It’s a long journey from a school in Beirut in the early 90s to a screening room at the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. But two school friends, director Samah El Kadi and writer Rani Nasr, have teamed up with producer Michelle Ayoub to bring their story of childhood innocence clashing with political reality to life in “Bubblegum Brigades,” a feature film project pitched as part of the Red Sea Lodge workshop.
El Kadi told Variety that the real life “Bubblegum Brigades” started as “a secret society where we used bubblegum as a bribery technique to get members, and then it got cooler, and then we staged sit-ins and a revolution, and it failed as did every revolution we were part of in Lebanon afterwards.”
Commercials producer Ayoub first read the script in 2019. Its tale of rebellion chimed with the political ferment of the time, and not only in Lebanon. “At the same time, there was Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ movements, women’s movements. All this is happening at the same time, and that’s why I felt the urgency of the script.”
Ayoub knew El Kadi as they had worked together on commercials. The honed adeptness of their presentation, both during the joint pitch sessions and talking with Variety later, no doubt benefited from this background. El Kadi and Nasr also collaborated on several short films, including an Emmy-nominated episode “Stardust” of the “6:07” TV show.
“Bubblegum Brigades” is their first feature. The log line reads: “When 12-year-old Wael’s time travel fantasies are shattered by the unjust rules of his teachers, he forms a brigade with his classmates to rebel against their corrupt school system using bubblegum, pink paint and a donkey named BMW.”
It is important that the film can be watched by children and is about children, but is not a children’s film, El Kadi notes. “When adults write kids, they tend to forget that there’s a very high moral code among kids. It’s worth reminding adults of that.”
The project has passed through the workshops provided by the Red Sea Lodge. “I have all the tools I need,” Ayoub says of the support provided. “They took us by the hand from the very beginning, but they never imposed any sort of vision. They gave us lots of options to choose from.”
How important is it that the project has been nurtured by a Middle Eastern film festival? “It’s not that it’s Saudi: it’s an international film network,” Nasr says, adding that many Saudis are privately more progressive than the people he meets in Brussels, where he is currently based. “The people you see here are the same people you see in Venice and Cannes. Saudi Arabia in general is opening up. It is witnessing what you saw in Italy in the Sixties: there’s a renaissance in cinema. It’s opening up to the world. There are still stereotypical images in people’s minds, but for us when we applied it seemed very natural. And here you find women’s stories, LGBT stories. It’s not just us being daring. They have a lot of progressive ideas to bring to the table. And also its co-managed by TorinoFilmLab.”
The team’s next step is to start shooting “Ghostland,” a short film that as well as serving as a proof of concept for the feature, stands alone as a personal film in itself. The pitch won a $20,000 grant from Filmlab Palestine and is due to film in March. With that completed, the team hope to assemble “Bubblegum Brigades.”
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