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Animating Gibran's 'The Prophet'.

Summary: Cinema is a bit like newspaper journalism. In their mainstream forms, both media need to appeal to a wide audience.

DOHA: Cinema is a bit like newspaper journalism. In their mainstream forms, both media need to appeal to a wide audience. Wide access to television, and more recently new media, has posed great challenges to the commercial models underlying both newspapers and cinema.

Commercial cinema has sought readymade audiences by adapting best-selling works from other media -- novels, short stories, and video games have all become movie fodder.

Successes have been scored. "The Bible," by some measures the most-read book in history, has inspired reams of pictures. Filmmakers have even turned to poetry, that preserve of exclusivity par excellence. The works of Shakespeare, apparently the most-read poet, have inspired piles of movies.

Adaptation from poetry has proven an unreliable formula, however. Few Academy Award nominations have sprung from the works of the world's second-most-read poet, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.

Lebanon's Khalil Gibran, who ranks right behind Lao Tzu, has attracted more attention.

In 2011, U.K. filmmaker Gary Tarn released an art house adaptation of Gibran's long prose poem "The Prophet." It doesn't attempt to reproduce Gibran's work in its entirety, but samples several chapters -- as read by U.K. actor Thandie Newton -- each matched with a vignette from the montage of Super-8 and Super-16mm footage the peripatetic director shot from various locations around the world, including Lebanon.

"Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet," the 2014 animated feature by Roger Allers (of "The Lion King" fame), represents a concerted effort to bring Gibran's work to an even wider audience.

Like Tarn's adaptation, Allers' film doesn't attempt to be utterly faithful to Gibran's text, but samples and excerpts eight chapters from the work. Each of these vignettes is drawn by a different animator, most well-known figures in animation circles.

Tomm Moore, Michal Socha, Joan Gratz, Nina Paley, Joann Sfar, Bill Plympton and Paul and Gaetan Brizzi, respectively, depict Gibran's philosophical reflections on "Love," "Freedom," "Work," "Children," "Marriage," "Eating and Drinking" and "Death." Dubai-based Mohammed Saeed Harib, the youngest of, and the most recent addition to, the team drew "On Good and Evil."

One of the challenges to packaging Gibran's work in commercial cinema is its absence of plot. In the source text the philosophically minded narrator, Al-Mustafa, is about to depart the city of Orphalese after a 12-year sojourn. His departure provides the pretext for various admirers to ask him to speak upon subjects close to them

Working with co-writers Hanna Weg and Douglas Wood, Allers crafted a narrative delivery system for the poet's philosophizing.

The central characters in this framing story are Kamila (voiced by Salma Hayek Pinault, the film's producer) and her daughter Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis). A single mum, Kamila works as a housekeeper. Kamila is a tomboy who hasn't spoken since her father died two years earlier.

After a comic sequence in the town souq that gets the story going, Almitra follows her mother to work, where she meets the poem's narrator Mustafa (Liam Neeson) and the tarbush-wearing Halim (John Krasinski), a bumbling but well-meaning policeman responsible for guarding him, who has a crush on Kamila.

Mustafa is a poet and painter who for some years has been under house arrest in the hills above the seaside port of Orphalese. It's this encounter with Almitra and her mother that inspire Mustafa to utter lines from "The Prophet."

Shortly after Kamila and Almitra join him, the corrupt-looking sergeant of the Ottoman garrison (Alfred Molina) informs Mustafa that his detention is finished. The poet must immediately accompany himself and Halim down to the town, where he'll embark on the ship that's just moored at the harbor.

This journey provides the pretext for the poet-prophet to encounter several of his fans in the town. All insist that he pause and take a drink or eat something with them, and share his thoughts on love, work, eating and drinking, marriage, etc.

"Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" had its regional premiere Saturday evening as the closing film of DFI's Ajyal Youth Film Festival.

The closing ceremony was a sumptuous affair. The projection was prefaced by introductory remarks from several notables -- including DFI chair Fatmeh al-Remaihi and Salma Hayek Pinault -- and, penultimately, a brief orchestral concert of Gabriel Yared's cinema music. Yared, who scored Allers' film, led the performance.

Before the Doha debut, Hayek Pinault participated in a number of promotional events with members of the Arab and international press. As might be expected, given the subject matter of the source text and Hayek Pinault's celebrity stature (and professional charm), the English-language roundtable was less challenging than affectionate.

Hayek Pinault said it was exceptionally difficult to secure production support for a film adaption of a work of philosophy by a Lebanese poet.

Her production company joined this adaptation of "The Prophet" in early 2011, some years into the project. It had been initiated by financier Steve Hanson, who after years of negotiation wrested rights for the source text from Bishirri's Gibran National Committee.

When she joined the project, she recalled, Hanson had imagined animating 13 chapters of "The Prophet." Hayek Pinault argued that 13 chapters of philosophically minded poetry would be too much for an adult feature film audience to bear.

Instead she proposed a film that uses excerpts from the source text, one that targets children, with a framing narrative featuring a little girl.

"I said a child," she said, "Roger said 'a girl.'"

Hayek Pinault insists Lebanon's contribution to "Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" was vital. The Doha Film Institute was the movie's principal backer but two Lebanese outfits -- FFA Private Bank and mygroup -- also had a hand in financing.

"I'm 50 percent Arab," Hayek Pinault said, "but on my mother's side we're Spanish and her people were Moors ...

"It was extremely important to have material support from Lebanon for this project. It was important to have Gabriel Yared involved [in composing the score]. I feel I'm important to the project, and not because I'm a celebrity.

"Our Lebanese partners were amazing ... It's been such a hard road and they've been so patient. It's one of those projects that you really feel that everyone involved is there with a heart -- with the talent, or the pocket or with the experience but above all with the heart. And we couldn't have made it without them."

"Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet" has all the trappings of an international film production. The cast of actors sound anything but Lebanese, and Gibran's Prophet himself retains Neeson's gentle Irish-American accent.

Allers' rendering of Orphalese makes it look not unlike an "Aladdin"-esque version of 19th-century Beirut. The draw for fans of film animation is less likely to be Gibran's text than the contribution of Allers' several collaborators.

Will the film endear "The Prophet" to a new generation? That's for the kids to decide.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Dec 9, 2014
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