendship. They're coming from very different lives, but there is something about each of their internal conflicts that attracts them to one another. The film is really about the development of their relationship. Kirsten slowly uncovers secrets about Nadine and her family and the film takes a dark twist. It's a blend of genres and tones. One minute, you're cracking up at something really sweet, funny and light-hearted, and then the next minute you're like, "Oh, shit." [Laughs]
What was it like filming in Lebanon?
I was pleasantly surprised at what a big filmmaking community there is there. So many great actors came to the auditions. Most people who were working on set had already made their own films. I was really proud to be able to make a film in Lebanon. It was also great to practice my Arabic for an extended period of time! On all my previous trips, I’d gone with my family, so I’d always defaulted to my parents to handle logistics. Having to speak Arabic to organize travel and production was a real learning experience.
Your mom and grandma are very accomplished artists. Do you feel like you’re continuing that tradition?
I can’t even begin to compare myself but I hope so! My mom is an amazing painter; she actually just had her second solo show in Lebanon. She sold out her show! And my grandmother was an artist of many mediums, mainly known as a sculptor. She passed away this year at the age of 100.
Did she still live in Lebanon?
She did. She gained a lot of recognition in Lebanon for her work, but my mother helped get her work recognized internationally later in her life. Her first large international exhibit was at the Tate Modern museum in London, and since she’s been shown all over the world. She created work through the Lebanese civil war, and was considered one of the first abstract artists in the Middle East. It was very hard for her to get recognition when she started, especially during the war and as a woman. It's very interesting to look at videos of her talking about her work, because you can sense this intense passion she had.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
For people who want to make films, make a short film first! Even if it’s just four minutes long. Learn how to wear a lot of hats, because that’s going to teach you a lot and also make things cheaper. [Laughs] Find yourself a thousand dollars, write it, produce it, direct it, and maybe play one of the roles in it.
Secondly, nobody is going to give you permission to start a creative project. You just have to do it. You have to create things for yourself. Nobody really cares whether or not you do what you want to do—so you have to just give yourself permission to do the things that you want to do.
What does New York mean to you?
To me, New York is definitely a symbol of independence. Growing up here, independence starts young, in that you don't have to rely on your parents to get around. You just have your metro card and your legs and you can basically do whatever you want. So I really loved coming into adolescence in the city and feeling like I had control over my mobility.
In New York you can be interested in whatever you want and find an outlet for it. There is such a huge diversity of people and activities.
My parents are both immigrants, but I never felt like a foreigner here. I'm just like everybody else. Having immigrant parents made me feel like I fit in, more than anything. Because you are raised in this community of so many different types of people, you don't think of an American as just one thing. I think that’s ingrained in you without ever having to think about it. That’s what makes New York amazing.
Learn more about Noor's work, and her upcoming film "Are You Glad I'm Here".