Lebanese cinema recognised at Cannes
Beirut - Lebanon’s film industry has undergone a regeneration over the last decade, a change that resulted in many Lebanese films transcending borders and gaining international recognition at festivals around the world.
Elie Dagher, 30, is the latest Lebanese filmmaker to be applauded internationally, with his Waves ’98 winning the Palme d’Or for short films at the Cannes Film Festival last May. Dagher’s animated film was selected from more than 4,550 entries from 100 countries. The submissions were narrowed to eight films before Dagher ultimately won. The triumph qualifies him for the 2016 Academy Awards.
“I initially wrote the script a bit over two years ago,” Dagher said in a Skype interview with The Arab Weekly. “I had been living between Beirut and Brussels and decided to write an impression of the experience I had while being in Beirut for a month.”
The film tells the story of Omar, a high school student in the northern suburbs of Beirut in the late 1990s who struggles with disillusionment of his social bubble. His life takes an unexpected turn when he notices a strange giant golden animal between buildings. This leads to his discovery of a special part of the city.
“I was thinking about my relationship with the city and how it has evolved ever since I had stopped living there,” Dagher explained. “Because this was a personal film, I actually had to figure out some stuff personally before I could decide on an ending.”
To fund the film, Dagher sought the support of the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) and the Doha Film Institute.
“As a producer of the film as well, you always have to think of the festival strategy,” Dagher said of his decision to enter the film at Cannes. “Short films have a very limited lifespan, so you want the best platform possible for your film.”
As for the music, Dagher enlisted London-based sound artist Matthew Wilcock. “I had very strong ideas of where I wanted the music to go. I spent a week with him in the studio in London just working on the music,” Dagher said.
While the trailer reveals the film’s dynamic sound, Waves ’98 also boasts unique animation. Dagher said he used a mixture of media, animation and live action, because the content of the film required this.
“I didn’t want it to be a pure narrative film so I also used live archive footage, [in addition to] some footage of the city, to emphasise the almost documentary or ‘real’ aspect of it. But I wanted the characters and the narratives to stay abstract,” he said.
Over the past few years, animated films have garnered more visibility in Lebanon, Dagher noted, adding, “There’s a bit more awareness with events like the Beirut Animated Festival.”
Generating public interest in Arab animated films is an aim of the Metropolis Association, the organisers of Beirut Animated Festival, which was established in 2006, to develop “a cinema culture” in Lebanon and the Arab world.
“Through the presentation of independent animation films from the Arab world and the organisation of seminars and workshops, Beirut Animated Festival helped promote and expose the work of an emerging generation of local and regional filmmakers,” Metropolis spokeswoman Carine Khalaf said.
Khalaf, however, noted that animated films have not always received the recognition abroad they deserve “although some artists have been able to produce works of high standards in a highly competitive field”. While applauding Dagher’s win at Cannes “as a big step forward” for Lebanese cinema in general and animation in particular, Khalaf argued that the Lebanese film industry was “still very shy”, which she said, was largely due to a fragile structure and lack of financing.
The appearance of Lebanese cinema at Cannes can be traced to the early days of the festival. The first Lebanese film to be screened at Cannes was Georges Nasser’s Ila Ayn? (Where To?) in 1957.
Shot before the 1957 civil war, which became an entrenched motif in many Lebanese films, Ila Ayn told of a man who emigrated from Lebanon in search of a better future for his family, only to fail and return home to die.
Known for his vivid portrayals of the Lebanese civil war, Maroun Bagdadi became the next Lebanese filmmaker to reach the prestigious festival with Houroub Saghira (Little Wars) in 1982.
Bagdadi broke new ground in 1991 when he received the Cannes Jury prize for Hors La Vie (Out of Life), which is about a French photographer who was kidnapped in Beirut and his attempts during captivity to maintain his personal dignity in the face of torture and brainwashing. The story was inspired by the 1987 kidnapping of Roger Auque.
In 2002, Ghassan Salhab’s Terra Incognita was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival and then there was Nadine Labaki’s Caramel which screened in 2007 and Where Do We Go Now? in 2011.