Mohamad Dalli as Wissam. Oualid Mouaness on working with the young cast: 'I wanted to empower them to assess what felt real for them and what didn't and to use this as their own guide to creating the characters'
Although it has been a long wait for the Lebanese-American filmmaker, he’s philosophical about it and says it has allowed the film to have another life away from the spotlight.
“What was interesting is that its festival life did not stop,” he says “And suddenly, it was adopted in schools. The film was being shared in schools, as I was in Beirut, doing Zoom calls with classrooms from kids from age eight to age 16, to discuss so much. And I saw that the film was speaking to people on so many different levels, because although it happens in Lebanon, it's very universal. It's about all of us, really. And now it's cycling back into theatrical in the US, which for me is really amazing. It's very rewarding.”
Although set in a very different time and place, 1982 - which sees little Wissam (Mohamad Dalli) on the last day of his school term grappling with trying to tell the object of his affections Joanna (Gia Madi) how much he likes her – has also gained an additional resonance with the invasion of Ukraine.
“I just think that that war is its own thing. And war does not change. War is war,” says the director. “And any battles that happen anywhere in the world are kind of identical – our human experience of war is the same.
Oualid Mouaness: 'This is intrinsically for me an anti-war film, it makes you question, is there anything such as a necessary war?'
“But what we see a lot and what this film was about, is our desire for normalcy no matter what happens in the world, and you see this, and you see this in the Ukrainians. It's interesting, because the news this week, you're actually starting to see a semblance of normalcy in the original cities where everything happened. There’s the shock and then after that, what you're clinging on to is you're clinging on to life, you're clinging on to normalcy and stability, it’s our human nature. And this is for me, very important. That was one of the main driving things behind making this film.”
The film highlights the way that the world inhabited by children can be very different to the one that deals with adult concerns.
Mouaness adds: “As a kid, you don't really understand what's going on in the adult world, all you know is that they're trying to hold on to normalcy, you as a kid are actually stronger in doing that, because your world is complete and separated. And for me, it was very important to really display that. The normal person is forgotten in war films and this is a film about that.”
Mouaness gets natural performances from his largely young cast and says he was helped by the fact that he has a background in music videos, which the kids could connect with.
He adds: It's very easy for kids forgets to get lost in performances and it’s how do you get these kids to feel like they're not performing and like they are themselves. And really, I had to gain their trust.”
The director did that by going to Lebanon in the years prior to shooting to spend time with kids from different schools and different walks of life.
He says: “I would observe and I realised that the kids’ world is complete in and of itself without adults, like, even if you have nieces or nephews or anything, when you walk in, the kids can completely communicate with each other in a very particular way the world is complete, and the attitudes towards each other are what they are. When an adult walks into the room, it's like a switch, they are aware of adults, they become the kids that we are used to seeing. And what was challenging for me is how do I achieve that level of trust, so that I am with the kids and not like this adult who walked into the room.
Wissam (Mohamad Dalli) and Joanna (Gia Madi) in 1982. Oualid Mouaness: 'I wanted to empower them to assess what felt real for them and what didn't and to use this as their own guide to creating the characters'
“It was about creating these two very distinctly separate complete worlds. We went through a very rigorous testing process cast a very wide net - 700 kids first and then that came down to 150 who came in for a second reading. I knew that I needed to build a community among these kids because you can't bring kids that are strangers to each other and just put them in the classroom expect them to be good. So from 150 we went from 30 and I took them through a very unusual workshop, which I kind of constructed with one of the people on my casting team who is fantastic. You have to have a team in this kind of situation. During this workshop, it wasn't just me giving them lines, it was fun exercises. It was going out together, that was part of it was watching movies together. We watched The Goonies we watched My Life As A Courgette, we watched my short film we watched Star Wars and I didn't want to talk about these films, I wanted to hear them talk about the films.
“I wanted to empower them to assess what felt real for them and what didn't and to use this as their own guide to creating the characters. About three weeks in is when I decided the roles, where there were multiple Joannas and Wissams. Everybody who participated in this ended up being in the school and in the classroom. Over this period of time, they became friends with each other so the cliques were formed the crushes happened. I was filming with the most of the time, so there was always a camera, so by the time we arrived at the shoot, they were so embedded in what we were doing that as a matter of fact, I didn't have to do that many takes.
“And I empowered them to come and tell me if they felt I was putting words in their mouth. So during this process, of course, I also when I started working with them on the actual scene work, some scenes were completely rewritten. They were constantly being rewritten until we arrived on the shoot.”
