ABOUT THE FILM by Sally Potter
I started writing YES in the days following the attacks of September 11 in New York City. I felt an urgent need to respond to the rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against the United States. I asked myself the question: so what can a filmmaker do in such an atmosphere of hate and fear? What are the stories that need to be told?
I began by writing an argument between two lovers, one a man from the Middle East (the Lebanon), the other a woman from the West (an Irish-American) at a point where their love affair has become an explosive war-zone, with the differences in their backgrounds starting to cast a long shadow over their intimacy. He has decided to end the affair, for he finds he can no longer tolerate the imbalance of worldly power in their relationship; nor the challenge that the affair poses to his identity. His belief in God, and in the world he left behind, begins to surface once more, and now seems a higher calling than the call of love and sex. All that first attracted him to this blonde American professional woman now reminds him only of his humiliation and loss.
He pushes her away at the very moment that her marriage seems to have broken down irretrievably, increasing her sense of isolation. For the first time in their relationship he seems to have all the power in his hands - the power to say 'no'. But as he rejects her, the deeper reasons for his anger and anguish gradually emerge; the pain and humiliation he experiences every day as a man from the Middle East living in the West.
These two characters, each trying to listen to the other, and each wanting to be heard, formed the basis of the story, which developed to include other characters, each of whom is wrestling with his or her beliefs; whether religious, political, or - in the case of the cleaner who is a sort of one woman comic Greek chorus - about the true nature of dirt.
The entire script came out onto the page, for the most part, in verse. Perhaps my background as a lyricist made me write this way; as if the film was a song. Or perhaps it was an instinctive attempt to let the characters speak to each other on screen about things which are hard to express in normal conversation.
The war in Iraq began as we began rehearsals; with Joan Allen and Simon Abkarian heading a fine, committed cast. Lines from the script became more and more pertinent as the characters' journey accelerated. During the working process we talked passionately about the themes of the film; the struggle to understand each other (East and West, Christian and Muslim); the desire to respect each other's differences and to find a way of living side by side.
As world events overtook the story we had to cancel our shoot in Beirut (the war had made us uninsurable) and Joan Allen, an American citizen, could no longer work in Cuba. It took some fancy footwork to overcome these problems.
That the film was made at all is testimony to the ingenuity of the producers, Christopher Sheppard and Andrew Fierberg, and the dedication and generosity of the cast, crew, and facility houses who made the film possible with their investment of unpaid labour or deferred fees. It was truly a labour of love. Everyone wanted to contribute to a 'yes' in the face of the destruction and despair of war.
YES: QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
The Q&A excerpts that follow are from the first festival screenings of 'YES', in Telluride, Toronto, and London. (Joan Allen was also on stage at some of these).
Sally Potter: "Unlike some directors, I always greatly enjoy these sessions. As I find that the audience teaches me about how the film has worked for them; and therefore what the real relationship is between my intention and the final result. In effect, I discover what I have done; and the things I intended or hoped for fall into place, sometimes in quite surprising ways.
What frequently astonishes me is how consistent people's responses and questions are in different countries across the world.
What the edited transcripts do not indicate is the emotional reactions of these audiences: the laughter and the tears, the hugs in the aisles of the cinema, the private responses and questions from those too shy to speak in public.
My thanks are due to all those un-named questioners, both public and private."
Q: Did the poetry come to you easily?
SALLY POTTER: It came out in a torrent. It felt entirely natural as a way of expressing this strange blend of ideas; love and religion and war and death, which otherwise might have become rather heavy and didactic in everyday speech. They were big, big ideas to handle. But something about the form of verse, and iambic pentameter in particular, creates a flow to things that naturalises them.
I think of the film almost like a long song and the song form is something everybody knows. Rap is just one of its more recent incarnations. Poetry is simple and old and direct - from Icelandic sagas and Sanskrit to ballads and hip-hop. Both my experience of writing in verse and the actors' experience of performing it, was that it was liberating.
Q: What were your directions to the actors about how to speak the verse?
SP: Ignore the rhyme, ignore the form, just concentrate on the sense and the emotion. We talked a lot in rehearsal about what it meant, how they felt about it, how it related to their lives and so on. We worked as deeply as we could on rooting the language in their own experience and finding an authentic place from which to speak. In other words to naturalize it as much as possible. So it was a kind of paradox, that having written such a precise holding structure to contain the ideas, we then had to let it go, throw it away, or at least loosen it up. The words were adhered to precisely but there was an irreverent approach to the metre so the rhythms at the end of each line became less noticeable. I've had one or two private screenings where people who knew nothing about the film beforehand didn't even notice it was in verse. So, that was kind of interesting. I like it when people do notice and I like it when they don't.
