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1982 Conversation with Scriptwriter and Director Oualid Mouaness

At the very beginning of the film, you state that it’s based on actual events. How much of what we see in the film is true and what is the genesis of the story?

The film is about what happened on my last day of school in 1982, when the Israeli invasion arrived in Beirut. I was ten. On that day, when me and my brothers returned home from school, I remember my younger brother and I standing at the balcony, looking up at the dogfights in awe and disbelief.  Israeli and the Syrian aircraft were shooting as each other.  My brother, who was six at the time realized what is going one and completely lost his mind. He ran back into the house and started yelling for us to come inside.  He thought that when a plane is hit, it was going to fall on our heads.  That moment has stayed me since.  It acted as a portal to the other events of that day, that time in Lebanon.  It cemented memories that surfaced from time to time:  my mind was like a photo book of the chaos: Parents arriving and leaving with their kids, classmates who were lost in tears, students getting pulled out of class, the snarl of cars blocking each other and the entrances and exits of the school.  What on other days an organized flow of vehicles… seemed like a chicken coup in which with a sky swarming with warplanes.

It took forever for us to get home that day, but we did. It was the first day I experienced war. The film is my recollection of the day.

The choice of an English middle-class school in Lebanon is quite unusual; contrary to the Arabic and French schools commonly featured in Lebanese films. Why did you make this choice?

The school I attended in Lebanon at the time was a Quaker school that was founded back in the late 1800’s.  It was Anglophone as opposed to Francophone.  My parents had decided we would study English instead of French, as Liberia was our second home. It was a natural choice for me, though it does challenge the generally assumed perceptions of Lebanon being more a French leaning that English.  Lebanon is a trilingual nation. most people can communicate comfortably in a second and possibly a third language.

I wanted the film to be as realistic and as true to that as possible. It needed to accurately reflect the world I knew and grew up in. Education in Lebanon is very important for all segments and classes of society. It is a society that prizes education above most else. Lebanon was mostly a middle-class country at the time. The middle class started shrinking later in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when a lot of people lost their wealth due to currency devaluation. The Lebanese middle class reality, as reflected in this film, is rarely shown in our cinema.

The Civil War has been the main subject of Lebanese cinema for the past 30 years. Were you concerned that you might be treading a familiar terrain?

While there have been many films made about aspects of the Lebanese War and its themes, I don’t think Lebanese humanity in the context of the war has been explored thoroughly enough. This film is different in that it presents the point of view of ordinary people; people who were not as directly engaged with the violence, but rather found themselves in the midst of it. In that sense, this story could be set anywhere and anytime; in any place that is subjected to war.

There’s a spare, elegant cinematographic approach to the story, albeit one interjected by splashes of magical realism. Tell us more about the visual intentions of the film.

I wanted moments in the film where the line between reality and imagination blurs, particularly when reality becomes untenable. However, the film is steeped in naturalism; a naturalism in its pacing that conveys what it feels like to be at a school during an exam day; that familiar feeling of stillness, a silence that makes every sound feel a little more magnified – there is a beautiful banality to normalcy. In the film this normalcy is broken. It evolves to a place where nothing is normal – there is a dark side, and yet there is the imaginative side to it.

A war in the sky is surreal for anyone, kid or adult. It feels strangely unreal and fascinating to look at. In this film I wanted to blur the lines between the fascinating and the horrific.

When you’re a kid, your imagination runs wild, and you’re constantly finding ways to express yourself, which can either be very demure or very blunt. At the end of the film, we feel the need an emotional liberation.  An unfettering of sorts from the siege that’s about to come.  We all want a way out of this suffocation, and the only conceivable way out is through imagination.  So what if the kid’s fantasy comes to life to save the day? In this film Wissam’s fantasy is to save Beirut.  What would it take to do so? How much of a dream is it?

I has a fascination with an animé robot (Grendizer) dubbed in Arabic when I was a kid in Lebanon. We waited for this show every Wednesday night.  This character had an impact on me as it does Wissam.  It plays out through Wissam’s imagination as it did mine.  I wanted to pay tribute and respect to Anime and the candidness of children’s imagination.  In this film, I took a license to dared and imagine what could not be real, but what can be a wish.

