Lebanon, June 1982. It is the end of the year for 11-year-old Wissam at his private boarding school on the outskirts of Beirut. Time for final exams, but the boy is more anxious about finding a way to tell his schoolmate Joanna that he is in love with her before they will be apart during the summer holiday. Soon, ominous noises can be heard, the sonic boom of bombs in the distance foreboding of incoming danger, maybe worse, as jet fighter planes, circle around in the sky. It is the start of the Israeli invasion that will lead to the siege of Beirut. Yasmine, one of the teachers (Nadine Labaki, last year’s Golden Globes nominee for Capernaum), tries her best to reassure her pupils and make sure they stay safe until they can get back home to their families as a chaotic mass exodus of civilians begins.
“I wanted to tell the story from a point of view I knew and understood and be as truthful as possible,” explains screenwriter-director Oualid Mouaness of his feature film debut. “It’s based on my last day at school in 1982 when I was ten. It had such a high impact on me, and I wanted to express the purity of what we felt as kids. That life continues even when war happens. Our parents protected us from information and from the facts and found different ways to explain what was going on. I was uncontaminated by anything adult-like or the bigger problems that were going on in Lebanon. But there comes a time when you can no longer explain because the world forces you to see reality and you grow up. That is when the ability to dream truly comes handy. The only way to escape the reality was through imagination. Fantasy was the outlet.”
Like Wissam’s experience, it meant the end of innocence for the director, the forced farewell to childhood insouciance and the sudden crushing realization of another world, brutal and unforgiving.
Nadine Labaki had the same experience, also being a schoolgirl at the time and thrown in the turmoil. She related to the fate of her character, a woman fraught and torn between opposite sides of the political spectrum as her brother is enlisting to fight with the Christians while her boyfriend sides with the Muslims. Between love and politics, facing an uncertain future like many, Yasmine will have to make a choice as she watches her country being torn apart. “It’s something I personally know very well, having lived through the civil war in Lebanon,” she acknowledges. “For many different periods of my life, I have been living in a politically divided country. It was a culture of more so belonging to a group than a country, so I do understand her position. Nobody is a winner in wars. In a way, we all lose something somehow.”
Oualid Mouaness, who grew up in Lebanon and Liberia, is a Sundance Screenwriting Lab alum, has directed several short films including The Rifle, The Jackal, and The Wolf and the Boy, which was short-listed for the Academy Awards in 2017. He has also produced music videos for artists including Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Lana Del Rey. On why he became a director, he says that “film gives us the freedom to do things we cannot do but imagine.” Making 1982 in his home country was a cathartic experience and a way to somehow exorcise the past even if you can never really escape from it.