‘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.”


Five Arab films that have won international acclaim

Updated 06 December 2019

Five Arab films that have won international acclaim

  • Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s 'The Perfect Candidate' is in the shortlist for an Oscar
  • A number of Arab productions are in the race for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar

CAIRO: The Oscars are just around the corner, and in January the shortlist for the coveted Best Foreign Language Film award will be confirmed.

Several titles from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been submitted for consideration, including Saudi director Haifaa Al-Mansour’s “The Perfect Candidate.”

The entry, which tells the story of a Saudi doctor who takes on her country’s patriarchal system by running in municipal elections, is particularly significant as it is the Kingdom’s first Academy Award submission following the ban on theaters being lifted in 2017.

It is also the first to be supported by the Saudi Film Council, an organization launched at Cannes Film Festival in 2018.

Here is a look at other recent Arab titles that have achieved international acclaim, and why they are worth watching.

 

1. WADJDA — Saudi Arabia

“The Perfect Candidate” is not the first of Al-Mansour’s films to be submitted to the Oscars. Her critically acclaimed drama “Wadjda” became the first title to be submitted by the Kingdom in 2013 for the 86th Academy Awards. It marked the debut of a Saudi female filmmaker, with the film shot entirely in the Kingdom.

The story of a 10-year-old Wadjda, and her desire to buy a bicycle to race against a male friend, sheds light on traditions and women’s rights.

In an article for The Guardian newspaper, film critic Henry Barnes described “Wadjda” as a message that Al-Mansour wrapped “inside a love letter to her people.”

 

2. ESHTEBAK — Egypt

The Egyptian film industry has a good track record when it comes to titles receiving global acclaim, one of the most recent being “Eshtebak” (“Clash”), by director Mohamed Diab.

Set in a police van during a period of street protests and unrest in 2013, the film chronicles a time of political and social instability in the country, where a clash of ideologies and personalities unfolds between communities.

 Egyptian director Mohamed Diab's “Eshtebak” (“Clash”). (Supplied)

The resulting tensions and dilemmas are acted out by the people trapped in the van.

“Eshtebak” was selected as the opening film for the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and screened internationally across Europe, and in Brazil and China.

The film was publicly endorsed by actor Tom Hanks in a letter to the director: “Your film will go to great lengths to enlighten many. Audiences will see that humanity is a fragile community, but we are all in ‘this’ together.”

 

3. AL-JANNA AL-AAN — Palestine

A Golden Globe winner for Best Foreign Language Film — and nominated in the same category at the 78th Academy Awards — “Paradise Now” was described by its Palestinian director, Hany Abu-Assad, as “an artistic point of view of the political issue.”

The film digs deep into the human aspects of the Palestinian conflict, following the fictional story of two friends recruited by a terrorist group to become suicide bombers in Tel Aviv.

Palestinan director Hany Abu-Assad's “Al-Janna Al-Aan" (Supplied)

Armed with explosives, they attempt to cross into Israel, but are pursued by border guards and separated.

When they are reunited, one character decides against carrying out the bombing, and tries to convince his friend to quit as well.

“Paradise Now” was not Abu-Assad’s only Academy Award nomination. His film “Omar,” which won the Muhr awards for Best Film and Best Director at the 2013 Dubai International Film Festival, was also shortlisted for the same category at the 2014 Oscars.

 

 

4. CAFARNAUM — Lebanon

Directed by celebrated Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, “Capernaum” depicts the complicated life of undocumented migrants, refugees and workers in Lebanon through the story of 12-year old Zain, who lives in the slums of Beirut.

The film generated $68 million at the box office worldwide, more than 17 times its production budget, becoming the highest-grossing Middle Eastern and Arabic movie of all time.

Lebanese director Nadine Labaki's “Cafarnaum" (Supplied)

“Capernaum” won the Jury Prize at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival — it received a solid 15-minute standing ovation after its screening there — and was shortlisted for Best Foreign Language Film at the 91st Academy Awards.

Labaki’s other productions include “Caramel” and “Where Do We Go Now?”

 

5. THEEB — Jordan

This drama by Naji Abu Nowar starred non-professional Bedouin actors and focuses on events unfolding in the Wadi Rum desert in southern Jordan during World War I.

Jordanian director Naji Abu Nowar's “Theeb" (Supplied)

In 2016, “Theeb” won internationally recognition by becoming the first Jordanian nomination to make it to the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

It was also nominated for Best Film Not in the English Language at the 69th British Academy Film Awards, and won the Best Director award at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.

 

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.