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'1982': A Film That Humanizes a Difficult Context

Wissam and Joanna absorbing the crucial events surrounding the Lebanese film, ‘1982’.

‘1982’ paints a human picture of love and innocence in the foreground of war. Sparked by his own personal experience, Oualid Mouaness‘s film reminds us of how colorful and diverse Lebanon is. “This is a hopeful film from Lebanon, ” Oualid emphasizes. “‘1982’ is about a seminal moment in time that irrevocably changed the course of history in Lebanon and the Middle East.” Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, where it won the NETPAC Award (Best Asian Film), the film was Lebanon’s official 2020 Oscar entry. ‘1982’ recently arrived in North America. It is now available to watch on-demand through Apple TViTunes (US&CA), ALTAVOD, and Amazon Prime Video (US).

Through a subtle approach, ‘1982’ puts shape on the indescribable. The result is a film that is unique on so many levels. Mouaness uses a simple school-crush narrative to skillfully tell the difficult incidents that scarred Lebanon in 1982. In addition, the film brings the story home by unfolding the human events surrounding the polemic war of that year from a Lebanese point of view. ‘1982’ manages to, ultimately, offer a layered narrative that encompasses adult versus child perspectives in handling the complexities of both war and love. Only through a school setup, ‘1982’ conveys the overwhelming weight of its incidents; without really dwelling on details or taking sides.

The film simply tells the story of 11-year old Wissam, who tries to convey his feelings to his crush, Joanna. The teachers, on the other hand, struggle with the political divide and are busy masking their fears. In my conversation with Oualid Mouaness, we dig deep into the story, the context, the motivation, and everything in between.

What does that specific day in 1982 mean to Oualid Moaness?

Oualid: It was a day that clarified to me what does Israel mean. Lebanon was divided at the time. I was born on the other side of the city, where nobody told me anything about what was happening. People in Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria must have lived events similar to that day. What is really disheartening is that the day I’m depicting in ‘1982’ kept repeating itself in other forms and shapes in Lebanon and beyond.

How significant is ‘1982’ in our current time?

Oualid: It is essential that the film was released in our current time. We’re now living in an internet era. Once people see the film, they’ll be intrigued to go, surf the internet, and look for what happened in 1982. If I achieve this, it’ll be a success for me. Our story as Arabs and Lebanese was not told from our perspective. This is the first film where this story is told by the people that were impacted by it.

One film critic wrote that the film did not live up to the carnage and everything that happened in 1982. My film is not about the carnage. I am doing a film about ordinary people who are living the war. The people who are not soldiers or worriers in the literal sense. I wanted to tell a story that speaks about us as human beings who are trying to survive despite the harshness that is taking place around us. I had a lot of people telling me that they went and watched the film without preexisting knowledge about what happened in Lebanon and ended up learning about what happened. If this topic is in the film, people are going to go and they’re going to do their research.

Why did you choose to tell a story of the war through kids?

Oualid: It is not coincidental that the film is working on youth in an extraordinary way. The film won the Youth Audience Award at Montpellier Mediterranean Film Festival. But this is a film on war; technically it’s a war film. However, there is not one bullet that goes out. I set it out in a school because that’s how I experienced it. On the other hand, the amounts of schools that were destroyed during that invasion were significant and they never came back.

Youth and the disruption of their school are essential in my film. War disrupts schooling; which Is actually the foundation of peace. When war stops schools, it creates a dangerous vacuum. It basically stops civilization. And when it stops civilization, it enables dogmatism to creep in. In Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, we value education so much that people prioritize spending their money on sending their kids to school. All the radicalization that’s happening in the region has to do with disabling the school system. It’s a quiet, unspoken, policy in wars. We target schools in order to weaken a population; not for one generation but for multiple generations.

Wissam and his classmates in the school’s playground in ‘1982’.

Can you speak more about your choice of telling a human story in a time of war?

Oualid: When I want to tell a Lebanese story, I want to show the true side of the Lebanese people. That is what I did. I showed the friction that wasn’t ever shown before in Lebanese films; without victimizing or judging anyone. I depicted that in an adult relationship that is stuck between the left and the right. That relationship was representative of the fractions that were in Lebanon; between the pro-Israeli side and what’s, in my opinion, the pro-Lebanon side. This was there. And this was something that the Lebanese don’t talk about in their films. They are scared to talk about it because they’re avoiding politicizing things. My goal was to look for an honest and human way to show people and their own logic without disrespecting or undermining that logic.

In the process, I would go back to my family. We used to have these two sides. You hear of a person that is hidden by the villagers because the leftists are coming to take him. But as a kid, I used not to understand what those stories exactly meant. As an adult, I started understanding them. And that’s what I used in the subplot of the relationship between the adults. I really didn’t want to put war in the forefront because I didn’t want to tarnish the film with the details of that war.

Kids are too real in the film. Can you speak about your process of working with them?

Oualid: I had a long process of working with kids. Since I started working on this film in 2014, I would travel to Lebanon in March and April. I would go and watch kids in various setups and I would just be a silent observer. What I realized over time, is that kids have their own world, and it’s complete in and of itself. Unless I managed to make sure their world is complete in and of itself in this movie, the film will not work. The kids will, otherwise be speaking my voice as opposed to their voice. I also did workshops together with the kids that I ended up choosing. I would sit on the floor between them. There was always a camera running. We would always do trust exercises.

