When Oualid Mouaness was a kid, he had a big imagination, but he was at a loss for what to think when he was brought into the principal’s office one day at school and saw his mom was sitting there.
“I was called in because I’d written love notes to this girl, but the love notes were pretty inspired by ‘Endless Love,’” Mouaness laughs. “So I was sitting in the chair next to [my mom] and she’s like, ‘What am I going to do with you? You’re writing these tender notes and you’re too young to do write love notes that are this bold to a girl!’ But that’s kind of how I learned to express myself at the time.”
After letting that imagination run wild as a music video producer for the likes of the late David Bowie and Katy Perry while honing his technical skill in the years since, Mouaness expresses himself beautifully in his feature debut “1982,” set in his native Lebanon recalling a tense final day of exams yet that’s hardly why anyone at the school is nervous. With news spreading that Israeli-Palestinian conflict is spilling over into Beirut, no one can give their full attention to the tests, whether it’s Yasmine (Nadine Labaki), a teacher who grows fearful for the safety of her family in various parts of the country and her students as smoke can start to be seen just over the mountains that surround the idyllic school, or Wissam (Mohammad Dalli), a 12-year-old with less pressing yet no less serious concerns as he debates whether to let his crush Joanna (Gia Madi) know of his feelings.
In giving both life-or-death stakes, or at least letting it feel that way for the young Wissam, Mouaness elegantly expresses the anxieties of living under constant siege in the Middle East, showing political disagreements even within the school about the best way forward when it becomes a question if they should evacuate and the innocent rites of passage that the adults hope to protect by shielding the kids from knowing too much about the invasion. Told with great sensitivity and a beautifully light touch, Mouaness took great pains to recapture the world as he saw it himself as a child and shortly before “1982” makes its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, he spoke about gathering the courage to tell this story, securing the luminous Labaki to star in it right after filming the Oscar-nominating “Capernaum,” and creating the right environment to get such touching performances from his young cast.
It’s based on my experience of my last day of school in Lebanon in 1982, and I tried to write it before as a short story, but somehow it decided it wanted to be a film. I could never finish [it as a short story] because every time I tried to tell it, it just got very emotionally heavy for me. I think I just needed to get much more distance from it and then I went back and revisited it and after having a conversation about that time in my life with a friend. then I went back to it somehow and said, “Okay, I’m going to give this a shot,” and that story ultimately became the film. I really wanted to do two things. Quite frankly, I cannot stand war in general and having grown up between two countries – Liberia and Lebanon, I wanted to make a story about life affirming itself and being resilient to anything that could happen and [convey] that the story of war exists today as it was 30 years ago [and] as it was 80 years ago and it it is never really the answer. That’s really why I felt I needed to tell this story.
How did you find these wonderful kids?
That was a great process. I wanted to get as diverse a cast as possible, and I had some very close friends that I worked with previously, having done a short also with kids, so we [knew to] cast a wide net across a lot of schools that had everything from Lebanon. Ultimately, we looked at about 700 kids and we brought them down to about 25 to 30. Then I worked through a process with them where there was constantly a camera in the room, but it wasn’t manned and [we would do a] workshop, [where I would] listen to them and see how they would say things. It informed a lot how I ultimately ended up doing the dialogue and they didn’t know during that process who was playing who. I wanted to create the classroom and somehow the roles revealed themselves. Most of the people that were a part of this group ultimately ended up being a part of the classroom and that also created a natural language between all the kids, so everybody had their locker and their [own] things, so it was really a process, but it really a process in which I learned as much about myself as with kids.
