British film-maker Gary Tarn will be attending the upcoming Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX) for the world premiere of his second feature The Prophet, a contemporary reworking of Kahlil Gibran’s 1923 book.
Based on Kahlil Gibran’s book of poetic essays, the film follows Tarn’s own journey across Beirut, Taiwan, Belgrade and Serbia over several years as he compiled documentary footage. The footage is accompanied by a voiceover from Thandie Newton and a score written by Tarn, who started out as a composer before moving into directing.
It is Tarn’s second feature following Black Sun, a documentary about New York artist/film-maker Hughes de Montalembert who was blinded in a vicious attack, for which Tarn was nominated for a BAFTA in 2006. It was co-produced by Passion Pictures and was picked up by major buyers such as HBO in the US.
Tarn has plans to turn The Prophet into a live show accompanied by music, as well as a number of film projects in development.
You started making the film back in 2008. How does it feel to be finally showing it to audiences?
You lock yourself away and occasionally let a couple of people see it. And I’ve watched it on a projector. But it’s not the same as sitting in a room with other people. If they really don’t like it they will vote with their feet!
How did you convince Thandie Newton to come onboard?
We have a good mutual friend, he got a copy to her an early cut and she really loved it, although it took a while to find a gap in her schedule. I thought she had the right sensibility for it. It’s one of those books that you will either know and you’ll like or you won’t. I had a feeling that she would be one of those people who would know and like it and that turned out to be correct.
Do you think the film will hold appeal to people who haven’t read the book?
I’m not sure what the film will mean to someone who has no idea about the book. I am imagining people will be more drawn to it who have some kind of knowledge of the book. But I’m curious to know what people think. It will be an interesting experience. And I’m prepared for those people who think I haven’t understood the book at all.
Why did you decide to create a contemporary interpretation of the book?
It was just something that came as I was reading the book. I was given the book by a friend around for my birthday as few years ago, just after Black Sun and I was thinking about doing the next thing.
The book sat in my studio and one afternoon I was sitting there and idly picked it up. And although I probably had two copies on my shelf from the old days, I had never read it. I had a vague sense of what it was about, which is what a lot of people do have. I think it’s probably one of the most widely owned unread books. A bit like A Brief History Of Time.
I had just spent four months on the set of Children Of Men with Alfonso Cuaron [Tarn made a documentary around it on issues of immigration]. My head was full of soldiers. I picked this up and as I was reading it I was thinking contemporary pictures rather than anything biblical.
The more I thought, the more I thought it could be an interesting idea, taking this very old fashioned language and putting it with modern contemporary images. I did a test, took some old footage I had lying about, did a little voice over and put some music to it and thought, this could actually work.
Was Lebanon the obvious place to start shooting?
Gibran came from Lebanon. He left the copyright of his book to his village in Lebanon. As I read about him, I realised that it made sense to start the journey there. I was there eight months after the Hezbollah/Israeli stand off had happened. There was a lot of nervousness there. You could palpably feel it. But it’s an incredible place. It is more of a party place than New York or anywhere I’ve ever been and then meanwhile there is this whole other side with soldiers everywhere.
How did you finance the film?
I financed it with the profits from my first film. The plan was to make a film, put my own money into the first film and then to take money out and finance the next one, with the hope that once you’ve done a couple of films you are perhaps a bit more of a known quantity.
When you finance something yourself you can’t just go and do trip after trip, which is why it’s taken a few years. On the other hand, these days it’s easier to make films the way I’m doing now. The cost of making films can be reduced, with the cameras and editing systems, it’s actually feasible to go and make a film on your own, which was pretty difficult a few years ago.
It was literally just me and whoever I would find along the way. My favourite place to be is in the car. If you’re moving it’s like tracking. And if you’re stationary you’ve got some kind of hide out.
The film is screening at a documentary festival, and yet you are keen not to pigeon hole it.
I had a relationship with CPH:DOX from having won the Grand Prix there in 2006 [for Black Sun]. They sent me an interesting email, because they were discussing whether it was a documentary or not. They said it led to a lot of conversations and heated debates. They said they wanted to show it, but not in competition, because they didn’t know which competition to put it in.
The difficulty with this film is that it pushes the “documentary” genre. I wouldn’t really call it a documentary. You go to film festivals where you have to classify. You have to tick a genre. This doesn’t fit into fiction or documentary, which implies artistic interpretation of true events. Putting a film in a box may make life a lot easier commercially but I’m not sure it makes films more interesting. But that’s the kind of the world we are in, making films to see if they can become the next big thing as opposed to making films about something you really want to communicate.
Did your BAFTA nomination for Black Sun open any doors?
It didn’t open any doors at all! I thought I might get the odd phone call, but it doesn’t work like that. I’m sure it’s subtly there when people want a bit of credibility. But I think that’s movies. There are a lot of people out there making films. It’s luck and who you bump into.
I’m looking at playing The Prophet as a live show with either Thandie performing live or a recording of her with the film playing. It could be a small ensemble or scaled up with the right budget to an orchestral piece, in an acoustic venue. It would be a nice way to experience the film and gives it a new dimension.
I’m not aware of people making films for that format. I’d love to do Black Sun in the same way. The music was designed for that, it’s not just an incidental piece, it runs all the way through. And I’d like to have a roster of films and take them around.
I also have a similar style project [to The Prophet], but more personal.