How ISIS' "Inconceivable" Music Ban Inspired 'Broken Keys': 'THR Presents' Q&A With Director Jimmy Keyrouz, Composer Gabriel Yared

Yared says he wrote the score for Lebanon's best international feature Oscar entry as if he were "inhabited by a flame, to stand up for music."

The Hollywood Reporter’s Alex Ritman spoke to Jimmy Keyrouz, director of Broken Keys, and the film’s composer, Gabriel Yared, for a THR Presents Q&A powered by Vision Media.

During the half-hour chat, the pair described how an Oscar-winning student short film morphed into a full-length feature — a Cannes 2020 selection and now Lebanon’s submission to the Academy Awards' international feature category — and attracted an Oscar-winning composer along the way.

Set in an unnamed town in war-torn Iraq and Syria under the brutal control of the Islamic State in 2014, Broken Keys follows Karim, a talented musician who literally risks his life in order to repair a piano that is partially destroyed by ISIS soldiers. Music, like most aspects of cultural life, has been strictly banned.

“Back then, the war was raging and, like everyone else, I was glued to the news, watching all these terrible things that were happening over there,” said Keyrouz. “What ISIS was doing was worse than any fiction one could write. But when I heard that music was banned, I was shocked. I was so inconceivable, for me, that something as beautiful and innocent as music could be banned.”

A piano player himself, Keyrouz used this premise to research and develop his short — finding pictures of defiant musicians and artists risking their lives to express themselves. “I loved the fact that people were trying to send a message of hope and reach out to the world, and using art and music, which is a universal language.”

The short — Nocturne in Black — was shot in 2015, going on to win Keyrouz Oscar, BAFTA and DGA student awards. It was this, along with a script for a full-length feature, that he sent rather hopefully to Yared, the acclaimed composer behind films such as The English Patient and, most recently, The Life Ahead. It paid off.

“I was amazed, not only by the story itself but also by his direction, the way he shoots, the way he conceives, the way he conceptualized an idea into images,” said Yared. "And then I read the script. And I immediately liked it and said, 'OK, we're going to meet.'"

Alongside his own score — which was recorded in London with the composer remotely directing from Paris due to lockdown measures — Yared dove into his library of piano music to choose what Karim should play in the movie. But it was Keyrouz who decided on the crucial Beethoven piece performed in Broken Key’s climactic final scene.

“This project really speaks to me. Because as Jimmy puts it – can you believe that music is forbidden in some countries?” says Yared. “The way I have scored this was as if I were inhabited by a flame, to stand up for music.”

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