I learned that kids’ worlds are so complete and they surprise you. [With] every kid, there’s almost two people. There’s the person that is the kid when there’s an adult in the room and there’s the kid when the adult is not in the room, and when I saw that during that process, because of how kids interact with each other when they’re unsupervised, [you see how] their world’s complete in and of itself. Their emotional structure is complete. Their social structure is complete. And then [when] there’s the adults [around], the kids shrink down to being kids, but apart from that, they have an equal and complete world. That surprised me and I [realized] what I needed to achieve in this film is to be able to become the kid that dealt with the kids as opposed to the adult speaking to the kids. Even when we were on set, I was directing to the point that I would never direct them standing up. I would actually be sitting down because I needed them to see me not from a position of authority, but to be able to talk to me as an equal so they’re able to be candid in everything they did. We got to a comfort level where that was just beautiful. At one point, we got advanced enough where they’re like, “You know, I would say this like this instead of this.” Some of them improvised, and some of that made it into the film, particularly with Majeed [Wissam’s best friend, played by Ghassan Maalouf]. When Majid confronts Nadine [Labaki’s character] in the classroom, that was just Majid coming to life.
The way she handled the kids on set was quite wonderful, particularly in the classroom scenes. The kids related to her and she related to the kids and she wasn’t part of the rehearsal process with the kids, but we shot right after she shot “Capernaum,” so she definitely brought a little bit of that in and there was definitely a very good space for them to work together, even right before we started filming. I actually had her in mind from early on and we talked about it for years, even before “Capernaum” came about, when we didn’t know how the film would be financed. But she really stayed the course, and I think it’s because it’s a role that matters [to her]. We kept in touch and when I moved forward with it, she’s like, “I’ll do it,” and I was very flattered. Clearly what she does in the film is she brings herself, the weight of light she is, and does a beautiful, beautiful job.
You use space in a really interesting way at the school. Was this like the one you actually attended?
It is a school I attended for a very brief period and it’s the school I was at when this event unfolded. There were two schools I was considering [for the film] and somehow schedule-wise, this one worked and for me, the school represented Lebanon very much. It is the Lebanon I know and I had to show that and to really achieve that where you feel the old and the new. You feel the Canopy Pine trees — the sound of each tree, the cicadas that are in the trees, the birds. I wanted to immerse the viewer into that idyllic environment that I’m very familiar with and is very characteristic of Lebanon.
Majid says something that I was curious about as a western viewer from a place where pigeons are common, but it’s ominous when he starts seeing pigeons since as he notes, they’re unusual around the school. How did that detail come in?
It is unusual, because in Lebanon, we have people who have pigeons on their rooftops in different cities and essentially, those pigeons go to their homes. Pigeons will fly all over and then they come back, and if you’re in Beirut on the street, you’ll see pigeons just circulating in their old formations — it actually feels like for a while that someone’s controlling them. So for me, those pigeons are pigeons that come from another city, and it’s a very quiet [motif], but if you know the pigeon language in Lebanon in particular, [it’s about when] the pigeons are home and where they are finding it. We had pigeons show up at our house and then they’re suddenly there every day, but then you [realize] that the pigeons, from their language, belong to someone and that person’s no longer there.
I shot as close as possible to sequentially simply because I wanted to maintain the logic of the story with the kids, so they know how it works. But it wasn’t 100% sequential because there were some things that we did at the beginning of the shoot — the first two or three days — when the kids weren’t as comfortable yet, even though we worked a lot together [already]. They were used to seeing the small cameras, the 5Ds when we were rehearsing, but when we showed up on set and they see a big camera with a big lens, it had a little bit of impact. So I started in sequence, but towards the end of the shoot, I actually had a conversation with them very candidly, like “Okay, guys, I know we did this [earlier in the shoot]. Let’s sit down and look at what you did. Do you think you can do it better?” And they’re like, “Yeah, we can do it better” and we actually went back and we shot a couple things that we already did early on because they realized how much they improved by that point.
What’s it like putting this out into the world after eight years?
Everything happens for a reason – it took eight years because it needed to take eight years, and I tend to trust the process of things, but I can’t wait to put this out there. It’s really a relief and a pleasure because I do think it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s a very human story and as a story from Lebanon, it’s really the most life-affirming story that can come out of the Middle East right now, which we need very badly.
“1982” will screen at the Toronto Film Festival on September 11th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox at 9:15 pm and at the Scotiabank on September 13th at 8:15 pm and September 15th at 3:15 pm.