Interview: Hani Farsi

Monaco life spoke to Monaco-based filmmaker, entrepreneur, hotelier and philanthropist Hani Farsi about films past, present and future in a post-Covid world. 
Hani’s second film as a producer, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains, was part of the Cannes Official Selection in 2009, and he has had a consistent presence at the festival since then. Aside from producing, Hani co-owns Le Pacte, the French distribution and international sales company behind 2020 Cesar success Les Misérables, as well as recent Palme d’Or winners I, Daniel Blake and Shoplifters.
(Note: this interview took place during lockdown in Monaco.)
Monacolife: I recently watched one of your earliest films The Time That Remains and loved it…
Hani: Thank you for your kind words, I’m very proud of The Time That Remains. It was only my second film and it was a huge honour to even be in the running for the Palme d’Or that year. I remember Inglorious Basterds was playing, as well as The Blue RibbonUn ProphetFish Tank, and many more, so we were in good company.
The Hollywood machine was pivotal in boosting morale during the second world war, and America’s films during the depression were in technicolour – such a distraction from reality. What kind of films do you think should be made or will be made in a post-Covid world?
It’s difficult to say what should and will be made. Before this year the industry was already in a crisis of sorts, with the rise of Netflix and other streaming services threatening the traditional way of life for cinemas and studios. We used to have to wait six months after a theatrical release before watching a film at home, but now that gap is only three months and, in many cases, films are being released in cinemas and online at the same time.
In recent years the only films assured of a cinematic release have been superhero or franchise pictures. I’m not against them, and I have enjoyed watching some of them with my kids, but I would hope to see a more diverse selection of films in cinemas when things open up.
Escapist and uplifting films should of course be made at this time, but they shouldn’t be forced or be our only option. No matter the subject or tone, I would hope that this experience will make us focus on great stories that reflect our human experience. Now is a time that allows people to contemplate and to focus on what is truly important, and I hope that the films that come out of this period will show something of that spirit.
I would also love to see a resurgence of movie theatres showing classic films and unique programming that introduce films from the past to new audiences, something that I think people are doing themselves when choosing films at home during isolation. As you pointed out, at times of real economic hardship or lost loved ones we need films to entertain and inspire us more than ever.
Do you see the film industry adopting a more coronavirus-weary approach to film making now, for example with fewer characters or the Bollywood approach where kissing and human contact are forbidden?
It’s very difficult to know exactly how things will pan out but yes, I’ve definitely heard that studios and producers are looking for projects that take place in contained environments with fewer characters. There’s also talk about having all cast and crew tested at the start of production before self-isolating together throughout the duration of filming, along with other proposed measures. None of these are easy or long-term solutions. Crewmembers already do very long hours and this isolation means that they now won’t be able to see their families at all, possibly for months. Do we want to put ourselves through that? Of course, business is business so filmmakers have to get back to work at some point, and as you say people might need films now more than ever, so we will have to find a way.
More contained films aren’t the ideal way forward in my opinion but they are definitely a short-term solution.
I just saw a wonderful Lebanese film called Heaven Without People that takes place mostly in one room over one meal. It’s now on Netflix internationally and has been a great success especially in the Middle East, so there are definitely stories that can be well told under confined measures, but I wouldn’t want to force the structure onto a story unnaturally.
Filmmakers might also choose to adopt a more guerrilla approach with less crew, more natural lighting, etc. and I can imagine that there will be a spike in documentaries and animation. Whatever happens, I’m sure that the challenges will bring out the best in creatives.
What inspired you to make movies?
Movies inspired me to make movies. As an only child raised in Jeddah until the age of 15, films were my window to the world. Even when I was on holiday in Paris or London, my favourite thing to do would be to go to the cinema. I was lucky to see classics such as Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca, Ben Hur, and so many Hitchcock and Laurel and Hardy films on the big screen.
My father was an art collector and believed that art in any form was meant to inspire us, move us, and help us see the world from a different point of view. I share his same belief, and seeing all these masterpieces as a teenager undoubtedly inspired me in the same way.
Before making the move into film in my mid 30s, I was first involved in the London theatre world for seven years between 1993 to 2000. I still work in theatre across both sides of the Atlantic and love the artform, but as a medium I feel that cinema is far more democratic. It reaches a much wider audience, geographically and socially, and it has the potential to last forever. When I created Corniche Media over 10 years ago, my hope was to one day create a film that touched and inspired others in the same way that the films I love inspired me. Before you ask, no I haven’t made that film yet – I’m still working on it!
