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A different perspective

Having already worked with the likes of Haifa Wehbe and Yara, Leila Kanaan has established herself as the youngest music video director in the Middle East. She divulges to AW her road to success – one clip at a time.


Bold, bright and beautiful, 25-yearold Leila Kanaan has come a long way since her stamp collecting days in Saida, a small town in Southern Lebanon. Despite her success as the region's youngest and most coveted music video director, she is as down to earth as ever, and her close proximity with stars hasn't caused her to develop airs and graces.

Very grounded and very mature, Kanaan is also very comfortable with herself and her talent. There's no reason why she shouldn't be either. With a client list that boasts of superstars such as Wehbe, Ajram, Fares and Yara, she is as sought after as a fashionista's latest ‘It' bag – with a waiting list just as long.

As a child, Kanaan was engrossed in capturing beauty – through dance, on a canvas, with a Polaroid. However, her father, a doctor, was initially disappointed by her career choice, preferring her to work in the scientific field like her siblings. Her artistic mother, however, encouraged her to go wherever her heart took her. As her interest and passion for art developed – whether it was watching cartoons or collecting pretty chocolate wrappers – her father eventually realised that his daughter's passion could not be tamed, and agreed to let her study at the Institute of Theatrical and Audio Visual Studies.

Kanaan's big break came to her almost as soon as she finished her four years at university, where she not only learnt how to direct movies, but also worked as a sound engineer, camera operator and editor on TV spots, music videos and documentaries. When Kuwaiti singer Bashar Darwish approached the recently graduatedKanaan to direct a low-budget music video, she wasn't the slightest bit perturbed by the lack of funds in the project, even though it meant a nominal payment for herself. Instead, she saw it as the opportunity she needed to break into the industry. Her intuition proved to be correct, and soon after, she was commissioned by Issa Ghandour to direct ‘Minsafer', followed by ‘Waynik' for Joe Ashkar.

“‘Waynik' turned out to be a huge success,” Kanaan remembers. “It truly introduced my work to the musicians and the listeners. I showed the female character in a provocative, yet sensual way, and at the time, women were rarely seen as strong and dominant in Arabic video clips. Another hit was Yara's ‘Twassa Fey' video, which also caused quite a stir. When that clip became a hit, I became well known in the Arab world, especially Egypt.”

In ‘Twassa Fey', Kanaan's raw depiction of Yara as a broken-hearted young woman touched the hearts of the viewers. The video was strong, yet sensitive, allowing viewers to empathise with the character. This empathy made it hugely popular on Arabic music channels, where it was heavily broadcasted. She also directed Madeleine Matar's ‘Bahebbak wa Dari', a success, especially in the Gulf region. Another highly acclaimed video was Myriam Fares' ‘Moush Ananiya'. For the first time in Fares' singing career, she wasn't dancing, and the video focused more on her acting skills. With ‘Moush Ananiya', once again, Kanaan was able to explore a side of the singer that no one had before.

By the time Kanaan directed the infamous Haifa Wehbe's ‘Ma t'oulch lhad', she had become a pro at showing her female lead in a whole new light.

“My video for the renowned diva was a mix of classical ballet, vintage pin-up girls, Broadway and Las Vegas. It was sophisticated, daring, provocative and controversial, and Wehbe was shown in a glamorous, sensual and elegant way. There was nothing tacky about the video. She looked like a pearl in a jewellery box. With Ivan Maussion's art direction and Nicolas Gebran's costumes designed specially for the video, it was truly a piece of art,” she boasts.

The success of Kanaan's first video for Wehbe resulted in another, with an even bigger budget – included a set designed by German production designer Bettina von den Steinen, costumes designed by international designer Zuhair Mrad, and post-production executed in Paris.

Although she was well-known for her innate talent for taking individual components – music, characters, background, story – and turning it into a fluid, beautiful and evocative symphony, Kanaan refused to become complacent, and continued to challenge herself and her abilities as a director. In between filming for music videos, she embarked on short movie projects as well.

The two award-winning short movies, both showcased in international film festivals, are products of Kanaan's sensitivity, her culture and her interest in history. ‘My Father's House' is a testimony to Lebanon and her parental home, which she depicts as “an oriental madhouse, where obsessions, the fullness and intensity of life come together in a Babylonian-like fashion”.

After being shown in 19 film festivals, she was awarded with ‘Best Art Direction', ‘Best Script' and ‘Best Editing' trophies. For Kanaan however, it isn't the accolades that she holds close to her heart, but being compared to renowned directors such as Von Dali, Fellini, Kusturica and Lauzon.

‘After the Storm' is not related to her family, but is just as personal. With breathtaking 16mm shots, an original soundtrack, and not one word, it is probably one of the most powerful testimonials that followed the highly destructive war between Israel and Hezbollah in July-August 2006.