When we decided on the roles, we arrived at a place where I would rehearse a little bit with them without having them memorize anything. I would ask them, “How would you say this?” I gave them the liberty. When I did that, the material really transformed. Kids speak differently and their attitudes are way more honest than what I can ever write on paper. The final script ended up being whatever they wanted to say. What was most important is getting the authenticity that came out of the kids in and of themselves. conversations between kids are way more brutal than the conversations between adults; the ones between Wissam and Majid; how they pushed each other. That is how kids get angry. It had to come from them and they gave it to me. That’s really what you see on the screen.

Majid and fellow classmates in the schools’s playground in ‘1982’

How easy was it to work with Nadine Labaki?

Oualid: Nadine Labaki, was very easy to direct. She understood the role profoundly. She also knows the ins and outs of the craft. In fact, I spoke to her about the film by the end of 2013. She read the script and got extremely interested. At that point, the role was a little smaller than what I ended up having in the final film. After all, her role is considered a subplot. By the time we were going into production, she was in the middle of post-production for her film, Capernaum. I didn’t expect her to join. In fact, I was lucky because the days she was shooting with me turned out to be her vacation dates. After all, the film was in keeping with what we both stand for in terms of unification. And when she ended up joining, she brought something very maternal to the role.

Nadine Labaki playing the role of Yasmine in ‘1982’.

How about other adult actors?

Oualid: Aliya Khalidi, who plays the role of Ms. Laila, never did cinema before. She came from the theater. She had to break from externalizing everything while having to internalize for the film. And she did manage to pull it off beautifully. As for Zaina Saab, Majid’s mother, in the five to six minutes she has in this film, she comes in like a storm. She does deliver the most important message of the film. She’s the very assertive but the very impatient mom that we all know.

Rodrigue Sleiman, who plays the role of Joseph, is such a subtle actor. He really conveyed the emotion the character wanted. He is a prominent, ethical, political side of the film. The ethics of unity are embedded in his character.

Tell us a bit about the film’s aesthetics and motivation.

Oualid: There is a film that stayed with me all through my life. It’s ‘Where’s My Friend’s House’ by Abbas Kiarostami. This is my ultimate reference. It encapsulates the concepts of sensitivity and patience. Editorially and visually there is something about Tarkovsky‘s use of images that is similar to how I use images. I didn’t realize this until after the fact. There is specifically the use of sustenance editing which is basically; I show you an image; an image is an image for the first 3 seconds. By the 4th second, it means something else. With the 5th second, it will mean something else; and by the 6th you’d realize I’m trying to tell you more.

I don’t have a language that is fully influenced by a singular director. I think the material will command the style that I use for it. For example, I pay attention to the consistent temporal style. My use of time is coherent in all my work. This is part of the editing process. In terms of visual and aesthetic, everything will command its own dynamic. The level of realism is almost neorealist. It’s almost naturalist. I was set out to tell a story and I’m using what I feel is the best way to tell that story.

‘1982’ uses image-pressure to build up the tension.

Your aesthetic choices for the ending are significant. Can we address that?

Oualid: This style is originally in classical Greek theater. It is referred to as Deus ex Machina ending. Basically, an Ex Machina ending is a situation that heals the never solved. We need a savior. And the savior cannot be human because the situation is so big. The savior has to be extraordinary. My ending has several layers to it. Because it could work for a literary form understanding; a literary person would completely understand where I’m going for.

The film is very tense. It starts with this calm tone; a little bit. It was on purpose because I wanted the audience to be kind of lulled into this normalcy of a school day, then the exams. I then used image pressure; what an image says the more you look at it. You feel the tension building. By the time the school bus comes and the kids are watching Beirut burn, as a viewer, you are suffocated. Here, there were two things that I can do. I could either leave you there to watch Beirut burn or I could pull you out and give you a sigh of relief; which would be a very emotional sigh of relief. Because it’s really what you wish to happen. For me, this is the wishful ending of this narrative.

(Oualid, at this point, stares at me for a second “we all wish, right?”)

Any final “after ending” thoughts?

Oualid: What I would like to finally say is that the Lebanese People, the Palestinian people, and Arabs, in general, all want peace. However, there is an indispensable caveat: it has to be a just peace. Justice is the elephant in the room. If any negotiating party has no intention to be just and forthright, then any peace would be an imposed peace. And as history has taught us, peace without justice is not sustainable, it becomes an illusion that’s bound to falter. Only a Just Peace can be a Lasting Peace. Are the leaders of Israel and the Arab world today brave and visionary enough to commit to Justice in order to achieve peace? Right now, in my humble opinion and with all due respect, sadly not.

‘1982’ reminds us of this – that there is humanity on all sides and that we should be aware and not let illusory walls of fear separate us. We have to learn from our devastated past so that history stops repeating itself in Lebanon and the Middle East. Violence and War is not the answer. The tense political bickering in Lebanon today is contaminating and recruiting yet another generation with archaic and dangerous fear-based ideological and sectarian biases. This must end. All current governing parties are culpable in the potential re-destruction of Lebanon that’s unfolding before our eyes today.

My hope lies in a very promising and ambitious Arab youth generation that needs to come together, be smarter than the previous generations in debunking false historical narratives as well as ideological, sectarian, and political biases, achieve respect, and most importantly trust for each other so the world can better move forward.

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Written by Areeb Zuaiter (Arab America Contributing Writer) on February 10, 2021

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