What aspects of the quiet life due to the Covid-19 lockdown would you like to guard?
My Covid life has been far from quiet. I spent most of the last two months cooking three meals a day for my boys and wife. If that wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I’ve spent more time than ever playing football, helping with homework, and most importantly breaking up fights. The strange thing about all this is that despite the mess and the grease and the noise, these weeks in isolation have probably been the most fulfilling weeks of my life. I now realise that I’ve never been able to fully switch off with my kids until this crisis. I’ve been able to fully engage with them and what they’re up to for the first time without constantly checking emails or waiting for the phone.
I’ve also organised my days in a way that’s far more balanced than ever before, spending time with kids, working, reading, and watching two classic movies a day. I would love to continue this habit when life returns to normal.
What are you presently working on?
We just finished a beautiful documentary about Terry Gilliam called He Dreams of Giants that we’re looking to sell this year, and my Broadway show Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations should be back on the New York stage once the world opens up again. In terms of future projects, I’m very excited to be working on a feature length documentary about Omar Sharif. The film will mark the first time that his story has been comprehensibly told, and as an Arab working in the film industry I’m honoured to be a part of it. We’re also developing a few other projects, including a TV series set around the 1950s which would mainly take place in the Cote d’Azur. Of course, some projects have had to be adapted due to the virus, but luckily nothing apart from Ain’t Too Proud was in production.
What would your top five film selection be?
Citizen Kane, City Lights, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Raging Bull, La Dolce Vita, Tokyo Story. I know that’s six but five is just too difficult.
Are there any films that you discovered during lockdown?
Yes! So many. I’ve been mainly focusing on classics and have been so happy to discover L’Avventura, Sullivan’s Travels, All About Eve, Persona, Le Mémpris, Journey to Italy, White Heat, The Searchers, and Laura (1944).
In terms of newer releases, I absolutely loved the Netflix documentary Five Came Back. It’s shows how five directors (John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens, and Frank Capra) volunteered to document WWII and then came back to Hollywood to make their best work. I think that it is especially relevant now as it goes to show that crisis can cause filmmakers to go outside their comfort zone and create something beautiful in the process. I also really enjoyed The Last Dance, and finally caught up with my friend Annemarie Jacir’s wonderful 2017 film Wajib – I think it’s now on Netflix in some territories and I’d recommend it to anyone.
Which film do you wish you had made?
Being There.
Which book or person has inspired you the most?
From my part of the world I would say I’ve been most inspired by the writings of Rumi and Khalil Gibran. Later on, the book that has always stayed with me is The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham. I think that these writers and texts are unified in many of their ideals, which is why they all resonate with me. Even if they’re from different eras and countries, they promote the idea that the heritage one leaves isn’t through wealth or possessions, but through love and helping others, and through self-reflection. If I had to name a person it would undoubtedly be my father. He has made me into the man I am today. I couldn’t be more grateful to him.
In hindsight, if you could have chosen a group of people to have a lockdown with from any era who would you choose?
Winston Churchill, as we could smoke cigars together and he’d be the most incredible raconteur. He’d also definitely make sure that we we’re well fed. Mohamed Ali to keep me in shape and to stop my boys fighting each other. Obviously, my wife and kids, my mother and my late father. Julie Andrews for being practically perfect in every way and for a childhood dream come true. There’s so many more – Chaplin, John Lennon, Jim Henson, Emilia Earhart, Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, Maria Callas, Louis Armstrong, Anaïs Nin, the list goes on. It would be a pretty great party.
What is the last great play you saw?
Apart from my production of Ain’t Too Proud of course… I loved last year’s stage adaptation Network staring Bryan Cranston at London’s National Theatre. I also thought that Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird was fantastic and that Jeff Daniels was phenomenal in it. Both plays happened to be adapted from much loved source material, and they’re among the few examples of films moving to theatre – and in both cases it really works. Of course, great lead performances help, but everything about the productions was phenomenal.
Which restaurant are you most looking forward to going to again?
In Monaco, both Maya Bay and Maya Jah are sorely missed. I also look forward to going back to Eden Roc and of course a favourite of ours Paloma beach. In London it would have to be my beloved Harry’s Bar, where I had my wedding reception.