The kids were also thrilled to discover that Lebanese star Nadine Labaki was taking part in the film, with Mouaness saying he didn’t tell them before she turned up. Although Labaki is a director in her own right – winning critical acclaim through her own work with children in Capernaum – Mouaness says she’s “very down to earth”, with a different shooting style to his.
“She was in the middle of post-production on Capernaum at the time and we have very different approaches to how we work. Nadine is very like a sort of docu-shooter, who lets the cameras roll, catches it and then forms. I'm very structured. She knew that, because she's also a peer and a friend. She said, ‘I just want to let you know, I'm here, I'm an actor, and I want you to feel free to tell me to do whatever you need’. What's really amazing is the shorthand when you talk to someone else who is director, so the more you give a little nuance she immediately knows exactly that layering. This film was very delicate and subtle because the it's very grounded in realism and she got that so distinctly.” The film is partially based on the director’s own childhood, and he says it was “very emotional” to see the memories brought back to life.
“There were moments when we were all sort of choked during the making of this film because it came home,” he adds. “This was not only for me, it was for my producing team and for Nadine. We weren't in the same school but we are in very similar schools in different parts. And you realise how that moment in time has actually shaped all of us so. So there were some times when we were really caught off guard by reliving that reality. So it brings it all back. It's really amazing. Because even when you're writing, it doesn't bring it as much back as when you're actually trying to re-enact it.
“You kind of come to understand the breadth of your emotions at the time and the suppression of your emotions at the time. There's the scene where Majid’s younger brother loses it in the car that's completely lifted from what happened with my younger brother when he was watching the dogfights in the sky. It just kind of came back, all of it.”
And the director adds that the sound design was vital to the film.
“The antagonist in this film is actually the sound,” he explains. “It was very important for me to also capture these perspectives. My sound designer Rana Eid has done quite a few films that have actually been nominated for Oscars, just as international films. She has become my best friend over this, because I was in East Beirut and she was in West Beirut, so her sonic experience of this is very different from my sonic experience. And it was about the convergence of these two, to make sure that it comes across. We were rushing at the time to get to Toronto, so what we did is after Toronto back on completely remixed the film because we felt that it didn't deliver some of the key, I would say, character points of sound.”
Oualid Mouaness on working with Nadine Labaki, pictured as Yasmine in 1982: 'What's really amazing is the shorthand when you talk to someone else who is director, so the more you give a little nuance she immediately knows exactly that layering'
The film, which was Lebanon’s Oscar submission in 2020, has won a clutch of awards on the festival circuit including a UNICEF award. Mouaness was also thrilled to present the film at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris last year.
“It really goes with the multitude of why I made this film,” he says. “This is intrinsically for me an anti-war film, it makes you question, is there anything such as a necessary war? I think very few people or very few countries are brave enough to actually discuss the difficult subjects in order to prevent wars, which is clearly what's happened in Ukraine. The aggression is unfathomable. But at the end of the day, it's like, really, there was no way out? There was no way to avert this and Why? is the question. With 1982 I felt it was very important to, to pull the viewer into the hope, and the aspirational, and of what kids believe. As an 11-year-old kid, you believe in everything. You can dream and you are still free enough to dream that you have not been contaminated by the world yet.”
Now the director has several new projects in the works, both in the US and Lebanon, including an extended version of his short film, The Rifle, The Jackal, The Wolf And The Boy.
He says: “It's sort of a parable about violence. What prompted that was that I could not fathom the violence that was happening in 2014. In Lebanon, 2015 on our borders when ISIS was trying to come in. That's what drove that film.”
He adds: “I think people look for hope. I felt it was important when you juxtapose such violence against hope, because as humans, what drives us is hope. It was necessary to kind of go into the hope of the kids and to make the viewer, the adult feel the hope for kids. What's amazing is how kids are reading 1982, because the film is obviously in schools and whatnot. And the conversations are very different from how the adults are reading the film. But what is important is, in Lebanon, for example, it's creating this intergenerational discussion, because nobody ever talks about what happened because it was such a polarizing war. What's really amazing is it has created this really healthy, important dialogue about the past, the present between the three generations. This is what really happened. And let's not let it happen again.”
1982 will open at US theatres this summer, beginning on June 10 at the Quad Cinema in New York, followed by Los Angeles on July 24. For more information about the film, visit the official site.