‘Leaving is not always the answer:’ Lebanese director Ely Dagher confronts disillusionment

Amid protests in Beirut, the award-winning filmmaker discusses his debut feature and his relationship with his home city. (Supplied)
Updated 17 November 2019

‘Leaving is not always the answer:’ Lebanese director Ely Dagher confronts disillusionment

BEIRUT: The Lebanese director and visual artist Ely Dagher is walking through the streets of Beirut. They are relatively quiet compared with the previous few days and his voice is a little hoarse from days of protesting.

“Whatever happens with this revolution, we achieved a big victory in the sense of giving each other some hope and coming together on the streets,” says Dagher of the country’s demonstrations against political corruption, sectarianism and economic crisis. “Because the turnout out at the last parliamentary elections was less than 50 percent, so besides the fact that there were a lot of issues with the elections themselves, a lot of people didn’t even vote because they didn’t believe anything could change. So the sheer fact of this many people mobilizing and going on the streets gives a sense that we do have power and we can change things.

“I am hopeful that more people will go and vote in the next election and vote for alternatives and for independents outside of the political parties that have been ruling the country since the civil war,” he continues. “I think that’s the main victory. People see the possibility of change when they didn’t before.”




Dagher won the Short Film Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2015. (Supplied)

For a man who has spent much of his artistic career dealing with the theme of disillusionment, these are memorable days. His animated short “Waves ’98” won the short film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Part narrative short, part visual essay, “Waves ’98” was the first Lebanese film to compete in the festival’s official competition since Maroun Baghdadi’s “Hors La Vie” in 1991. It was an artistic exploration of the director’s relationship with a religiously and culturally divided Beirut. It was also the end result of two years of hard graft and contemplation and a surrealist blend of multiple styles of animation.

Now he’s preparing to shoot his debut feature, “Harvest.” It deals with similar themes, particularly immigration and identity, and is due to begin production early next year. The film is centered on a young woman’s return to Beirut after a number of years living abroad and Dagher has spent the past 18 months attempting to finance it. The final slice of funding — $30,000 in film grants from the El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt — was secured in September.

“It’s the story of a young woman who left Beirut at the age of 21 to study in Paris, without the financial or emotional support of her parents,” explains Dagher, who began writing the script in 2015. “She cut ties with her friends, her family, but things didn’t really turn out so well. She learned the hard way that the grass is not always greener and got to a point where she had no choice but to come back.




A still from Dagher's animated short 'Waves ’98.' (Supplied)

“The film starts at the airport on her return. She goes back to her parents’ house in the middle of the night completely unannounced and, bit by bit, her parents start to pressure her. They try to figure out what happened to her, why she left, what happened in Paris. And the more pressure weighs heavy on her she ends up escaping again, which is a pattern that she always had. She escaped when she went to Paris, she escaped when she came back, and she escapes again by reconnecting to the life that she had in Beirut.”

In some ways the film mirrors aspects of Dagher’s own life. He too has spent years abroad, living in Belgium and Berlin and studying for his masters in contemporary art theory and new media at Goldsmiths in London. Reconnecting to Beirut and attempting to understand it is therefore something that Dagher has experienced throughout much of his life. 

“Not just me, but my brother, my sister, my uncles, my aunts, my grandparents, lots of my friends too,” he says. “I feel like there’s a sense of disillusionment in Lebanon. This general feeling of numbness. You feel like you have no hope, in a way, except for just leaving. But that’s not always the answer.”

Disillusionment is “a disease that’s spread across Lebanon and makes people unwilling to take any action or change things”, says Dagher, whose work also deals with migration and a sense of hopelessness — a feeling that has been echoed by protestors during the recent demonstrations in Lebanon. Hence his excitement at the prospect of change. “People haven’t been discouraged like they were in 2015,” he says.




Dagher is now working on his first feature film, set in Beirut, like 'Waves '98.' (Supplied)

“In 2007 I moved to Berlin for a few months. I think that was the first time I left Lebanon and I saw how Lebanese, or even Arab, communities lived abroad and what they chose to keep from their identity,” he adds. “How they identified as Arabs or as Lebanese. But I also saw my cousins that had moved to Canada in the Nineties, or in the Eighties, during the war, so I did my thesis at Goldsmiths on the correlation between history, memory and the archive and the construction of identity. And I feel that “Waves,” but also the feature, have all these elements, but in a more narrative and less conceptual form. But I had to go through that process of travelling and asking questions about these things and being interested in that topic to actually come back and make films about it.”