If there is a place to imagine things, it’s in cinema; thus, the surprise at the end.  

Nadine Labaki is among the Arab world’s biggest box office draws, how did you end up working with her?

This film is first and foremost and ensemble film. In my choice of the cast, I wanted a diverse Lebanese cast that could carry the weight and emotion of the story in a way that is truthful and relatable to a Lebanese audience. It needed to bring together unprofessional child actors and strong professional actors.

Nadine was among the first actors I reached out to for the role of Yasmine.  She and I had met a few years earlier, then reconnected and discussed working together on this film back in 2014. There is a certain way about her being that seems to carry a world within. It is unspoken, soft, maternal, yet ever so powerful. It’s that sort of energy that one can’t just define. I'd sensed it from our first conversation. Working with Nadine was a pleasure. She’s so gracious and precise as an actor.  She understood and trusted my process.  She brought a seemingly effortless depth to this role.

How did you balance the film’s very different adult and childlike viewpoints?

That was tough.  The film treads two worlds: a kids’ world and a grownup one. Where and how they cross mattered a lot in this narrative.  Most importantly I had to humanize the tumultuous socio-political history and geopolitics of Lebanon and the region during a time when differences were perceived as irreconcilable by the opposing factions in the country.  I had to transcend the trappings of political bias as writer director with the understanding that each side in each war believes it is adroit - I made a commitment to respect that as a human fact.  The thing that helped in this case was my pluralist schooling.  The school I attended had a rare and diverse student body that brought together all segments of Lebanese society at the time. It is something adults are aware of, but kids at that age aren’t.
On the one hand this is a film about geopolitics, its impact and how it creates schisms among people; and on the other, it is a coming-of-age film about love in defiance of this. I wanted to create a life-affirming ode to the resilience of Lebanese people no matter which faction or allegiance they belonged to, and I didn’t want to judge each side of the political divide, but presents it as candidly as possible. 

In working on this film, four profound films that have marked me in their profound understanding of the maturity of children became a reference: the first and most akin to my sensibility is Abbas Kiarostami’s “Where is my friend’s house?” a devastatingly honest film about a kid.  And in the context of war ‘Au Revoir Les Enfant’, ‘Life Is Beautiful’, and ‘Cinema Paradiso’ have moved me to no end.  
It is clear to me children live in their complete world and are equals of each other. The rules and mechanics of their own world is complete in and of itself. I wanted to make sure my camera respected that fact, moved along with them, emotionally and behaviorally.  The most important thing for me when it came to filming them was that my pov as a director does not impede or look down on their world, but rather observe it and live in it without bias.  I wanted to observe them with an equal’s eye, not an adult one.
In cinema, there’s a freedom to play, to imagine, and we have the privilege to undo / reimagine history.  I wanted out of the 1982 invasion, out of that war, out of all that is horrifying.  The imagination of Wissam in this film takes us to a place that says what if it simply wasn’t…  What if the war wasn’t?

Additionally, handling such a polemic time in Lebanon and the Middle East history on screen necessitated a truth in the historical precision of the environment.  That was of paramount importance, as it contributes to a more profound understanding of the era and its polemics.  It is the subtle details that resonate and make one think a little deeper.  Few have ventured to tackle a candid Lebanese perspective on that time in Lebanon’s history because of our sensitive geopolitical history.  The crux of Lebanon’s micro conflicts are a reflection if its macro geopolitical conflict.  It is geopolitics that create the schisms in Lebanon’s society.  That said, there was no choice but to work with such accuracy, bold as it may be. It was wonderful that my fastidiously detailed production designer sought out period accurate elements from erasers and pencils, to the papers students used, period maps, textbooks, and even exams, their contents and layouts.  All of it…

I hope that this film brings about a much-needed discourse about what happened in 1982, and drives home that fact that this should not happen again. It gives a voice to the Lebanese people who have yet to be heard.  It is vociferous in it rejection of war as a means to end conflict.

*Above is an edited conversation with Oualid Mouaness and Arab film critic and programmer Joseph Fahim after a screening at Al-Bustan. Seeds of Culture. From the English press kit