Interview: Director Oualid Mouaness Talks “1982,” His Feature Film Debut

Director Oualid Mouaness' film "1982" stars prominent actress Nadine Labaki and tells a coming-of-age story amidst the 1982 Lebanon War.

By , 5 Sep 19 00:25 GMT
Oualid Mouaness on the set of 1982. (Courtesy of Oualid Mouaness)

In his feature film debut 1982, director/writer Oualid Mouaness tells the story of an 11 year-old named Wissam who, after sending anonymous love notes, resolves to tell his classmate Joanna that he is in love with her. The narrative occurs at a school on the outskirts of Beirut during its final exam day—and right as the 1982 Lebanon War begins. As conflict escalates in the distance, teachers desperately try to mask their fears; however, the situation begins to crumble as the day progresses.

The film follows two pivotal focal points. One centers on students: love-struck Wissam (Mohamad Dalli), his best friend Majid (Ghassan Maalouf), the object of Wissam’s affection Joanna (Gia Madi), and possible nemesis Abir (Leyla Harkous). Another focuses on the teachers and staff of Wissam’s English-language school, including Wissam’s teacher Yasmine (Nadine Labaki) and her politically divergent colleague Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman).

Reminiscent of Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, the film is a touching, delicate look at childlike wonder and humanity, and the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood. 1982 demonstrates the complexities of love and war, as well as the resilience of the human spirit.

This poignant drama is due to premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival next week. As Mouaness says, “I do hope it resonates with people, and the world. I’m very excited to see how it’s going to be received.”

In this interview, Oualid Mouaness reflects on the making of 1982, and shares with Cinema Escapist his inspiration behind the film.

•   •   •

You state at the beginning of the film that it is based on actual events. What was your inspiration for 1982?

It’s very close to how I recall my last day in Lebanon in 1982. It was that day that we had to leave the school very quickly and stop our exams. I tried to write it as a short story a few years back. I found it very hard to ever finish it until, somehow, I decided I wanted it to be a film. It just unfolded. It’s based on that last day, which has really stayed with me.

It’s strange how certain experiences are meant to become written stories, while others are just destined to become films.

It is unusual that this became a film because, in my mind, there was a short story that I wasn’t even sure I was going to finish. I had a conversation with a friend about it and she said, “this is the film,” and she told me to finish it. A year later, I was going through some things I’ve written and I came across it and, reading it, was very emotional and I felt that she was right. That’s when I started writing that story into the film and here we are eight years later.

Was the writing process why 1982 took so long to get made, or were there other factors?

There were other factors, but it was a combination of things. I finished the first draft of the film and, immediately off the press, I got into the Sundance Middle East screenwriters lab, which was in Jordan.

Then it was about raising the finances to do this film. As a first film, and as a Lebanese film, it was not easy. That process took quite a while. I needed the right team of producers for this project. By the end, I think we became a family who travelled along together for years. The financing part took the most time.

I tend to take my time with a project and I like to go off, keep my distance, and then come back to it. I find that that process was very important for bringing the depths to these characters because there’s a lot of characters in this film.

Wissam and Joanna. (Courtesy of Tricycle Logic)

This is your feature film debut. Long before writing about your experiences, did you always want to tell a story about Lebanon and its past?

Deep down inside, I think I did. We are the product of our history and I’ve written other material but, somehow, this felt like the first story I could tell that, once I told this story, I would be able to tell other stories.

I’ve been living in the US for a very long time. I’ve been working here; I’ve had a very good career and done a lot of things in music and film. Then I started getting drawn back to the Middle East and I reconnected with it over there. I think I reconnected on a much more profound level because I understood how to read what happened back then.

I had an objective eye. I grew up between two countries—Liberia and Lebanon—and both of them have had their share of challenging histories of war and, for me, there’s a perspective that’s very important. War affects people in so many different ways, and they somehow leave a mark on you.

The one thing that was very important to me was to really capitalize on the human experience and the desire to live and the desire for education. Education is the way out and the irony of the film is the fact that education is disruptive, yet you know that these people will defy life. I see the world in a very positive light and try to hold the darkness. Generally, the core values of humans are love and goodness, and I think that’s what drives us all.

You make it a point to focus on both the adults’ and children’s perspectives. How was it achieving that delicate balance?

It was very hard. That balance meant that I was doing a story about love, a story about war but, for me, it’s more of a coming-of-age story about both of those things together. We needed to feel the palpable nature of how the adults are perceiving the world, the adult experience, but I tend to favor the kid’s experience, clearly.

Some of the hardest scenes to write were the scenes in which the adults had to communicate with each other about what was going on without being heavy-handed. I just wanted to express the emotional truth of the period. I think it’s about the emotional truth of people and their relationships to each other that brings about that balance.

You have the kids who are very pure, very unmediated; they’re the heart and love. Then you have the adults who are completely impacted by what’s going on around them. The question is will they be able to reconcile. The film really addresses the fact that people should talk through things to get through to the other side. That’s really the core of the adult narrative of the film.

There is a stark contrast between the childlike innocence of the students as opposed to the fear consuming the teachers as the day progresses. That makes quite an impact early on in the film.

