Speaking from a location just outside Beirut, Jimmy Keyrouz, director and writer of Lebanon’s international Academy Award entry “Broken Keys,” said recent conditions in Beirut have been “bad.”
“Let’s just say it’s been bad to the point that COVID has become the secondary problem,” Keyrouz told TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman.
The city still exists in the dark shadow of the Aug. 4 explosion of a massive amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port city and capital of Lebanon, causing hundreds of deaths, thousands of injuries, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless.
“Something as huge as COVID has became, yeah, there is that too, but let’s deal with our bigger issues right now,” he continued.
Still, Keyrouz remains optimistic about the future, and that includes prospects for “Broken Keys.” Set in wartime Iraq and Syria in 2014 and inspired by real-life events, “Broken Keys” tells the story of Karim, a pianist who risks everything to find a way to rebuild his piano that has been nearly destroyed by ISIS terrorists because music has been banned in the town. The film’s cast includes Tarek Yaacob as the pianist, Sara Abi Kanaan and Adel Karam.
“Broken Keys” was chosen among 56 international films to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, only to see the prestigious event canceled due to the pandemic.
“But I’m still very positive, very hopeful,” the filmmaker said.
Keyrouz is hoping for a theatrical release, not a streaming debut, for the film, which was completed in October.
“That’s the goal…I hope it will be released theatrically and screen in many, many festivals,” he said.
Keyrouz began developing the idea in 2014 while a student at Columbia University as a short film called “Nocturne in Black.”
“I was trying to come up with an idea for my thesis film,” he said. “Back then the war was raging in Syria and Iraq, and the Islamic State was doing all kinds of unthinkable, extraordinary things…inhuman, worse than any fiction,” he said. “But when I heard that music was banned, I was really shocked. It was inconceivable to me that something as beautiful and innocent as music could be banned.”
Research led him to discover that not only musicians but visual artists were making art despite the bans. Keyrouz said artists “preserved not just art but our humanity, their humanity, in a part of the world where so much is being lost.”
The short film went on to win numerous film festival awards and was the Student Academy Awards USA winner in 2016. “Nocturne in Black” captured the interest of Academy Award-winning composer Gabriel Yared, who joined the “Broken Keys” team.
Keyrouz said actor Yaacob, a non-musician, took three months of intensive piano lessons for the film and was worried that he might not be believable at the keyboard. The actor was rewarded when he got a great review from Yared.
“I asked, did you notice anything wrong?” Keyrouz said with a laugh. “(He said) no, it’s perfect.”