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Bill Brownstein: Looking for art in unlikely places

Bill Brownstein: Looking for art in unlikely places
 MONTREAL, QUE.: NOVEMBER 2, 2015-- Nabil Mehchi, left, and Frank Fiorito are the Montreal creators of the new CBC series Interrupt This Program, The pair were photographed outside their offices in Montreal on Monday November 2, 2015. (Allen McInnis / MONTREAL GAZETTE)

Photograph by: Allen McInnis , Montreal Gazette

Nabil Mehchi and Frank Fiorito could have played it a lot safer. The Montreal-based creators of the five-part documentary series Interrupt This Program — which debuts Friday at 9 p.m. on CBC-TV — could have conducted their search for underground art scenes in relatively stable metropolises.

Clearly, though, Mehchi and Fiorito like to live on the edge. They took their probe to cities that have undergone all manner of disasters, be they initiated by war, economics or forces of nature. So, the guys, perhaps taking a cue from the Vice-TV gang, headed off to Beirut, Kyiv, Port-au-Prince, Medellin and Athens, and found both culture and adventure. And, doubtless, spent many a night sleeping with one eye open.

Daring, yes, but also highly illuminating — particularly for viewers who like to limit their sense of wanderlust to the tube.

The series begins in Beirut, which is still considered a hotbed for the arts in the Middle East despite the constant possibility of civil war between rival Christians and Muslims, the influx of Syrian refugees and the threat of ISIS, among a range of other issues. As a local writer puts it: “Beirut is like living on top of a volcano that you know is going to explode.”

Regardless, this hasn’t deterred one sample group of artists — a writer, hip-hop singer, a graffiti-tagger and a male belly dancer — determined to have their voices heard amid the chaos.

“We’re trying to make sense of the city we live in … (our artists) are filling in the cracks with their own narrative of the city.”

To that end, the graffiti artist tags messages relating to his country’s history, “to show the real face of Lebanon.”

Curiously, the rapper knew little about hip hop, but as he began singing about his life it all emerged. He brings a unique and moving perspective to the genre. As does the belly dancer, who defies those who believe this is not an outlet for a male.

In spite of everything, Beirut is considered to boast a nightlife second to none. A Canadian expat points out that it is a city of party animals “where things can go bad real quick.”

But consensus is that while Beirut is so “exhausting” on so many levels, it remains culturally rich, thanks to those who refuse to be silenced, who seek to celebrate the city’s past and sow the seed for its future.

Series co-creator Mehchi was born and raised in Beirut — before moving here when he was 17 — but was hardly enamoured of the city scene then. Even when he returned to visit Beirut, he was less than enthralled with the city and its arts scene.

But after connecting with Fiorito, the pair returned to Beirut, and Mehchi became aware that the city had a burgeoning underground art and music scene.

“When most think about Beirut, they think about a war-torn place, and would never guess that a very cool and subversive art scene thrives there,” Mehchi says.

“We concluded that similar underground scenes probably existed in other places where we only see one facet of life. So the idea came to us to create a series about cities waking up from major conflicts and still experiencing all sorts of tension, and show that there is so much more about these cities than meets the eye.”

As has been evidenced throughout history, insecurity often breeds great art.

“The necessity to create frequently comes when people are uncomfortable with their current political and/or economic climate,” Fiorito says. “The common denominator for the artists we encounter in this series is that they are all trying to change the narrative for their cities.

“What’s interesting is how they’re imposing this conversation. It’s the artists — not necessarily the politicians — who are speaking up for the minorities and gay rights. They’re the ones asking the important questions.”

Before setting up their Noble Television productions in St-Henri, Fiorito was a researcher/writer/producer for Radio-Canada and Télé-Québec, where he worked on the award-winning scientific game-show Génial! as well as Oser une autre vie. For his part, Mehchi was editor and director of the award-winning doc series Licence to Drill and Jacked for Discovery Canada, and was involved in the production of From the Ground Up With Debbie Travis and Debbie Travis’s Facelift.

Mehchi concedes that the cities visited in Interrupt This Program were fraught with considerably more danger than previous sets he had worked on.

“Because I know Beirut, it was a little more comfortable, but I was much more nervous for the crew,” Mehchi says. “I started feeling much more nervous in Kyiv, not only because of the tension in Ukraine, but also because we were shooting with this artist who likes to create very provocative pieces. She plastered her work around a cinema that was later burned down by neo-Nazis because it was showing a gay film festival. The Canadian embassy advised us to be careful, that it could get very messy.”

Compared to Kyiv, Fiorito claims that it was a relative walk in the park shooting in Medellin, famed for its drug cartel and, as a consequence, for being one of the most violent cities in the world.

“At first, we were wary, but after a few days, we felt like locals in Medellin and weren’t afraid any longer,” Fiorito says. “The reality is that life goes on there, and in the other cities we visited. It has to, and the people develop coping mechanisms.”

Still, Flin Flon, these cities ain’t. So it comes as a pleasant surprise that the CBC would green-light a series that is set outside our dominion.

“We walked into the CBC with a short, 10-minute demo we shot in Beirut and they told us they wanted to go in a more bold, gutsy direction,” Fiorito says. “So they said: ‘Let’s do this.’ ”

And this is just the beginning. The guys have a list of 20 more troubled cities — including some on this continent — wherein they wish to explore local art scenes.

“We feel there are so many more great stories to be told,” Mehchi says. “But the series does have a Canadian dimension. There are so many diverse immigrant ethnic groups in this country, and it’s important to show Canadians where we have all come from.”

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