MAKING WAVES We sit down with Palme d'Or-winning Lebanese director, Ely Dagher
Source: Issue 3
Photo still from Waves
The Cannes Film Festival, 2015, an auditorium packed with the great and the good from the international film industry. Bright young Lebanese director Ely Dagher steps up in astonishment as he’s awarded the top prize in the short film category. Waves '98, an intimate, powerful and visually stunning part-animated film capturing the frustration of Lebanese youth trapped in a cycle of closed doors facing lacklustre futures, beat over 4,500 entries from around the world. The then-29 year-old Dagher, a self-taught filmmaker from Beirut who hand drew all the animation for the film (alongside a small team), found himself giving an acceptance speech that just a few months before he could never have imagined. It was some achievement. Sounder editor Ramsay Short caught up with him between stops in Beirut and Brussels.
RS: So Ely, what’s going on with you these days, where are you based?
ED: That’s a tough question because I ask myself regularly. I’m pretty much always on the move. For the last two years I’ve basically been traveling to festivals promoting Waves ’98 while preparing and developing other projects at the same time. My main focus has been to put in motion my first feature-length film. I can’t say much about it but I am sure there is some information out there since I have presented it at a couple of markets and labs. It’s set in Lebanon and deals with issues of identity and belonging much like Waves ’98 so it’s thematically very similar and connected but is more character driven and less abstract than Waves. In all my practices, film, installation and visual arts, these subjects and themes have been the driving force of my personal and professional life and the projects are spaces to investigate and explore them.
RS: Like the magical mystical elephant, a city in flux, a kid with a dream that all are predominant themes in Waves ’98?
ED: There’s so much of Beirut and of me that I put in the film but the starting point was to take a moment and reflect on my relationship with the city at that moment of time around 2012. So there’s at once the kid with a dream’s view from the 90’s who discovered the city for the first time and the contemporary less optimistic view. For me Waves ’98 was really an attempt to try to make sense of it all and see where we stand.
RS: It’s a complex film. How did you make it? Did you come up with the idea first, write the story, and then see how you could it put it together – or did the process work differently?
ED: It actually started off as I was thinking about the bubble that we tend to live in here in Lebanon and Beirut specifically and I had this image of the giant golden beast protruding between the grey built-up landscape. Why does this creature feel so beautiful and tempting while also heavy and out of place? From that starting point I wrote the script and the process went from there.
RS: The film is a mixture of real footage, Beirut cityscapes and animated hand-made drawings... an amazing melange of techniques and skills.
ED: It was a lot of work and it was a task that I could not delegate as I had to figure out what I wanted for each shot and how to put them together. Since I have dabbled in so many different mediums and forms, mixing things up comes naturally and is always dependent on the content. So it was important to abstract the characters as representational of people from the city while the city had to be present with all its textures, colours, sounds and grittiness.
RS: And it works. The film captures something many of us who have lived in the city can understand, a lethargy of purpose for older generations, the feeling of being a hamster in a cage running round and round and never getting anywhere, a struggle simply to survive, and the urge of the young to break free and succeed... was this something you experienced, is it autobiographical in that way?
ED: The film’s starting point was for the very selfish purpose of coming to terms with my personal experience living in Beirut. It is of course a shared experience in a lot of ways.
RS: How do you get your ideas, who are your influences?
ED: Ideas usually come simply from life, from the urgency for me to address certain topics or stories. But of course I am influenced by what I see, read and experience but that is usually more in terms of the approach or treatment. I think my main inspiration comes from literature but also art and cinema. And it’s usually people who challenge the form and the material in order to say something.
RS: The music is crucial to the atmosphere of Waves ’98, its flow, in a way it makes it... how did it come about?
ED: It was a very important part of the process and I had already contacted the composer a year and half before the end of the film to go over everything. I consider the music or lack of it is a crucial tool and element of the film so as I wrote and did the storyboard the music was also written; the basic melodies and instruments even. When it came to the actual compositions it was pretty straightforward since it was well planned ahead and we spent quite some time in the studio tweaking everything. It’s a process I really enjoy.
RS: What did it feel like to win at Cannes?
ED: Initially, mainly disbelief simply because it wasn’t something that I was really thinking about. You know you don’t comprehend actually winning and just to be selected was satisfying. But obviously it was incredible. It was all so quick and intense from being selected to winning that it took a couple of months for it to really sink in.
RS: What was the jury’s reaction to the film?
ED: It was overwhelmingly positive. They were able to relate to it and find themselves personally in the film and be moved it, and perhaps it was that universal experience along with the style which gave the film an edge. I had always thought that it was a very local experience because it comes from a personal place but clearly it translates very well.
RS: As a filmmaker going forward, has the Palme d’Or opened up doors?
ED: Being self-taught, it was great recognition from peers and people I admire and gave me the push that I was looking for to keep going. It does open some doors and it closes some others. Unfortunately the lack of proper public financing and support for cinema in Lebanon is problematic – however many awards you win – and it comes with a lot of crutches.
RS: What's the reaction been in Beirut to the film when you’ve screened it?
ED: We’ve had quite a few public screenings and some of the reactions that I got when I was there were extremely touching. Of course there were some colder reactions but the people who identified with the film make it all worth it. It stirred and brought to the surface some repressed emotions and that is very rewarding, the fact that what you create can be as cathartic to you as to some others.
RS: A final word?
ED: It’s not that I hold out for things to be different for kids in Lebanon who may find themselves in a similar position to my character of Omar in Waves ’98, but speaking with some of the younger audiences who’ve watched the film in Beirut it seems that in 2017 things haven’t changed that much in the grand scheme of things.
To see the trailer and find out more about future screenings of Waves ’98 click here.