Mounir Maasri

Actor • Director • Writer

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From Aley to

Mounir Maasri, the acclaimed Lebanese actor, director and writer, was born in Aley on 23 April, 1940, to Rachid Maasri and Shafiqa Haddad.

It was in Aley’s historic Cinema Subh that the seeds of an incredible international career in cinema would begin to germinate.

“During my childhood, my cousin was a projectionist in a theatre called Cinema Subh in Aley.

“My happiest moments were when my aunt would ask me to take my cousin’s lunchbox to him. After I gave it to him in the projection booth, I used to sneak into the theatre and hide in the first row to watch movies.

“He used to call me from the booth and I would sit there, hiding in silence so I could finish the film.

“They used to show mostly cowboy movies. I would go back home walking like them, acting like them.”

“Back in the days, movie theatres in Beirut used to show a lot of movies – Italian, Swedish, French cinema. We had a lot of variety – it was not only American movies. We were so lucky to be exposed to all these films.

“During that period, I was an athlete with a promising future – I had a career in volleyball. My first international tournament was in 1956. I was 16 years old.”

Although he was expected to pursue a career in sports, Mounir  Maasri soon found himself in New York, studying under Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

Upon his return to Lebanon in 1962, Maasri began a prolific career – that was halted briefly due to the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War.

“I had the opportunity to stay in the US, they even made me an offer to stay, but one day I woke up with the feeling of going back home.
“When I came back, Gary Garabedian was working as a TV director. Gary still hadn’t found the lead role for his next movie – Garo. He heard about me from the newspapers, I was quite well known in the sports world, so he called me up … and from there on our journey started.

“Garo was made in very special circumstances. It took us 8 months of shooting, we didn’t have any money. Gary would wait till he got his pay cheque at the end of the month to go buy a roll of film. During that period there were many commercial movies being shot. People from the music industry started making movies – it was very easy for them to find producers.
“We used to ask the camera loaders, when there was one minute left on the roll, to tell the director that the film ended – after a week we started getting many bits and pieces of unused film stock.
“These are the kind of sacrifices we made. Why? Because we all wanted to make cinema. The happiest days would be when Gary would get his pay cheque. He’d buy a new Kodak film roll of 120 metres. We were happy.

“The movie got good reviews for its artistic and directorial aspects, it was considered a neo-realistic film. Garo was a hero, a popular hero. In his neighbourhood he was considered as the local Robin Hood, he used to escape from the rooftops – all the people living in his neighbourhood, would keep their windows and rooftop doors open, so when Garo was running from the police, he could open any window or go on any roof.
“I shot a scene jumping from one rooftop to another, the distance was around 4 metres – I had a big responsibility to convince people that I was Garo.

“The movie was a hit at the box office – until today, no Lebanese movie had a bigger commercial success than Garo – more than half a million people came to see it …  it’s one of the most important films in Lebanese cinema.”

“After the success of the film Garo, I received many project proposals, but I insisted on choosing the projects that resonated with me. I have always loved cinema with a message at the end. Art in itself is not a purpose – art is a means. For me the purpose is the human and not cinema. I was receiving propositions to make so-called commercial films. I was not tempted even though they offered me a lot of money. Even though I needed to survive, I refused.
“Then I started, in parallel, to work in theatre, we did many plays, and in television and cinema. Meanwhile, there were many foreign productions filmed in Lebanon – French, British and Italian – and they used Lebanese actors.
“But to continue my career as an actor, in 1966 I did a film called Love and The Mute, it was directed by Alfred Bahri. We made it in collaboration with Baalbek Studio.”

For his roles in Garo and The Mute and Love, Mounir Maasri was recognized with a Best Actor Award from the Lebanese Film Academy in 1967 and 1968 respectively. The Mute and Love was also awarded Best Film at Tashkent Film Festival (USSR) in 1968.

In 1967, Mounir Maasri played a leading role in The Secrets of the Red Sea, a French production made in Djibouti. In the same year, he played the lead role in A Farewell to Lebanon, an American- Lebanese feature film. He then went on to make his own film – Destiny, released in 1972.

“I had the desire to make the story of an illiterate man, destiny sends him a visitor, who gives him a jewel, buried somewhere, and this jewel changes his life. The dream of this man is to build a school to abolish illiteracy in his region so that feudal lords stop exploiting their people.

“So I made an attempt to write and direct this film and also act in it. I contacted producers. As usual, they had conditions – producers don’t invest their money unless there is a star in the film. They say they want a big name because it’s a risky film. It’s not the usual story or a dancer in a cabaret. The film had a very important human message.

“So no one helped me. The only person who helped was Raymond Haroun by giving me a chance to pay after I finished shooting.

“The actors didn’t even have experience. Despite my fears, I trained them to deliver good acting even though they had never seen a camera before. Cinema for them was a diabolical work.
“We made the film with a lot of passion. The lesson I learned from this film is that when you have faith in a project, a miracle will happen. I wanted so badly to make this film so I surpassed all the obstacles.

“I felt rewarded by the film’s great success in Lebanon.”

"When a movie does not carry the identity of its maker, for me it has no artistic value."

Mounir Maasri – Actor, Director, Writer

In this phase of his career, Mounir Maasri worked not only as an actor, producer, writer and director – often in two or more of these positions for a single production – but at times also as a dancer, production manager, make up consultant, lighting designer and director, in feature films, television and theatre. His participation was not limited to productions in Lebanon, but also included joint Lebanese-American, French and British projects.

In the early 70s, Mounir Maasri met the Syrian-American producer-director Moustapha Al Akkad.

“He had not made any film yet – he was talking about a project, a ‘super production’. He used to come to Lebanon carrying with him a project with the title Mohammed – The Messenger of God, later titled The Message. He used to come to watch my plays. After the plays, he would tell me: ‘I want you to work with me on this film.’
In 1973, Moustapha called me and told me: ‘We are going to start the shooting, I want you to come and choose a role. I kept two roles for you – Khaled Ibn El Walid and Ja’far el Tayar.’ After reading both scenes, I automatically chose the role of Ja’far.

“Ja’far el Tayar had the best scene in the film, when he goes to Abyssinian court and he introduces Islam to the Christians. It’s a very famous scene in the film.
“Because Moustapha was my friend, I requested to be on set on the days where I didn’t have shooting. I went to set almost every day and I met Anthony Quinn – it was the start of a great friendship that lasted from the 70s until he passed away.”

After 1982, Mounir Maasri had the opportunity to travel to Brazil.
“There, I met a person who was making a short movie.
He wanted me to work with him, so I joined efforts with him in this movie and from there, my artistic career path in Brazil took off.
“I got introduced to directors, which led to making a movie that tells the story of a photographer of Lebanese origins. His name was Jamil Ibrahim, from the city of Zahle, who became known there by the name of Benjamin Abrahão Botto. He was able to film the crimes of Lampião, a legendary Brazilian outlaw, kind of a tropical Robin Hood.

“His story in Brazil belongs to its history.
“Today, this movie is considered to be one of the most important 100 movies in the history of the Brazilian cinema.
“We called the movie ‘Baile Perfumado’, which means ‘The Perfumed Dance’.”

Heather & Sami Eljurdi

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