It hasn't all been good fortune and talent that has enabled Kanaan to get where she is today. Her age and gender has forced her to work twice as hard as older, more established male directors.

Preferring to visualise the glass as half full, Kanaan has no complaints about the extra effort she has to put in, and focuses on the positive aspects of what some see as a hindrance.


“A director must have an artistic vision and the technical know-how for sure, but she also has to deal with a very wide range of emotions. This is where being a woman, with a feminine sensibility, can come in handy. I think that my feminine touch and approach has seduced both male and female artists, as well as the audience,” she explains.

Easy going, relaxed and reliable, it's clear that she is not a difficult person to deal with, an important factor in such a client-based role. “My strategy is to favour quality over quantity,” she reveals, adding, “I prefer to do a few projects that are good rather than as many projects as I possibly could. That's how I maintain my standards.” A strategy that has obviously worked, as the more unavailable she is, the more in demand she becomes.

However, despite all the positive feedback, Kanaan has also been tagged as controversial due to her sensual work, which she takes with a pinch of salt. She is quick to point out that although some of her videos may be perceived to be daring, controversy is relative by nature, and responses vary according to individual cultures, tolerance and belief.

“You can never please everyone,” she says with a laugh. “It's normal to have positive and negative reviews about your work, and as long as the negative comments are constructive and based on coherent thought, I take it into consideration. I personally think that the sensuality I use in my videos is justified, which makes them acceptable and smooth. I have never heard my videos to be described as vulgar or cheap. My videos are respectful to the singer and it shows on camera.”

Although controversial for some, Kanaan's trademark sensuality, simplicity, emotive imagery and hypnotic moods are what make her unique. Her characters are not aggressive or over-thetop – they are believable and easy to relate to, and their stories are told with an intense flavour that hooks the viewer.

Since her very first video in 2004, she believes that although her style has evolved in its delivery and professionalism, the essence remains the same. Consistency, she explains, is the key to establishing oneself in an artistic industry. Clients want to know what they are getting – they don't want to hire a director for her ability to capture emotions, and then receive a piece of work that is insensitive.

Kanaan directs music videos with such smooth confidence and ease that it comes as a surprise to hear that her dream is actually to become a filmmaker. Her music video business was always just a more viable source of income, and an inroad into the industry.

“I'm dreaming about creating a feature film now,” she confesses with a wistful smile. “Now that I've gained credibility and shown that I am capable, it will be easier for me to ‘seduce' producers, and get investors for a movie project. I am currently writing a script, but it needs a lot of time and nurturing, especially for someone as picky as me. It's too soon to say when the script and production will be ready.”

Focused and dedicated, Kanaan knows exactly what she wants from her career, and is well on the way towards fulfilling her dream.

One-on-one with Leila Kanaan

AW: Describe yourself in three words.

LK: Perfectionist, determined, sensitive.

AW: What advice do you have for budding directors?

LK: Believe in yourself, be conscious about your qualities and be devoted.

AW: Where do you get your inspiration from?

LK: I'm inspired by life, my surroundings, my reality and personal experiences, what I hear, what I see, the people I meet, the books I read, the photographers I appreciate, the filmmakers who are my idols, the painters I adore, the music I hear – especially Rimsky Korsakov's ‘Scheherazade'.

AW: How much creative flexibility do you have when creating a video?

LK: Sometimes singers do stand against the director's creative freedom. If they're open to new suggestions and flexible, I'm able to convince them with my opinion. If they don't like what I propose and want to limit my vision and make me do something I'm not convinced of, I prefer to stop the collaboration.

AW: Which other directors do you most admire?

LK: Jacques Tati, Charlie Chaplin, Federico Fellini, Elia Kazan, Michael Powell, Wong Kair Wai, Stanley Kubrick, and Samira Makhmalbaf are among my favourites.

AW: Whose style would you say is most similar to yours?

LK: No one I guess. Every true artist does things that resemble him, so I guess each director's work reflects his own taste and way of seeing things, therefore the creations are different.

AW: What's your all-time favourite movie?

LK: The list is long but among my favourites are ‘The Red Shoes' by Michael Powell, ‘City Lights' by Charlie Chaplin, and ‘Underground' by Emir Kusturica.

AW: From your work, what's your all-time favourite?

LK: Each of my works is important to me in one way or another, but there were some milestones, which undoubtedly helped me reach a wider audience, like my first hit ‘Waynik'.

AW: Who are the stars that you have worked with?

LK: Haifa Wehbe, Nancy Ajram, Cheb Khaled, Diana Haddad, Yara, Myram Fares, Sofia el Marikh, Joe Ashkar, Madeleine Matar, and others.

Article by:  Arabian Woman

Posted: May Issue 2009 


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