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Columbia graduate, Student Academy Award winner and writer-director Jimmy Keyrouz could soon add “Oscar nominee” next to his name.

The Los Angeles and New York-based filmmaker’s short film, Nocturne in Black, is among the 89th annual Academy Award’s live action short finalists. Shot in Lebanon, it tells the story of a young Middle Eastern musician named Karim (played by Tarek Yaacoub), who is on a mission to rebuild his piano after it is brutally destroyed by a Jihadist group that has been terrorizing his neighbourhood.

Keyrouz — a 2016 graduate of Columbia’s Screenwriting/Directing Master of Fine Arts program — won the Gold Medal in the narrative category at this year’s Student Academy Awards, placing him on the same path that veterans Robert Zemeckis, Spike Lee and John Lasseter previously embarked on.

Inspired by current events, Nocturne in Black is an emotionally powerful reminder of art’s role in humanity. As evidenced by the film, not only is it a creative channel for escapism and self-expression, but it can also be considered the ultimate act of rebellion.

Ahead of January’s Oscar nominations announcement, I interviewed Keyrouz about his inspirations behind his story, the power of music and cinema, and the Academy’s significance for filmmakers.

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ScreenPicks: I understand that you were inspired to tell this story after you read an article about Aeham Ahmad, a pianist from Syria. What was it about his story that resonated with you the most?

Keyrouz: Aeham inspired me since he was playing music despite the threats of having his fingers broken. But I still needed to write a dramatic screenplay with a beginning, middle and end. So I started writing about a character named Karim who wishes to sell his piano in order to get out of Syria. But after his piano gets destroyed, he is desperate. However, a boy inspires him to find the missing parts he needs in order to fix his piano.

ScreenPicks: In preparation for the film, you spoke with Ahmad over the phone about his life. And I know that you couldn’t go to Syria, but how else did you immerse yourself into that subject?

Keyrouz: Mainly by reading several articles about the Syrian war and watching YouTube clips about it. Marie-José Daoud, who is a journalist, did the research part that helped our team recreate the atmosphere and inspire the film’s visuals. For instance, the idea of Karim — the protagonist of the story — wanting to sell the piano came after I read that people were selling valuable goods for a ridiculously low amount of money since they were desperate to get some money.

ScreenPicks: In order to produce this film, you launched a Kickstarter campaign and within one month you were able to raise over $20K from 139 backers. Is Kickstarter something you would consider for any of your future projects?

Keyrouz: Yeah. Kickstarter was not just about raising funds. It was also about raising awareness, getting the word out there. It was a way to tell everyone, “Hey, I’m doing this film. I’m doing this project.” And yeah, I’d recommend Kickstarter, it’s an all or nothing policy. There’s a little bit faith that goes into the process. If you make 19,000 instead of 20, 000 you lose everything; so you really have to reach your goal.

ScreenPicks: We’re inundated with these stories of war every day on the news. But unlike the news, cinema, like music, allows us to really empathize and connect with a stranger on a much deeper level. What advantages do you think film has over other media when it comes to bringing people together?

Keyrouz: Films depict people in a unique way. Following a character through a film is a very personal experience. One of the goals of filmmaking is to trigger an emotional response from an audience. Movies can make us laugh, think, cry, and sometimes consider life with fresh eyes.

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ScreenPicks: In the film there’s a scene where a man tells Karim that he’s wasting his time and that his priorities aren’t straight. And unfortunately I think we live in a world where a lot of people would agree with that man’s opinion. But I think films like this reminds us that art isn’t just escapism. In a place where Karim lives, it’s the only way he’s able to express himself. Was your perception or appreciation of art’s role in humanity affected since you first learned about Aeham’s story?

Keyrouz: A lot of things inspired me. Aeham playing the piano, articles about the war, the fact that music was banned and art destroyed in several areas. I think that art is a mighty tool that helps us fight terrorism.

When people are hopeless, and they have nothing to do, it’s easier to turn to extremism and join terrorist organizations. Art reminds us that there are beautiful things in life worth fighting for.

ScreenPicks: This film is very much about music and how it’s not only just escapism but a form of expression. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about your relationship with music.

Keyrouz: Thanks to my mum, I learned how to play the piano since the age of seven. I now listen to music every day. It inspires me tremendously when I brainstorm and write. It triggers my creativity and that’s why this project was great to work on!

I believe deeply in the messages, and I thought it was timely given everything that was happening and has happened recently. If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d be a musician for sure. [laughs]

ScreenPicks: Are you one of those writers who listen to music while you’re writing?

Keyrouz: Yes.

ScreenPicks: When you watch a short film, sometimes you think that this could also work as a feature-length film. I know that you’re planning to turn this into a feature. Can you talk about what stage in development it is in now?


Keyrouz: Yes, I’m currently writing the script and looking for funds. [laughs]

ScreenPicks: Do you think you’d cast the same actors?

Keyrouz: I’d love to. I loved their performances. But it depends on many other factors.

ScreenPicks: Out of 100 qualified short films, ten have been chosen for Oscar consideration. Of those ten films, Nocturne in Black is one of them. What does this achievement mean to you?

Keyrouz: I wasn’t expecting it, and it means SO much. Getting recognized by the Academy is arguably the greatest push especially for young filmmakers. It’s like a dream!

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All ten live action short finalists are listed below.

Bon Voyage, Marc Wilkins, director, and Joël Jent, producer (Dschoint Ventschr Filmproduction)

Ennemis Intérieurs, Sélim Azzazi, director (Qualia Films)

Graffiti, Lluís Quílez, director (Participant Media, Euphoria Productions and Ainur Films)

La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten, director (arbel gmbh)

Nocturne in Black, Jimmy Keyrouz, director (Columbia University)

The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf and the Boy, Oualid Mouaness, director (Tricycle Logic)

Silent Nights, Aske Bang, director, and Kim Magnusson, producer (M & M Productions)

Sing (Mindenki), Kristof Deák, director (Meteor Filmstudio)

Timecode, Juanjo Giménez, director (Nadir Films)

The Way of Tea (Les Frémissements du Thé), Marc Fouchard, director, and Matthieu Devillers, producer (Existenz, BlackBox and P904)

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 14, 2017.

(All photos are courtesy of Ziad Chahoud.)