Without choosing to broaden his life experience, he suggests, he probably wouldn’t be a filmmaker. Or at least, not the filmmaker he is.

“It’s important to live and to learn about life before making films,” says Dagher, who has also worked in the fields of advertising, illustration and design and edited music videos for the likes of Mashrou’ Leila and Yasmine Hamdan.

“I don’t regret not going to film school, because at 18 I wouldn’t have been ready to make films. I wouldn’t have had anything to talk about.”


Sole DXB highlights: Melody Ehsani’s latest sneaker collaboration inspired by Egypt

Streetwear designer Melody Ehsani takes inspiration from Egypt for latest sneaker collaboration. Supplied
Updated 07 December 2019

Sole DXB highlights: Melody Ehsani’s latest sneaker collaboration inspired by Egypt

  • Los Angeles-based Melody Ehsani recently debuted her hotly-anticipated Air Jordan 1 sneaker in collaboration with Nike
  • The recently-debuted sneaker was inspired by a recent trip to Egypt in March

DUBAI: In recent years, the market for women's streetwear has grown, however, the category is still largely dominated by the male market, as well as male designers. But one designer hoping to change that is Los Angeles-based Melody Ehsani, who recently debuted her hotly-anticipated Air Jordan 1 sneaker in collaboration with Nike.

The streetwear designer, who is of Iranian descent, is the latest woman to collaborate on an Air Jordan sneaker, and one the first women to design a shoe for the Nike-owned brand, alongside the likes of Aleali May, a stylist and model who was the first person to create a unisex Jordan Brand shoe.

As part of the brand’s “Fearless Ones” holiday collection, the shoe boasts an eye-catching detail — a removable gold watch set to the time 2:30, a nod to the basketball legend Michael Jordan. But the iconic basketball player isn’t the only one that Ehsani decided to honor in her collaboration.

In fact, the sneaker was inspired by a recent trip to Egypt, when the law-student-turned-designer accompanied her husband, Red Hot Chilli Pepper bassist Flea, during the band’s unforgettable performance in Giza in March.

The shoe boasts an eye-catching detail — a removable gold watch set to the time 2:30, a nod to the basketball legend Michael Jordan. Supplied

“The pyramids are the most obvious inspiration,“ Ehsani shared with Arab News. “I know it sounds cliché, but once you are there and you realize what the actual scale of them is it’s incredible. Those stones look so small in photographs, but in reality each of them is several stories tall,” she mused.

“Just being in the presence of them made me feel so insignificant and served as a reminder that the world is so much bigger than us,” she added.

Ehsani, who visited Egypt for the first time several years ago, reveals that her second trip to the North African nation was a very special experience.  "I had gone seven years earlier and there were a million tourists, but this time I went with my husband and we got to go on private tours of the pyramids and it was a different and very special vibe.”

Meanwhile, the footwear’s multi-colored red, pink, orange, green and blue panelway was actually inspired by her rainbow manicure during the trip.

Additional details include a hand-written message in marker on the midsole that reads, “If you knew what you had was rare, you would never waste it,” a piece of advice she’d gotten from one of her best friends.

Additional details include a hand-written message in marker on the midsole that reads, “If you knew what you had was rare, you would never waste it.” Supplied

“I was so inspired by that quote that I just wanted to share it with the world,” revealed Ehsani. “Whenever I come across something that’s really inspiring to me, I tend to use my products as a platform to share that information.”

Before the sneakers were released, they had already had a resale price worth $480. To put that into perspective, the original retail price was $130. The high demand served as proof that there is a great market for women who love sneakers, and it’s finally starting to get acknowledged. 

 “Growing up, there was so many things I wanted that just didn’t exist, and shoes were a part of them,” she stated. “A lot of times I had to buy kid’s sizes or the stuff that’s available to women always feels like an afterthought. There’s a whole ‘shrink it and pink it’ phenomenon when it comes to women’s footwear.”

However, the accessories designer is hopeful. “But what’s really great is that since I started eleven years ago, there’s been a dramatic shift in that people are finally starting to identify that there’s a problem. It’s almost like we were asleep on the couch, but now we’ve woken up.”

The sought after footwear, which debuted on Nov. 15, is available for purchase at Dubai’s premiere streetwear festival Sole DXB, which wraps up on Dec. 7.