Conversation with Ely Dagher, Director of ‘Waves ’98’

In ‘notes on Waves ’98‘, I wrote down some of the impressions that I had on Ely Dagher’s film Waves ’98 which won a number of prizes including the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival 2015. I had actually sent these notes to Dagher on April 25th as questions and he was kind enough to answer. I’m publishing them below with his permission.

Needless to say, the following contain spoilers so I recommend watching the film above first.


Joey Ayoub (JA): The ghostly figure seem to represent 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 (for example: Phantom Beirut, Al-Atlal, Here Comes The Rain, A Perfect Day). I found this unique and I interpreted it as to show Omar’s fear of feeling stuck in perpetuity (I used the term ‘permanent liminality’). Basically, that the fear of ‘ending up like them’ created the ghost.

Is that a fair interpretation?

Ely Dagher (ED): I honestly couldn’t have said it better.

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JA: Within the first minute of the film we see the old man/ghost, then the newsreel speaking of a waste crisis and then Omar in his room. This was a brilliant sequence that easily allows the viewer to connect the three as being inter-related. This leads me to the next three questions:

If I’m not mistaken, 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. Do you think we could have had a Waves ’15 with the same plot? And that Omar did ‘end up like them’?

ED: Honestly it was surreal for me to witness that coincidence. The film was very personal and purgative for me in a lot of ways to deal with my relationship with Beirut/Lebanon/the region and the fears. And one month in the trash crisis, I was watching the film in a festival and only then did I realise (I had chosen the rushes from LBC back in 2014). At first it felt like an ironic incident but then with the “you stink” protest there was a glimmer of hope for a bit of time which we didn’t see so much prior to 2015, especially in terms of people mobilising from all different walks of life and regions. It was actually the reason why I had chosen the waste crisis from 1998 because I wanted to find a crisis that affected everyone alike and not a one sided political issue.

I think in a lot of ways that crisis in 2015 brought a bit more awareness (example: Beirut Madinati in 2016) and I feel there is (if very small) more people who are fed up and willing to try to try to make a difference, even if attempts have so far failed. When it comes to me as an author, I wouldn’t see Omar ‘end up like them’ at least not for ever because I think even if he thinks there’s no way around it and there’s no real possibility for change, he would still try.

JA: I’m curious as to the choice of featuring a waste crisis right after we see (what appears to be) the inside of the old man/ghost rotting. Is the idea that the decay of Beirut/Lebanon is reflected/mirrored in the inner decay of the individual? That they’re basically inseparable?

ED: To be honest, I do not have ‘one’ answer for you as these elements in the beginning of the film and the end are interpreted differently. I do have my own interpretation but I have heard others’ and who am I to negate them? So in terms of it being a mirror of the inner decay of the individual or vice versa or if they are related is really up to the audience and where they stand on that.

JA: The newsreel footage is real, rather than animated, and in the rest of the film we also see the mixing of the real and the animated. Did you want to blur the line between the two so as to portray Omar’s own sense of disorientation? Doesn’t this add to his feeling of feeling stuck in perpetuity?

ED: Early on I knew that my main character was as much Beirut as Omar, and it was important to portray Beirut in its textures and colours while also being impressionistic. It’s about how it feels more than the way it looks in ‘reality’ which is why I still worked the real photos and footage. The characters I wanted to remain abstract and neutral, which is why they are animated in a simple way, with basic character design and outfits. They are meant to represent a broader group of people than the individuals that they are.

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As for the TV, I think for me and a lot of us it has that haunting quality. Whenever we spend days watching the news because there has been some disaster, or watching anxiously in anticipation of something bad happening. And that is why the TV is the only 100% real thing. It’s the reality that is always there. When Omar is lost in the elephant, it is at the sight of the news anchor (when reality shows itself) that the elephant begins to move and to crumble. I myself get goosebumps still when I see it because it brings back memories of what that represents; that feeling when the news is heard in the room next door when a major crisis happens and you rush there and stare at the screen in bewilderment.

JA: Besides being beautiful to watch, the scenes inside the ‘magic elephant’ (as I called it, but maybe you have a better name) seem to 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. Did you want the elephant to represent Omar’s way out of his depressing daily routine? The extraordinary as an answer to hopelessness?

ED: Yes, but it also is the Bubble that is extraordinary and beautiful while at the same time being heavy and present in the city completely disconnected from what is around.

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JA: Speaking of the elephant, it 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?

ED: I could copy and paste your answer and add “That his only ‘escape’ is to basically stay in the creature for ever with an opening to Beirut“? When you say “he discovers that he is the old man/ghost” I for example see it as him (present) and ghost (future) meet and this could be where the cycle meets and loops or maybe breaks.

This goes back to interpretation for me again as I kept it open deliberately because there is no one “escape”. He stands at the edge of the opening, with the inside of the elephant behind and the city in front. Where does he go next? Does he go back in the elephant? jump out and swim to shore? Or just stay in the limbo?

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