[TIFF 2019] INTERVIEW - Oualid Mouaness (1982)
With an already established career producing music videos and directing short films, Oualid Mouaness presents his first full length feature at TIFF this year. 1982 is a notable debut from Mouaness, who has surely set himself on a long and successful career path as a filmmaker. A full review of 1982 can be found here.
throwdown815: Going through your profile, I see you did an MFA degree in film at Florida State University, but you ended up doing a lot of work in the music video business. Was that always the plan?
Oualid Mouaness: That was not the plan, and it was a very natural progression actually. I graduated, and I wanted to go to LA. Well, I didn't know I wanted to go to LA, I just got in a car and I wanted to do the country road trip. So I did a road trip across the US with a bunch of my friends, landed in LA, and I started out as a script reader. I loved music and ended up meeting this amazing music video producer, who's like, "Are you interested?" I'm like, "Sure, I'll start doing that." Then I did some work with him and started off as a PA, but we had this camaraderie. I would talk about film and whatnot, and then suddenly I found myself producing and editing my first film, which went to South by Southwest back in 2000. Right after that, I started oscillating between film and music videos, and over time, I just grew into being a music video producer as well.
TD815: How different is it to work with music videos compared to short and feature films?
OM: How different is it? It's a very different process altogether, in that it's a much more abbreviated process. Basically, a film spans a year, two years, three years to make whereas music videos really only take a few months. But for me, creatively, my work in music videos is more as a producer. I loved it because I love supporting visions of people and being a part of creating and completing a vision. Even in its short form, it was a very good ground for exploring creative boundaries and challenging people with imagery. So that's what's interesting about that world. You're a bit liberated from the narrative and your focus is more on the visual world.
TD815: 1982 is your first job as a director on a full feature film. I imagine it was probably a lot harder to focus on a subject that was so personal to you.
OM: Yeah, it was challenging because it's like you're exposing yourself in a way. For me, I grew up between Lebanon and Liberia, and I've been exposed to a lot of war. Looking back on my life, I wouldn't change anything about the experience of my life. Though there were dark times and bright times, I still have a positive outlook on life. I wanted a film to actually represent that emotional place, to represent something that rejects war and violence completely, while at the same time state that whenever there's violence in the world, there's also some goodness. And that's really what made me want to tell that story. It's very personal to me and I think it exposes a humanity that's rarely seen in the context of a war film, particularly one from the Middle East.
TD815: As I was watching the film, I was thinking how there really aren’t that many films about children during wartimes. And when there is, the children are usually the ones suffering or being helpless. Your film has a very different take on this, and I’m guessing that came from your own personal experience, having lived through it?
OM: Correct. I don’t like subscribing to a stereotype of what people expect to see of children during war. So I just needed to write about what I know and I need to tell the story I know. And the story I know is that we are real people trying to get on with our lives and trying to grow. Our parents were doing everything in their power to keep life feeling as normal as possible in the bigger abnormality that exists around us. I wanted to capitalize on that because that essentially means you're going to do your best and live life to the fullest in spite of everything.
TD815: You were only 10 years old when the events of the film happened, but 1982 also features many adult characters. How did you come up with their perspectives in the story?
OM: The adult perspectives were actually derived from the adult conversations that were going on around me during that time period. It was clear to me that there were schisms that served as the root cause of the war in Lebanon, and as kids, we were sheltered from that. So I wanted to address that from a point of view of love. As I grew older, I realized that most people tend to propel themselves from the belief that they're right and that they're doing good, and it was therefore very difficult to calibrate that. But I wanted to approach it with a nonjudgmental eye, and be able to see both sides of this equation because I've experience both sides of the equation in the people I love. I've seen those schisms and I felt it was important to bring that into this film because the film is effectively about Lebanon. It's about a facet of Lebanon that very few people there speak about. I felt like I had an understanding of it that could bring those two sides together, even when they watch the film.
TD815: So as part of your research for the film, did you end up speaking with a lot of teachers and parents who were also present during that time?
OM: I remember the teachers very vividly and what they went through. The adult characters were loosely based on the teachers around me. The two characters that are truly based on people I knew at the time were Mr. Brown and Ms. Leila. So those two characters really existed. The other teachers and the relationships between the teachers was something I developed narratively in order to address the context and schisms, because these were things that didn’t exist in the kids. This was very important for me to portray because as adults we're contaminated people, and as kids, you're still very pure. I wanted to focus on the purity.
