‘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.”


Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘The Perfect Candidate’ wows UK critics

Haifaa Al-Mansour’s movie launched in the UK late last month. (Getty)
Updated 11 min 8 sec ago

Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s ‘The Perfect Candidate’ wows UK critics

LONDON: ‘The Perfect Candidate’ — Saudi Arabian filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour’s latest movie — launched in the UK late last month (on streaming services, since cinemas are currently closed) and has garnered hugely positive reviews for its “subtle power” (Backseat Mafia). 

“The Perfect Candidate” tells the story of Maryam, a doctor who — outraged by the state of the road leading to her clinic, which sometimes prevents patients from reaching her — decides to run for a position in the local municipality. It’s a decision that shocks not just politicians and the media (a presenter on the local news assumes she must be campaigning on ‘female-focused’ issues “like gardens, for instance”), but her family and friends too. 

In The Sunday Times, Kevin Maher described “The Perfect Candidate” as “an inspirational tale.” He hailed Mila Al-Zahrani’s performance in the lead role as “furiously good” and said the film was “the perfect streamer,” praising Al-Mansour for the ease with which she “blends arthouse and mainstream conventions.”

Al-Mansour’s comedy drama premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2019.  At the time, the filmmaker told Arab News, “It’s feminist. It’s about empowering women and it gives them a chance to believe in themselves and think that they could run for office and get involved in politics in Saudi Arabia.” 

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said the movie gives the audience “a fine lesson in some key ingredients of political life … nepotism, cynicism, sexism and chaos,” finding the themes so universal that it is, “the sort of film I can imagine getting a remake in contemporary America or Britain, with not as many changes as we might assume.”

“The Perfect Candidate” tells the story of Maryam, a doctor who decides to run for a position in the local municipality. (Supplied)

In Little White Lies, Ella Kemp described the film as “a fiery message playfully wrapped in irony” that “attains a greater level of sensitivity beyond just delivering yet another cry for vague female empowerment.” 

As she did with her pioneering debut film — 2012’s “Wadjda” — it seems Al-Mansour is once again proving that there is an appetite for stories from Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world in international markets; a fact that should help convince others to see the creative arts as a viable career option — something Al-Mansour was keen to see happen when she spoke to Arab News last year. 

“Art will become something people can actually work on and live off in Saudi Arabia, which was not the case before,” she said. “ Art was not respected. People didn’t have that kind of appreciation for it. But I think it’s different now.”