It’s interesting you’ve observed that tension. During my process, one of the things I learnt during the casting process with the kids was that I didn’t just learn about them, I learnt about myself. I understood that if there’s two kids talking in a room and you’re completely invisible, they way they address each other is very different than when an adult enters the room.

This was a challenge. How can I be an invisible adult? How can I not be present so I can get the truth from the kids? Children have a world that’s complete for them. They sort of understand what’s going on in the adult world but they have peace with how complete their own world is in and of itself.

I tried to make that situation pretty clear. When I was working with the kids on-set and when I needed to talk to them, I needed to be at their level and never talked to them like an adult talking down to a kid. Some of the things we talked about are very funny! They talked to me like they talked to their peers because of how we broke down these walls, which, for me, was very important during filming and the rehearsal process. They felt at home.

Oualid Mouaness working with actor Mohamad Dalli. (Courtesy of Oualid Mouaness)

You’ve assembled a cast of wonderful young actors. What was the casting process like?

We saw a lot of kids. I wanted the cast to be very diverse and wanted them to be from different classes and different segments of Lebanese society; representation is very important to me. We went to a lot of different schools and, starting in 2014, I would go to Lebanon and work with a friend of mine who is a teacher. We’d go in, we’d workshop, and get to a level where they can actually improvise; that’s how I like to understand them because they surprise you to no end.

We had to move fast because kids grow quickly so, the moment the decision was made to film, we cast a very wide net. We looked at close to 700 kids from different schools. I would go to all different schools sometimes and just observe the students and meet them in their classrooms. After that, we whittled down to between 25–30 kids. They became a core group with whom I’ve worked and brought in. We did different workshops and exercises; we made it fun for them.

All the time, I had a camera on me because I no longer wanted them to feel the camera’s presence. They didn’t know what roles they were playing either, so I used that to see the dynamic and then define the roles. I think we’ve delivered some beautiful roles in the film. I was moved watching them come to life on-set. As we rehearsed and shot, they just got better and better. They became comfortable and became themselves.

It feels so natural in the film, and the way [the kids] interact with one another is wonderful.

That was one of the main things I tried to do: create a classroom where everybody sort of understands everybody else’s idiosyncrasies.

During the rehearsal process, we started assigning each kid their own locker, their own desk. They even put stuff that wasn’t supposed to be in the film in those lockers so they got used to their space. It helped get them in the mindset.

The funniest thing was the first day of the shoot because, during rehearsals we were shooting with smaller cameras, so the first day they were emotional as it was the first time they’d actually seen the big camera! It was very cute.

It was suddenly real!

Exactly! It’s not just summer camp! We had a very specific window of time that we needed to shoot the film. The film definitely had to shoot in the summer and during a particular month of summer when the school was available. Part of the reason why the film took so long to be made was because, if we didn’t shoot that summer, we literally had to wait another year for the school. We were ready to shoot in 2015 and 2016 but, at the last minute for both those years, a piece didn’t fall into place. It was like, “Oh my God, we have to push another year.” That was the tough part. Everything happens for a reason though and you have to trust that.

The choice to focus on Wissam and Joanna’s love story as the 1982 Lebanon War rages on in the background is somewhat unusual. Why did you focus on Wissam, in particular?

My mom was once called into my school because I had written love notes! I got really chastised for it. It was something that stayed with me, and the notion of loving at such an early age was a part of who I was at the time.

Between Majid and Wissam’s characters, I think there’s a lot of me that’s familiar with that world. I got into trouble and they called my mom in! I remember my mom was driving home and she said, “Oualid, you are too young. You shouldn’t be writing these love notes!” I remember that very clearly.

The notion that you’re too young to love, you’re really not. We tend to disregard the emotions of different age groups but, then again, there’s something fascinating in being able to understand each age group. That’s where the love story comes from, it comes from the fact that I did have a crush and I do respect every kid’s crush that they could have. I think it’s a beautiful thing.

A shot from the school where 1982 takes place. (Courtesy of Tricycle Logic)

The Lebanese conflict is the backdrop of the film yet, despite this, we never see war, only hints of it. This was clearly a deliberate choice to stay within the school grounds. Why?

Very much so. It was because of my personal experience of this. At the time, Lebanon was split in half, and there was a part that was more dangerous than another.

The school in which I filmed is actually the school I went to when this happened. I cannot speak to the experience of people who were in a different part of the country. I wanted to speak to the truth that I knew. In a lot of war-torn countries, where everybody is saying it’s a disaster, there are always pockets of surprise from people. They continue living. I think the fact that it’s going on in the background, that you have life trying to happen and trying to be as normal as possible is, in itself, very resilient.

This is something I find very prevalent in the Lebanese people, given our history. There is a resilience and there is a love of life that continues no matter what. I wrote from what I knew. I didn’t feel I had the right to tell a story I didn’t know.

It must have been quite emotional to go back to your old school to film there and recreate your memories.

I did have some emotional moments during the process of shooting. It becomes very real all of a sudden. Part of me was dealing with it a little bit. We always have to understand our past.

