From the moment one lays eyes upon The Sea Ahead, it is clear this is no ordinary Arab cinema title -- whatever the definition of such a broad, all encompassing term should be. Ely Dagher has painted a quiet masterpiece which brings the audience on a journey of melancholia, missed opportunities and personal frustration. Yet once we come out on the other side of it, we are rewarded with a clear understanding of our own shortcomings but also what the younger generations, particularly in a country like Lebanon but these days really worldwide, must feel.
We live in dire times. We eat, drink, smoke and sleep war and destruction, disillusion is our communal middle name and the media thrives on our shared nightmares of gloom and doom. Now, imagine living in a country like Yemen, or Syria for the past ten years. Or imagine being born and growing up in a country like Lebanon, with all its beauty and potential, brought to its knees by corrupt governments, shady deals and a barrage of badly timed disasters (are there ever well-timed disasters anyway?) that have made it one of the worst places on earth to call home in the last ten years. No wait, make that more than half a century actually.
Dagher himself is a product of this wondrous country and it is fascinating to watch how different his vision of Beirut is from Nadine Labaki's debut 2007 oeuvre Caramel. While both The Sea Ahead and Labaki's film feature extraordinary women at their core, gone is Caramel's joie de vivre and playful sexiness, replaced instead by languid, dialogue-free shots of its central character Jana (played by the fascinatingly complex Manal Issa) inner struggle. Yes, you can watch someone's thoughts on the big screen and be completely mesmerized by them, the actress playing the character and the young filmmaker who has the courage to make a film like The Sea Ahead.
Probably the reason I have been so drawn to this film, and it has remained unforgettable in my thoughts, has been exactly that -- Dagher's cinematic courage. I've watched his film in all kinds of settings, even at a late night screening in the open air in Egypt, with a cold wind blowing sideways and sleep encroaching, as the screening started very, very late, Egyptian style. Yet, I've always seen it through to the end, because its beauty, its poignant message and its crucial importance make The Sea Ahead absolutely spellbinding. The film has not enjoyed particularly good luck in the way it has been shown, starting with the choice to world premiere it at la Quinzaine in Cannes, when the other sidebar, Semaine de la critique might have been a better place for it. And that bad luck has continued with the screenings in Egypt's El Gouna, where on one occasion the sound and image were out of synch, and the a/c of the cinema blowing full blast on the poor spectators, dressed for the balmy day outside. As a well known critic in the Arab world said to me, "this film has been abandoned by those who should support it."
While at El Gouna FF, I asked Dagher about the contrasting moods of his film and the earlier film by Labaki. "At the end of the 90's and into the 2000's, there was a very different sense in the country. After the war, we were rebuilding, everything was fine, and somehow I think everybody wanted to forget what had happened. And politics didn't help, they wanted to sweep everything under the carpet and pretend it was all fine." He continued, "but we knew that nothing had really changed, with the same people that were still in power, yet somehow they gave us the freedom to live our lives, they ran their business, they'd steal but you know, you live your life." In fact, this underlying danger was just around the corner, Dagher explains, "when I started writing the film in 2015 I could see things slipping. I grew up in a middle class family. But that whole class doesn’t exist anymore as the country plunged into poverty. Most of my mom's family emigrated to the US in the 90's and 2000's and had difficult experiences -- the majority of them lost much more than what they gained by the move -- but even when things were fine in Lebanon, there was always this need for a backup plan, just in case something went wrong."
One of the traumas of having lived through a war is the lack of communication from the older generations about it. "Nobody talks about the war," Dagher confessed to me, "with my parents, we never talked about the war, up until the last few years. The idea is to just put it behind us and try to move on, but when I started writing the film, I could sense that things were not fine."
Dagher's previous work, the short animated live-action film Waves '98 won the Short film Palme d'Or in Cannes, in 2015. "In there was news footage I had taken in '98 and was talking about the trash crisis back then," Dagher explained, "I finished that film in May of 2015, and in July there was a trash crisis again -- talk about being stuck in the cycle! Almost as a prescient, the issue that I kind of randomly chose from '98 happened again, as well as the protests that came afterward."
Imagine being stuck in a cycle, of bad things happening again and again, and growing up in an environment where no one around you talks about it. It's no wonder a film like The Sea Ahead offers a vision of depression, the true feeling of trying to wade through the milky sea of despair, in such a perfectly cinematic way. Some have equaled Dagher to Italian maestro Michelangelo Antonioni and I would agree. Meeting and talking with the young Lebanese filmmaker in person, one gets the sense that he's been around much longer, making cinema at least since the 1960's.
What is also fascinating about Dagher's film is that he makes us confront our own ever-present idealism that "the grass is always greener on the other side," as the filmmaker pointed out during our chat. "During this cycle, I noticed a lot of people starting to leave again, my friends... I'm 36, so people in their 30's with kids, established, with jobs in Beirut, people who had never left before, they were starting to leave the country. And because of the different experiences in my own family, I felt it was also important to look at Lebanon from this perspective, of somebody who returns."
In The Sea Ahead, Jana returns home to Beirut from Paris, without announcing it to her parents and friends, and without explanations. We are left wondering what happened while she was in France and come up with our own explanations, slowly but surely as the film's plot unfolds before our eyes. It's a groundbreaking idea, to let the audience make up their own background for a character, in an Arab film. But then, "Arab cinema" is such a small box to place the work of such a variety of people and countries in. The Sea Ahead delves into the meaning of home, the feelings of failure when some of us return there after being away, as well as how others view us when we've traveled far and tried to make a life somewhere that isn't our country of origin. The results, as well as the film's ending are mind blowing.
Caramel aside, Dagher admitted he has always felt a "disconnect between what it felt like to live in Lebanon and what was portrayed in the cinema but also internationally, how we like to party and have fun." Instead he was like "guys, wait, we can't keep living in this bubble because things are not OK. So when I started writing the film the point was also to put the finger on this sort of thing, show that things are not fine -- it was important for me to portray something that I felt as a Lebanese I could relate to."
While The Sea Ahead will finally enjoy theatrical releases in Belgium, starting April 6th, and France from the 13th of April, it has yet to be shown in the U.S., even within a film festival setting. Dagher's film is sold internationally by Party Film Sales, in the MENA region by Mad Solutions and in France by Jour2Fete.
It is the greatest film you may actually never get to watch.