DUBAI: Towards the end of “1982,” the debut feature from Lebanese director Oualid Mouaness, a young girl and boy watch out the window of their school bus as bombs start to drop in the distance. “What is happening?” asks the girl. “I don’t know,” says the boy.
For Mouaness’ film, the answer to the girl’s question is immaterial. What matters is how a catastrophic event affects those who have nothing to with its cause. And with the aftermath of the explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4 still playing out, the film is sadly more relevant on its release than anyone could have predicted.
Set in a small village called Brumanna on the hills above East Beirut, “1982” is set in the school that Mouaness attended on the day that war broke out in South Lebanon. In his own life, the events of that day upended everything, ultimately forcing him and his family to leave the country.
“This moment in history, to be quite honest, has scarred me, even as a kid. And since then, it's never left me. It's very vivid in my mind. Our lives were never the same. I wanted to relate the human experience of that moment in time, just of being Lebanese, not necessarily being under the bombs, but experiencing the time when war arrives, and will forever change the structure of life. As Lebanese people, our lives have been constantly disrupted by wars and by forces outside of us,” Mouaness tells Arab News.
Lebanese actress and filmmaker Nadine Labaki, who was nominated for an Academy Award for 2019’s “Capernaum,” had a childhood filled with too many days like that one throughout the Lebanese Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990. When Mouaness asked for her to play the children’s teacher, Yasmine, she couldn’t help but think back to those days and to the teachers in her own school who struggled with the weight that was hoisted on them.
“I remember being evacuated from school, not knowing which bus to take, getting lost and not knowing where my sister was,” Labaki says. “I saw many of my teachers go through that same panic of not really knowing how to deal with the situation. It was such a huge responsibility. I felt close to this character, I felt I knew her. I felt emotionally also attached to that day, and to what goes on in our heads as children, and I was fascinated with the way my teachers reacted every time. I just was emotionally attached to this film.”
When Mouaness approached Labaki to star, she was in the midst of making “Capernaum.” She had to make a choice — either take her first vacation in years to rest before she began editing her most ambitious film to date, or star in Mouaness’ film. She chose Mouaness. “Vacations don't really suit me,” she says.
“1982” focuses primarily on the lives of Yasmine’s young students, magnifying the joy and heartbreak of young love and friendship before showing how quickly those concerns can slip away. To create an authentic dynamic on set, Mouaness didn’t tell the young actors who would be playing their teacher, instead having arguably the country’s most respected filmmaker walk through the door unannounced.
“On the first day of the shoot with the kids, she appeared in the classroom, and we said, ‘Action.’ The kids gasped. It was the cutest thing. Nadine had to get them to control themselves, and they started having to listen. It was the way things magically came together.
She brought this warm maternal space into this character that was just absolutely beautiful,” says Mouaness.
Labaki, who worked with child actors on “Capernaum,” improvised often with the young actors, trying to bring as much truth to the scenes as possible.
“When you come from a place or a country where there are no child actors, there is no school for child actors or you are working with children who have potential and personality, children are honest, they are not yet informed by people, by society's codes of conduct. They are real, and you feel that it’s real,” says Labaki.
Mouaness didn’t make the film to better process his own trauma, or to make sense of just one moment in time. “1982” exists to try to stop this from happening again — as difficult as that hope may be to cling to.
“I wanted to remind us of the fact that we should be aware so that history does not repeat itself,” Mouaness says. “What happened on August 4 in Lebanon was, for me, confounding because it did repeat itself in a way that nobody expected. We, as Lebanese people, do not have control over our surroundings, and yet we are paying the price for the larger problems that are surrounding us. It's heartbreaking to see that this happened. But, at the same time, we really need to remember that we should not let this happen. it's time for change. And unfortunately, it hasn't happened yet.”
Everything about the film, from conception to execution, was meant to be hopeful, according to Mouaness, subtly offering paths away from the vicious circles the country has been trapped in and towards something positive.
“Even in the process of gathering my cast and my crew, I wanted everybody from all walks of life, even the kids in the classroom. From different schools, different classes… because we should all work together. And the film takes the opposing sides, with a lot of the subtlety of Lebanon, and just forces them into seeing that the problem can be solved,” says Mouaness.
Labaki, who has been on the streets with the people of Lebanon for much of the time since the August explosion, shares the director’s optimistic spirit.
“We thought this generation was going to be spared. We thought this generation was finally going to be able to wash away all the blood — because there has been so much blood. It's difficult for those of us who have been through the wars to forgive. I was hopeful that this next generation was going to be able to live without that, then in a split second a whole generation was doomed to relive what we went through and to have that same injustice and feeling of anger that is difficult to let go off,” says Labaki.
“And yet, I truly believe that it is going to change. I truly believe that there's kind of a new awakening with this new generation. I feel like it's now the death of certain kind of world, and this is the birth of a new beginning,” she continues. “That will happen. I truly believe it. I haven't become cynical yet. I hope I will never become cynical. That is what keeps me going.”