I remember getting home when I was young and it was utter panic because, although we were on the safe side, the magnitude of the sound and the magnitude of everything that was going on had completely incarcerated the entire country. It was the first time I had really experienced something of that magnitude. Though I knew as a kid that there were dangers in the country, this was the first time that it actually impacted everybody.

Very little music is used throughout 1982, which gives the film a peaceful, yet eerie quality. Was this choice deliberate because of its subject matter or for a more impactful ending?

It’s a bit of both. I knew where I wanted to take the story. The film is a very naturalistic piece that has these little hints of the kids’ imaginations. For it to work emotionally, I had to stay deep within the naturalism and interfere as little as possible.

There are different sounds when there is something going on with the adults and when something’s going on with the kids. I think the music was emotional and really accompanied the kids’ trouble and strife. I tend to lean towards less is more because, sometimes, you don’t want to interfere.

The first part of the film is very quiet; I wanted you to feel like you are in a school and doing exams. I wanted to take the audience back to that moment in time that we’ve all had on exam day; that silence, that quietness, that peace. Then the midpoint of the story completely changes the film. I gravitated towards the piano as a basis and, with the ending; I wanted to conjure innocence and the period.

Oualid Mouaness working with Nadine Labaki on set. (Courtesy of Oualid Mouaness)

Nadine Labaki is one of the Arab film industry’s biggest stars, and she’s just enjoyed immense success with her latest film. How did you end up working together on this film?

There’s a camaraderie within the Lebanese film industry because we’re pretty small. I’ve known Nadine since 2009, shortly after she did Caramel (2007), and we have mutual friends.

As I wrote this film, I thought that she would be perfect for it. I grew to know her and, as a person, she has a presence. She read [my script] in late 2013 and liked it a lot. As a filmmaker herself, she knows it’s going to take time to finance and I asked if she was still down to do this and she said, “Absolutely!” She read it again and said she loved it and wanted to do it.

Somehow the stars aligned and she was taking a break from editing Capernaum (2018) and she said, “I can give you 14 days.” She understood the role very profoundly, she knew it and she knew the weight of what she represents in the film. She was a pleasure. I think things worked out beautifully to get to that point for us working together. Over the years, she had become a mother, which I think brought a lot to the role and you feel that in her character. She doesn’t take on a lot of roles in general but I think this one really spoke to her, so I was very excited that she loved it.

You’re a director, writer, and producer. Was aspect of the filmmaking process do you find the most challenging and/or satisfying?

All of them! That’s a tough question. It’s funny; I find it very difficult to separate them from each other because of the way I work. Even as a producer, I work closely with directors. One meshes with the other. That’s a very tough question!

I do love producing, I do love directing and I do love writing. I think, for me, they are one large correlation and, when you’re telling a story, you’re telling all aspects of it.

The tough part is actually making the decision to do the film; to make that decision to start writing and undertaking the whole project. That’s when you make the decision to commit. That’s the most difficult part: how far you go, how far you let the story take you and how much you let it take over your life.

Sitting down and making that decision is always the hardest part.

When I first set out to make this film, I didn’t think it would take more than a year. Here we are eight years later, and I’m happy with the results. Over the years, because of my producing, my documentary background, and my music background, I think that really does come to life in the film somehow, particularly with the ending. I had to go into the kids’ imagination, which liberated the film visually as well.

A shot from 1982. (Courtesy of Tricycle Logic)

The film does have a documentary feel to it, in terms of being able to transport the audience back to their school days.

I feel that’s where the film succeeds. I surprised myself because I was afraid I would be unable to convey that feeling. As the film progresses, the language changes and it becomes looser.

The first half of the film is much more compositional. As it moves forward and as tension rises, I get closer into the situation and, at that point, you’re already engaged with the characters. The second part of the film, from both a camera and script standpoint, the film is very disruptive. The first half is paradise and the second half is paradise getting lost.

What are your biggest influences or inspirations as a filmmaker?

They are very strange, but two films that really drove me a lot growing up are Baghdad Café (1987) by Percy Adlon, and Emir Kusturica‘s Time of the Gypsies (1988).

At the same time, I’m very grounded in stories, and I was one of those kids that just watched movies over and over, to the chagrin of my parents. I’ve had different influences over time but, for example, Au Revoir les Enfants (1987) is just another type of film that has stayed with me forever.

As an adult, I’ve very much gravitated towards Italian cinema, towards the darker side of things. I tend to work in layers in the narratives of films. Each layer reveals something new.

In the short film I did—The Rifle, the Jackal, the Wolf, and the Boy (2016)—was a very simple story, but the film also had a lot of layers and people can choose how deeply they want to read it.

People, nowadays, are watching films more than they are reading books. I love books so, as a filmmaker, I will try to preserve the literary aspect of visuals, in terms of the colors I use, the layers I choose, and how my dialog unfolds.

Do you have any upcoming projects planned?

I do have one that is written! It is close to done but not completely done yet. Ideally, I’d like to be delving into it in the next two and a half to three years. It might not be a Lebanese film; it might be an American film.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

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