Q: Can you talk a little about how you approached the visual style of the film?
SP: It evolved over a period of time, in collaboration with our wonderful Russian cinematographer, Alexei Rodionov, who I had previously worked with on ORLANDO. This was our second time working together, and my third with the designer Carlos Conti. We talked about the themes, and we tried to create a look that reflected them. I wanted to find ways of somehow making the camera speak in verse. That meant taking some risks. We experimented, for example, with the effect of shooting at different camera speeds, to find a visual equivalent of the rhythm of the verse in movement; a kind of camera music.
Also, part of the reason for the evolution of this particular visual language was economic necessity. I have so often found that limitation, constraint or obstacle becomes the engine that powers invention. Originally I was trying to figure out how we could shoot this film without any lights, because there didn't seem to be enough money in the budget to have any. One solution was to shoot at six frames a second, or even three. Later you print each frame four (or eight) times to bring it into sync at twenty four frames per second. You can shoot almost in the dark, and still see people's faces. I thought it was like a miracle when I discovered it, but I wasn't sure if it would work, so we did some tests and found that it was very beautiful; so I decided to make it part of the language of the film. And then we managed to get some lights as well!
We shot on Super-16mm film stock for the same budgetary reasons and then, after it was edited, it was digitally colour-graded and treated, but most of what you see on the screen was generated in the camera. But the way that Alexei shot is more important, I think than the different camera speeds. We called it 'searching', searching for the image. Alexei doesn't just look, he sees. It's a beautiful quality to work with.
Q: At what point does music composition come into making the movie?
SP: Music is always really important to me in the writing process (as well as in post-production) and I often find myself playing something again and again while I'm writing. In this case it was the Philip Glass piece, Paru River, played by the Brazilian group Uakti, which appears several times in the film. When we were shooting, I wasn't sure how much music the film could sustain, in addition to the music of the voices. And it took some work in the cutting room to find out what the necessary balance was. In the end I felt it could sustain more than I had predicted.
The feeling is that the whole sound world is a score, not just the music, but also the speaking voices. And to balance the amount of dialogue - because there's a lot of it in the film - there also had to be the feeling of silence. I'm sure you noticed that quite a lot of the shots are mute, with just the inner voice of the character speaking. During the Auntie sequence, for example, you see Joan walking but you can't hear her feet, you just hear her Auntie's voice. It seemed to me that was something of an equivalent to what happens in your mind in a crisis situation or in a state of great emotional trauma or loss. Your world closes down and the irrelevant sounds disappear. You don't hear your footsteps, you just hear what is important at that moment. It's a kind of emergency state of stream of consciousness and I tried to find an equivalent in the sound world of the film, and the music was a part of that. I also believe that music can be used in a film as a form of dialogue with the image rather than just underscoring it. I experiment in the cutting room with the effect of many different kinds of music and instrumentation to see what happens. There is a fairly elective combination in the final score, from Eric Clapton and BB King to Brahms, but what they have in common is supreme musicianship, and also they are in related keys.
Q: What happens in your director's mind, after the story ends? If you were to do a sequel, where would you go with this?
SP: Well, we did discuss it symbolically. And of course it's impossible not to think about it as a metaphor. He carries with him all the global baggage of the problems of the Middle East. She carries with her the global baggage of the American abroad. And how are the two worlds going to meet? How are we going to survive, hand in hand? But I wanted to create characters that are not mere symbols of the global situation, not just representing an idea, and so I tried to make them living, breathing, and as complex as each and every one of us is. None of the characters in the film is representing only where they come from. They're not holding up a flag, saying Irish, American, or Arabic. I tried to create characters with contradiction in them, who are more than one thing, because that's what many of us are. Nonetheless, these two individuals do carry those layers of meaning. And whilst of course the global problems are certainly not something I as a screenwriter can solve, I did want to end the story on a note of hope.
In fact, as a general principle, I feel it to be my responsibility to end a film on a note of hope. It is a choice; but one which observably energises people. We think better, more creatively, and act more decisively from a perspective of hope than from one of despair.
Q: I thank you from the bottom of my heart for showing us this work of art. And I ask you from the tip of my tongue, what advice you have for us directors who are young?
SP: Don't give up. That's the first thing and the most important thing. Take risks. Don't play safe. Do what you really believe in, life is too short to do it for money or for anything else.
Further extracts from these Q&As are available as part of the Screenplay book published by Newmarket Press .
For more information about YES click here for the pdf Press Kit.
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