“Harvest” (“Jana”) by Lebanese artist and filmmaker Ely Dagher is one of six films from Africa and the Middle East selected for the Final Cut section in Venice Film Festival industry event, Venice Production Bridge.
The film’s producers at France’s indie outfit Andolfi are hoping to pick up prizes in Venice, in kind or in cash, that will allow them to fill their funding gap and wrap up post-production by the end of the year, with the goal of returning to Cannes in 2021.
Dagher won best short in Cannes back in 2015 with his animation “Waves98,” the lyrical tale of a disillusioned young man in late 90s Beirut, which went on to win several awards on the festival circuit.
“Harvest” tells the story of Jana, a 26-year-old woman who returns to Lebanon after several years abroad and is forced to immerse herself in the world she was once eager to leave. While it talks about his country’s disenchanted youth, the film has a much more universal message, says Dagher.
“There’s this feeling of loss of identity, loss of self, loss of home. Today, it may be relevant to people worldwide, who struggle with the idea of home, of constructing an identity in this globalized world,” says the young filmmaker.
“When we were in preparation in October, the situation in Lebanon was quite different to when we shot (in early 2020). The revolution movement had started, people were protesting on the streets – suddenly there was this euphoric sense of hope and that we could actually change things. But very quickly, that shifted again and went back to the same old, which is what I talk about in the film.”
Dagher speaks to Variety from his Beirut flat, which is being repaired after it was damaged in the explosion that rocked the Lebanese capital in early August. He, too, was injured in the blast, on his arm and his right hand. “Just a few stitches, I was lucky,” he says on the phone.
“I wrote the film five years ago, but things have only got worse. Take the explosion last month: when something like that happens, you think that things might change and get better, but actually they don’t. That’s what the film is about: this haunting anxiety and fear that the power is not in your hands, this helplessness to change things.”
While political disillusionment lies at the core of his work, Dagher still actively takes part in anti-government demonstrations: “Of course, I’m always out on the streets whenever there’s a protest,” he asserts gently.
But isn’t it hard to keep up the hope that things will change?
“It’s difficult because I don’t necessarily believe they will, but at the same time I can’t give up without at least trying. It’s difficult, however, and when you feel that your life is at risk, some people don’t want that for themselves or their kids.”
Eighty per cent of his friends are leaving, he says. Does he ever feel like doing the same?
He pauses. “It’s the question that everyone is asking themselves,” he answers. “I will stay until it becomes completely impossible to live. Try to hope for the better. It’s a hard decision to make. If you stay you have to accept somehow to be broken down and beaten all the time. Either you let go and you’re fine with it, like our parents – they call this resilience – but actually, in a way, you just adapt and become numb.”
While he won’t be travelling to Venice for Final Cut, which is part of several industry events which have been moved online this year in response to the challenges posed by the pandemic, Dagher is keen to see how his film goes down with the audience.
“I’m really looking forward to the Q&A session because the few people who have seen the film so far are somehow involved in it. So I am very curious to see how it will be received, even though I won’t be in a cinema theater to gauge their reactions.”
Looking to the future, Dagher tells us that “the last year in Lebanon has been quite crazy” forcing him to put plans on hold, but he does have a non-fiction film and another fiction project in the pipeline.
Ely Dagher’s work-in-progress “Harvest” (“Jana”) will be up for a virtual Q&A session as part of Final Cut Venice on Sept. 7. The industry event runs through Sept. 9.