Notes on Waves ’98
On Waves ’98, directed by Ely Dagher.
Waves ’98 is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating films from postwar Lebanon so far. Moving, elegant and multi-layered, it manages to portray both Omar’s lived experience as well as showing Beirut the current monstrosity that it is.
I’m writing a very long essay on Waves ’98 because there’s so much to write about. But given that I can’t publish that yet, here are a few notes on the film. Needless to say, spoilers ahead, so please watch the film before reading.
- The ghostly figure represents a haunting from the future rather than the more common haunting from the past. Many films of the postwar era especially have focused on the latter. The old man is not real, and yet is not entirely fictional either; he inhabits a space in between. I found this unique given, as mentioned, how common it is for ghosts to appear in postwar films as figures of the past. I interpreted it as to show Omar’s fear of feeling stuck in perpetuity (I used the term ‘permanent liminality’). The fear of ‘ending up like them’, as Omar says in the beginning, is the ghost.
- The film was released just a few months before the 2015 waste crisis and the subsequent ‘You Stink’ protests. It was a surreal experience to hear Omar say ‘I don’t want to end up like them’ after the waste crisis of 1998 and watch that after the waste crisis of 2015. One interpretation of this is what we could have had a Waves ’05 with the same plot, and that Omar did ‘end up like them’.
- The choice of featuring a waste crisis right after we see (what appears to be) the inside of the old man/ghost rotting shows that the decay of Beirut/Lebanon is reflected/mirrored in the inner decay of the individual, that they’re basically inseparable.
- The newsreel footage introducing the waste crisis is real, rather than animated. And in the rest of the film we also see the mixing of the real and the animated, the fiction. This effectively blurs the line between the two so as to portray Omar’s own sense of disorientation.
- The television is also the only real thing. ‘Real life’ could be animated, but the news remains real. This brought me back to when I would occasionally watch television as a child. It’s the moments of crises that make us all reach out to the remote control to see what was happening in the ‘real’ world. I’ve always felt detached from Lebanon, and yet I remember very clearly the assassination of Hariri, the 2006 Israeli bombings, the killing of Samir Kassir on my 14th birthday, and so on. My life at that point would be the fictional story, because much more serious stuff was happening ‘out there’.
- Besides being beautiful to watch, the scenes inside the ‘magic elephant’ show Omar experiencing everything he could not experience in Beirut: He sees fantastic animals, he is able to swim, he can drive in open spaces with friends, he can see over the city as a giant, and so on. The elephant represents Omar’s way out of his depressing daily routine. The extraordinary as an answer to hopelessness. The elephant is also what Beirut could be. It could be more than concrete monster that it is now. It could be transformed to let its people breathe more and have the time to actually enjoy life.
- The elephant ends up ‘disintegrating’ in the end and Omar jumps into the sea. When he does, he discovers that he is the old man/ghost, and that he ended up ‘like them’ after all. Or at least that his fear of ending up like them overwhelmed him. And yet, moments later he wakes up and finds himself in the elephant again, floating over the sea facing Beirut. I’ve thought about this quite a bit and I ended up concluding that it was to show that Omar can’t really escape Beirut even if he wanted. That his only ‘escape’ is to basically stay in the creature for ever.
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