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Piano prodigy Marika Bournaki on life as a world-class musician and documentary subject

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Marika Bournaki was a vivacious piano player at five and an old pro at twelve when documentary filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart began following the Montreal-born musician around with a camera. For eight years, Hart captured every part of Bournaki's life, as she balanced studying at Juilliard and traveling the globe as a classical pianist with growing up, finding love and finding herself. The world-class musician's story is told in Hart's new documentary, I Am Not a Rockstar, which is screening at the Sie FilmCenter tonight, February 6. The screening is sold out, but Bournaki will be in town all weekend for the Piano Celebration and two-day symposium at Metropolitan State University. In advance of her visit to Denver, Westword spoke with Bournaki about music, having a career while still a kid, and being followed by a camera for almost ten years.

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Westword: You were pretty young when Bobbi Jo Hart began filming your life. How did you feel about a documentary being made about you?

Marika Bournaki: Honestly, when it started, I didn't really think about it. Bobbi Jo approached me when I was twelve -- she had read a little blurb about me in a newspaper that talked about me beginning to take classes at Juilliard, and that I was flying there every weekend. She contacted the journalist who wrote it because she was interested in getting in touch with me and following my story. She talked to my parents after that, and one of the first days we spent together is in the film -- it's when she comes to New York. She did what I used to have to do, which was fly into New York in the morning and spend all day taking classes at Juilliard and then fly back (to Montreal) at night.

It wasn't really concrete yet (in terms of) how many years she was going to film me or if it was actually going to end up becoming a real film. So I didn't really think too much of it at first. I thought it was cool that Bobbi Jo was following me with a camera, but I thought that sometimes it was really annoying, too. But I didn't really think about it, honestly.

Having a camera following you around as a teenager seemed especially tough -- I just imagined being you and wanting to be alone sometimes. There were definitely some times like that -- I mean, she is a wonderful person; she is a very sweet person. At first it was kind of like, I don't want to say a motherly figure, but she was older and very kind to me. If Bobbi Jo was someone else, I don't think it would have worked out. She became a friend very quickly; as I grew up, she became someone I could talk to. She was like a therapist and it was almost like therapy for me to be able to open up and talk about so many different things and express myself through another medium.

But there are sometimes where it was difficult and you don't really see it in the film, though I know there is one time that it really bothered me. It was after a performance and she kept on coming in and wanting to talk to me and I had had a really bad performance -- I literally slammed the door and told her to get out. (Laughs.) But there were times when I asked her for a little more privacy.

You talk a little bit about it in the film, but was it hard to leave your friends to go study at Juilliard and travel around the world to play, when they were at home doing more, well, "normal" teenager things? Yes and no. I always think about it. I started playing at a very young age -- I was five years old. It is very typical of people who start playing classical music at an early age, but I knew that it would come with the duty of practicing and being focused on something. I remember feeling that all of the time, like, maybe there were other things that I would have liked to do or other things that I could have done with my life. But my parents pushed me and my teachers pushed me in that direction, so I didn't really get to taste anything else.

But I have to say that regardless, because of who I am, I would have never been able to kind of be in any sort of box and just do music. I was able to have a completely normal childhood -- of course, with some sacrifices and differences that other people haven't or couldn't experience and understand how it feels to have that importance and responsibility put on you.

But I had a normal childhood and I was always able to make time for my friends. I do think that perhaps I became a little bit more mature a little bit younger because I had to. I had to prioritize -- I had to practice for four or five hours before I could go see a movie with my friends. I had to do the work. But I was and am still able to live life. I live life through the piano and I live life through music, but it is important to have other interests and do other things. It is important to go out and see your friends. It is all part of it. In the film, your parents seem very supportive and interested in pushing you, but not forcing you to play.

Yes. Sometimes it was hard with my father, especially because he is also a musician and that is really his bread and butter. But I thought that I had great care and I have always known that I have had great care throughout my life because my father pushed me in that direction, but I also had my mother who was a little bit more understanding of the idea that I had to do the "normal" things and be a little girl.

There is a point early on in the film when, after a performance, a man from the audience comes up to you and is very inconsiderate, criticizing you for playing a piece that he felt was off-tempo. You handled it well, but I wondered, because you are still fairly young, do people often feel like they have the right to tell you what to do?

This is a typical thing. I mean, it's in every genre of music for people to criticize and have opinions. And they are allowed to have their opinions. But what is specifically so difficult, I think, in classical music is that when you are very young you are playing a repertoire; you're playing music that is beyond your age, really. You're being pushed and encouraged to play this repertoire and give it your own interpretation, but it is true that I was young to play these pieces. I do think -- and I listened to that performance -- that I completely disagreed with that asshole. I completely disagreed.

To me, that was one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film when I first saw it, because I have had to go through that so many times. I still go through that. I'm still young, I mean I'm only 22 and people that are older than me -- maybe even only two or three years older than me -- they still think they are allowed to make those kinds of comments. Technically, they are. Except they don't understand how they can hurt -- and they hurt me a lot. It still hurts a lot when people say that stuff.

First of all, most of those people are frustrated musicians who didn't make it. So it's kind of like there's anger and they think that they have a right to say those things. But they don't. They have no idea and they aren't involved in the performance and they have nothing to do with it. It is a reality of classical music.

I think that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say it. There's constructive criticism and then there is completely negative criticism to hurt other people and that was just that. I got nothing from it. For me and for a lot of artists, it is hard to put yourself out there and express yourself and be comfortable. People like that make it harder.

When you work with younger musicians, is there anything you share with them about your experience as a working pianist?

For me, classical music is such an important and vital part of my life and I have been very lucky to have it in my life. I went to a school that encouraged music and all of the kids in my grade were learning music. That aspect for me is important -- there are too many stories about the arts disappearing. I think it is important to be exposed to that.

The film is not just about music, but it is also about growing up, a young woman growing up and finding herself -- and that is basically the message. I want to encourage anybody who is inspired by this film to be themselves and follow their dreams and be truthful to your dreams. Work hard but follow what you want to do. You see it a little bit in the film with the relationship with my father, but he had a very clear idea of what he wanted me to do and I am kind of doing it -- but I can't just do it his way.

I do a lot of stuff with kids from regular and music schools and I just talk about music. I just want them to enjoy it. Whatever you do in life, you have to enjoy and feel good about yourself. I can't give particular advice, but just be truthful to yourself. Enjoy what you do so the people around you can enjoy it as well.

Tonight's 7 p.m. screening of I Am Not a Rockstar at the Sie FilmCenter is presented by Friends of Chamber Music in collaboration with the Denver Film Society and the upcoming Women+ Film Voices Festival. Bournaki will perform live following the film and be joined by director Bobbi Jo Hart for a questionand-answer session. Alert: This screening is sold out.

At 7 p.m. Friday, February 7, Bournaki will be he featured performer at the King Center Concert Hall on the Auraria Campus for Metropolitan State University of Denver's annual Piano Celebration weekend. The two-day symposium will also see the pianist participating in various panels on composing and musician wellness. For tickets to Friday's recital, call the King Center's box office at 303-556-2296 or go to the King Center's website. For more information on the Piano Celebration weekend, check the MSU website.

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