A ‘grateful’ stunner
December 09 2014 02:19 AM

CANDID: When 100 million people from across the world and over generations, have bought this book, it could only mean one thing — that it is the truth, says Salma Hayek.                                                              Photo by Najeer Feroke

‘I am 48 and I am still working. Next year, I have four movies coming out. I count my

blessings every day and I feel very fortunate,’ Salma Hayek tells Anand Holla

All lights go dim. A lone burst of light pours into her from above. Salma Hayek emerges before the audience, summoning a crash of rapturous applause from a packed Opera House at Katara.

“When we decided to test the film with the youth,” says Hayek, addressing the crowd at the MENA premiere of the animation magnum opus Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, “people told us — Are you crazy? The kids won’t sit through poetry… they won’t like it.”

Dazzling in a classy black Gucci ensemble, Hayek says, “We knew they were wrong.” Referring to the overwhelming response the film received at the second edition of Ajyal Youth Film Festival, where 450 youths were jurors, Hayek, then, says, “The reaction of the youth was incredible. So we were right and they were wrong.”

The audience dissolves into laughs and claps, and moments later, readily slips into a contemplative trance that the film takes them into.

Earlier in the day, Hayek, looking as fetching as ever, settles down for a conversation, talking about the film she has produced, and about Gibran, the legendary Lebanese philosopher-writer-poet.

“When 100 million people from across the world and over generations, have bought this book since its publication in 1923, it could only mean one thing — that it is the truth. And that’s why it touches people,” actor says of The Prophet, a masterpiece comprising 26 moving prose poetry essays.

With its spectacular blending of animation styles from eight top animators, the film, directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King), achieves the remarkable feat of reimagining Gibran’s messages and ideas through eight thought-stirring chapters: On Love, On Freedom, On Work, On Children, On Marriage, On Eating and Drinking, On Good and Evil, and On Death.

The simple yet engrossing narrative follows a mischievous young girl Almitra, whose mother Kamila (voiced by Hayek) has a tough time handling her. When Almitra follows her housekeeper mother to work, she happens to meet political prisoner Mustafa. Each time the poet-writer-artist Mustafa tells stories of inspiration and self-discovery inspired by Gibran’s text, the viewer, through Almitra, is lulled into a world which brings those thoughts to life.

Hayek found her seven-year-old daughter Valentina’s reaction to the On Children chapter “very interesting.” “She asked me — Am I not your child? It was fascinating because it started a dialogue,” Hayek says, “I told her, of course, you are my child. But you are also your own person. As painful as it is for me to understand that, you must discover who you are.”

Just when the talk veers into thick philosophy, Hayek diffuses it with her easy humour. “But for the next 18 years — I told her — you do as I say and follow my rules,” Hayek says, smiling. “Basically, I told her: I will guide you through the process of you finding who you are, and at some point, you have to live your life on your own. It’s very hard for the parents.”

Some days ago, Hayek heard Valentina singing Let it Go from Frozen in the bathroom, followed by “every word” of the song from the On Children chapter of The Prophet. “I realised that my daughter was reciting Kahlil Gibran at the age of seven,” Hayek says, “As parents, it’s important for us to expose our children to work that is entertaining, but also profound.”

It would be near impossible to dispute the profundity of The Prophet. Each chapter manages to catch your thoughts, bend them and turn them inward.  “You are moved to a different place, you know, not where you are usually operating when you are watching a movie. For the audience, it has been a great experience,” Hayek says.

She isn’t off the mark. At its grand debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, this year, the audience had started clapping only 20 minutes into the film, and in the end, responded with a deafening wave of applause. Likewise at Doha, where the film closed the Ajyal Festival.

However, making The Prophet happen was an extremely gruelling process for the team, says Hayek. “Gibran left the rights of his work to his hometown. So you have to get the whole village to agree to let you make a film on it,” she says, “There’s a committee but there are 80 people in it.”

It took eight years for Steve Hanson, the film’s executive producer, to obtain the film rights to The Prophet. “They are lovely people,” Hayek says, of the committee, “Thanks to them, we could make the film.”  

That wasn’t even the toughest part though. The steepest challenge before Hayek and her team was to structure such a complex work of genius. “As thrilled as I was, I knew cinematically conveying 13 chapters of deeply philosophical poems one after the other through animation, would be really hard and would really saturate the adult viewer.”

While animation was the only way out, Hayek wanted to get the children in on this. “So I came up with the idea of the story, and put eight chapters in it, while getting a child to go through them,” she says.

“I knew this approach seemed right because the idea was to create a journey within a journey. So the element of surprise and diversity throughout the film would actually work,” she says, before confessing, “I was terrified because it was an experiment nobody had ever done before. But when I saw the results, I was happy.”

Among many things, the Prophet celebrates “diversity, the freedom of speech and the possibility of finding your own voice,” feels Hayek. “Using montages were the right approach because a linear structure wouldn’t have worked for this film. But we did not, in any way, manipulate the style or vision of the various directors,” she points out.

When Hayek asked one of the eight directors, Joann Sfar, to create the animation for On Marriage chapter, Sfar asked her: Is this a joke? “He told me he just got divorced. And I told him — Exactly. Show me what you have learnt,” Hayek says, smiling.

For Hayek, Frida, the 2002 film she co-produced and acted in and as, was one of the peaks of creative satisfaction and widespread recognition in her career. How different has the process of bringing The Prophet to screen been to her from realising the biography of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo?

“They are actually very similar to me,” Hayek says, “They are both projects that I generated from the beginning, something in both films was personal and important to me, something that reflected a part of my background that I thought was misunderstood and wanted the world to see in a new light. Both are very visual, very musical, and full of colours.”

While in Frida, Hayek saw an opportunity to celebrate her Mexican roots, The Prophet is an ode to her Lebanese heritage. “I am 50 per cent Lebanese,” she says, smiling, referring to her Lebanese paternal grandfather. “And if you think about it, even though Frida and The Prophet look very different, they share a lot of similarities.”

Certainly, both were “practically impossible to make.” “Imagine telling Hollywood, when every movie about an artist’s life story had failed until then, that I want to make a film about two Mexicans. Immediately, they are like,” she says, imitating people dozing off.

“About two Mexicans who are communists,” she adds, while imitating some more. “And a period piece about a love story of an ugly fat man and a hairy woman with a moustache. It was impossible to get that made,” she says, before adding, “Oh and a biopic, I forgot to add.”

“For The Prophet, I would say it’s about a philosophy book but it’s poetry, and the author is Middle Eastern,” she says, imitating a zapped look of the studio bosses. “And by the way I want to make an animation film of it, with nine different directors,” she says, smiling, “So yes, they both were really tough to make.”

Later, in the evening, as she sashays down the Red Carpet on the Closing Day of Ajyal, Hayek completes the chat by answering one last question: From an actor to actor-producer, how does she look back on her two-decade-long career in films?

“I am just grateful that I am still working,” she says, as spotlights rain down on her, “Usually for women, when they are around 35, they stop working. I am 48 and I am still working. Next year, I have four movies coming out. I count my blessings every day and I feel very fortunate. That’s because I have been able to do what I love so much for such a long time.”



Last updated:

There are no comments.

LEAVE A COMMENT Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*