TD815: And towards the end of the film, it seems like the purity is mixed in with some contamination, even for the kids.
OM: Well, it becomes a coming-of-age story. You realize that you just watched these kids grow up within the space of a single day. When Joana asked Wissam, "What's this?" and he said, "I don't know." You see the picture and you see the root. Then of course his imagination runs wild because he absolutely rejects this reality.
TD815: The child actors in the film were all really amazing, and for the most part, these were all essentially first time actors.
OM: All of them were in their first acting roles, yes.
TD815: So what kind of direction did you give them?
OM: Well, I worked with them quite a bit. I had a very great casting team, who really believed in the film. We decided to collectively cast a very wide net and looked at a lot of kids. We brought down about 25 to 30 people and sat in the room with these kids. I didn't assign roles immediately, but we did workshops and exercises, and always had the camera running so that it became invisible to them. I needed to understand them and be at their level, after a six-week process, it became clear who would play who.
TD815: And did you also educate the children on what was actually happening back in 1982?
OM: A little bit. We had to give them a little bit of a context, but not too much because I didn't want to contaminate them.
TD815: Who’s your intended audience of the film? Are you expecting children to watch it too?
OM: It's very interesting because as I wrote this movie, I had a Lebanese audience in mind. But looking at what's going on today, I do think that this movie will reach an entire three generations of a family. Which means, if my mom watches this film, I watch this film, or someone in my generation watches this film with their kids, the conversation is going to happen between three generations. That was really part of the intention for me because I don't think we should ever forget our history. After the Lebanese War, there was a little bit of collective amnesia because nobody wanted to talk about anything. This film will say, "Okay this happened. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again." This for me is very important. So my audience is a multi-generational audience. It’s made in such a way that is accessible for kids, to create enough of a curiosity to ask questions. For me, if this discourse is created, I will have succeeded.
TD815: Can talk a bit about how Nadine Labaki – who’s amazing as always – got involved with the film?
OM: I met Nadine back in 2009 or 2011, shortly after she finished her first film. And when I was considering actors, I had seen all of Nadine's films and thought there was a depth to her acting that was just always present. I ended up reached out, she read the script and loved it. At the time we didn't know when the film was going to materialize and I was still financing it. And at that time she was also just starting to think about Capernaum. But we kept in touch, and when it finally materialized, she was in the middle of Capernaum. She was very busy but she believed enough in the role, and she agreed to play in the film and represent this very core character in the messaging of the film – which is basically the fact that there's always a way to find dialogue, as opposed to a way to go to battle. And that's the through line of her character.
TD815: Are you excited about the film’s premiere here in Toronto?
OM: I'm so excited, and at the same time, nervous to see how audiences react to it. But I have a feeling it will speak to people in ways I maybe didn't expect. I look forward to talking to people about it because the film in a way wrote itself. As I was in the editing phase, it revealed itself to me in the same way that layers unfold because it starts off as a very simple film. Then the layers start stacking up, and then by the end of the film, the layers become quite dense.
TD815: Do you think that it’s important for a film like this to play at an international film festival?
OM: I was looking at this film in the broader context of what it is, and I believe that this film is not only about Lebanon. This film is one; about humanity, two; about the Middle East, and three; about the world. There's a collective consciousness about the whole Middle East crisis, the Middle East problems and the Palestinian-Israeli issue. I think we need to address that, and we need to address that in the broader context of the world. That's why, although the film is a Lebanese film, it also sheds a light on who we are. And as a filmmaker, I feel responsible for being part of a mechanism that will hopefully open a healthy discourse. There's a processes of identification that we lose sight of through the news or the antagonistic devices of media that are happening around us every day. For me, this film completely counterpoints that. It breaks down stereotypes, breaks down walls, creates identification and shows you that people are the same on both sides of the fence. That's really important because when you do that, you create a common ground from which you can actually have a healthy conversation. And, as a filmmaker, I believe we're responsible for trying to clarify things for people.
TD815: And as someone who doesn’t have any personal connection to Lebanon or these events, there’s definitely still a sense of relatability when I watched this film, especially on an emotional level.
OM: Exactly. Because emotionally, we are exactly identical. Be it in Lebanon, Japan, Canada, or anywhere in the world. We all feel the same things. We all want to love, we all get angry, and we all lose sight and clarity at one point. We all have to be reminded that we can be clear, and we can actually find a solution.