The sea is behind, the enemy ahead… so goes the Lebanese saying. Nestled between Syria and Palestine/Israel, since the Syrian war Lebanon can only look out to the open sea: there is nowhere else to go.
Never has this been felt more painfully than in the past 18 months – the Lebanese currency has lost over 90% of its value since 2019. There are severe shortages of fuel, cooking gas and bottled water. Electricity is patchy at best. The price of food has risen by more than 500% in the past year. And 78% of the population is estimated to be living in poverty.
Against this backdrop, the feats of production of the three Lebanese films at this year’s London Film Festival – Memory Box, The Sea Ahead, and Costa Brava Lebanon – tell a defiant story in themselves.
All three films were produced by the prolific Lebanese company Abbout, which was set up in 1998 by filmmakers Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, joined shortly after by Georges Schoucair as CEO. While Lebanon has no public sector cinema support, a handful of companies (also including Orjouane Productions, The Attic, Né à Beyrouth and Boo Pictures) have driven independent production to new heights the last decade, bolstered by regional funding and international co-productions.
Abbout’s close-knit team has now been working together for a decade; Schoucair helms alongside producers Myriam Sassine and Christian Eid. To produce independent work is a challenge at the best of times, but to produce as your country literally implodes before your eyes is something else.
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The Sea Ahead
Ely Dagher conceived of his debut feature The Sea Ahead as waves of corruption began to destroy the country – a theme that already underpinned his short Waves 98, which won the 2015 short film Palme d’Or. Production was complex for more than one reason – perhaps most starkly as Lebanese banks froze all accounts and limited withdrawals while the devalued currency fluctuated wildly. The production was forced to rely on cash, which was largely transported (legally) into the country by cast and crew whenever flying in and out. Filming was completed in 2020, a day before Lebanon went into lockdown due to COVID-19.
The Cannes-debuting result is taut, transfixing and immensely moving, taking the pulse of present-day Beirut to chilling effect. The once bustling downtown – demolished in the civil war and rebuilt for luxury brands – stands dilapidated and empty, ensnared by high-rises and vast loops of highways that go nowhere. Life feels suspended in anxious limbo – the paralysis of an unresolved past bleeds into an intangible future.
Exile hovers around the film, which centres Jana, who has recently returned from Paris making no comment on why she left her studies abroad. Demonstrations appear on the TV in the background as Jana’s mother lovingly scrolls through the pictures her son sends her from Dubai. She marvels at his life, content to know how blissfully unaware he is of their reality. Silence in this film is a character of its own.
Leaning into the layers of collective silence that permeate Lebanon’s fractured past, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s Memory Box, which debuted in competition at Berlinale earlier this year, also asks what is transmitted between generations and families when the survival mechanism of suppression and silence is in the mix.
When a large unexpected package turns up one snowy morning in Canada, Maia quickly forbids her daughter, teenage Alex, from investigating its contents any further. Inevitably though, Alex does. She finds letters, cassettes and photographs that her teenage mother had sent to her best friend throughout the Lebanese civil war. As the past seeps into the present, so does a deeper understanding of her mother, her silences and everything she had to leave behind – including her first love, Raja.
Imbued with a deep nostalgia as well as the wonder of first love, the film will resonate differently between generations. Image sharing is so ubiquitous today that only few will remember how rare (and even tactile) photographs or videos once were. Memory Box hints at this through its intergenerational lens. At several points, the film’s frame itself oscillates in and out of the present day mode and into the vibrant colour and glitchy fuzz of 80s images, collapsing time both nostalgically and playfully.
The film builds on a body of work that’s devoted to reflecting on the role images can play in building an understanding of ourselves. While full of heart and hope, it suggests that you can bury the past, but you never know who will want – or need – to resurrect it.
Costa Brava Lebanon
The past, its truths and the stories we tell ourselves also loom large around the Badri family in Costa Brava Lebanon, which debuted in Venice and just won the NETPAC award (given to the best Asian film) at Toronto. When Mounia Akl initially penned her debut feature, she imagined a dystopian near-future. Production was postponed multiple times due to the pandemic and pre-production eventually began on 3 August 2020, a day before the deadly Beirut port explosion.
This avoidable event of criminal negligence, now seared into the city’s memory, also very directly impacted the core team, who were in the Abbout’s offices in the heart of Gemmayze at the time of the blast – it’s lucky that they all survived. When production resumed, subtly incorporating the recent blast into its storyline, it was no longer a near future they were depicting, but a chaotic now.
Resourceful is a modest way to describe Akl. In 2015, she used the streets of Beirut, overflowing with garbage as the result of government failure to manage waste, as the backdrop of her 2016 award-winning film short Submarine, in which wild child Hala stubbornly refuses to evacuate her derelict house when the garbage crisis in Lebanon causes her whole village to flee. Building on this theme, the Badri family in Costa Brava Lebanon have actually left the city and created an eco-friendly idyll in the calm beauty of the mountains. But the government also sees the value of their verdant land, and starts to build a landfill on their doorstep.
To the credit of indefatigable producer Myriam Sassine, the production managed to balance green protocols with COVID-19 restrictions, despite shooting at the height of the ongoing pandemic in December 2020. Sustainability regulations included the use of biodegradable or reusable materials wherever possible and composting of the set’s organic waste (by a chicken farm). Costumes were largely sourced from second-hand shops, most art materials were rented or made from salvaged materials, and the set design for the landfill in the film was done in collaboration with Live Love Recycle, while any catering waste doubled up as additional props.
Between economic crisis, post-blast destruction and successive failed governments, Costa Brava Lebanon’s plot is more prescient than comfortable. But Akl’s magic lies in hope. We know that sisters Rim (9) and Tala (17) will outgrow the strangeness of being at such different junctures of their lives. We root for the film’s handsome couple (Nadine Labaki and Saleh Bakri) to find a way out of their differences into a happier place. However fraught their reality becomes, love underpins the Badri family, and so Costa Brava Lebanon invites the viewer to invest in the possibility that communication and collective action can foster understanding and change.
Akl, Dagher, Hadjithomas and Joreige are all storytellers based in Lebanon and brimming with compassion for a country overwhelmed by its fractured past but mired by corruption in the present day. In this way, their films stand in subtle conversation. Gathered together at LFF, this triptych is vital viewing and a potent reminder of the role art has to play in times of upheaval and change.
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