Animated feature film “Lamya’s Poem” has its world premiere next week in competition at Annecy Film Festival. Variety speaks to the director, Alex Kronemer, and debuts the first clip from the film.
WestEnd Films, whose library includes Oscar-nominated animation titles such as “The Breadwinner” and “Song of the Sea,” is selling the film and will screen it during the Pre-Cannes Screenings, June 21-25. ICM Partners is handling North America sales.
The film centers on Lamya, a 12 year-old Syrian girl who becomes a refugee. One of her few belongings is a book of poetry by the 13th century poet Rumi. She finds a magical gateway through which she gets to meet Rumi when he was a boy, and helps him write the poem that 800 years later saves her life.
Rumi is voiced by Canadian actor Mena Massoud, who played the lead role in Disney’s live-action remake of “Aladdin,” directed by Guy Ritchie, and stars as Tarek Kassar in the series “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan,” and can also be seen in the feature film “Strange But True.” Lamya is voiced by Canadian actress Millie Davis, who is best known for her roles as Ms. O in the PBS Kids series “Odd Squad,” Summer in the film “Wonder,” and Gemma Hendrix in the series “Orphan Black.”
The idea for “Lamya’s Poem” came to Kronemer and the team at his production company, Unity Productions Foundation, as they were winding up his last film, docu-drama “The Sultan and the Saint.” One of the ideas was to do something on Rumi.
“This is in the midst of some of the worst days of the Syrian refugee crisis. And I came across an article that was talking about refugees who had – in their rush to escape the country, just filling suitcases with essential items – brought with them also books, and had created like little lending libraries, and were doing readings, and this struck me as really interesting,” Kronemer says. “And it was talking about a group in Athens that were doing poetry readings, and mentioned Rumi as one of the people that they were reading.”
Until this point, Kronemer’s understanding was that Rumi was this poet of love, and he was intrigued to find what of value his poetry offered the refugees. “That provoked a deeper study of who Rumi was and his background, and I learned that Rumi was, in essence, a refugee as a boy. He had to flee his home town… the Mongols were invading.”
During this period, Rumi is thought to have suffered from terrible dreams of being chased by people. Rumi’s father is said to have persuaded him that these people didn’t want to do him harm, but rather needed his help.
Kronemer imagined a scenario in which the people in Rumi’s dreams who needed his help were the refugees in the park in Athens 800 years later. “It became a bit of a meditation on the relationship between the artist and the audience,” he says.
The style of animation that the production team adopted was like animated watercolor paintings, Kronemer says. These help unify three worlds – Lamya’s contemporary world, Rumi’s world 800 years ago, and the mystical dream world where Rumi and Lamya meet. It’s an animation style they hoped would appeal to an adult audience, as opposed to cartoons for kids.
When it came to the film’s music, Kronemer didn’t want anything that was stereotypically Middle Eastern. Again he needed a style that would connect the three worlds in the film. “We wanted the music to be connective tissue to help us transfer from one world to the next and not have an abrupt stop,” he says. Composer Christopher Willis delivered that with a soaring orchestration, with a central role for a Middle Eastern reed flute called the “ney,” which becomes almost a character in the film.
Although the film weaves into the depiction of Lamya’s life elements of Middle Eastern culture in a natural, unfussy way, it mainly shows her as a kid like any other, wearing sneakers, jeans and a hoodie, arguing with her mom, texting friends, and squabbling with a pesky boy. “It’s a mother and a daughter having mother and daughter issues of that age as well as trying to survive the difficult circumstances that they’re in,” Kronemer says. “We wanted to help humanize and universalize the characters for a large world audience.”
Next up for Kronemer is another animation project, based on an old Muslim folkloric story called “The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity.” The film, which he describes as a sort of an environmental fable, is in development. Unity Productions Foundation is also in production on a three-part series for U.S. public television network PBS, about an American Muslim couple taking a road trip across America, on Route 66, and “learning about their Islamic roots on this most American of highways,” Kronemer says.
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