By Yun-hua Chen.

For me the process of making this film allowed me to digest my feelings and experience as a means of catharsis on a collective level with the film crew….”

On 4th August 2020, a catastrophic explosion devastated the port of Beirut due to 2,570 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port, causing at least 218 deaths, 7,000 injuries, and 300,000 people homeless. Remarkably, the film crew of Costa Brava, Lebanon (2021) who were very near the epicenter of the explosion managed to escape. The ensuing events, including collective cleaning-up of the city, post-disaster trauma, souring cost of food, financial crisis, and existentialist questions that everyone posed, provided a backdrop for the director Cyril Aris’ documentary Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, premiered at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s Crystal Globe Competition.

Besieged by a seemingly unending cascade of misfortunes, the film crew of Costa Brava, Lebanon teetered on the edge of calamity. Their lead actor was detained at the Beirut airport due to his Palestinian passport; sudden flooding laid waste to their film set; the Lebanese pound, having lost over 90% of its value in the aftermath of a 2019 financial meltdown, left the government incapacitated and unable to finance fuel imports, leading to widespread power shortages. Amid this maelstrom where human-made disasters and natural catastrophes became indistinguishable, the film crew remained resolute, clinging to an almost hypnotic belief that an extraordinary outcome could arise from this accumulation of tragedies. With their initial production funds dwindling alongside the devaluing currency, they sought further financial backing. The culmination of the final shot, realized despite ongoing hardships, was celebrated with exuberant embraces and tears. However, the ordeal persisted into the post-production stage. Amid daily power outrage, the crew engaged in a constant race against time to secure their work ahead of each impending blackout, guided by the relentless reminders from alarm clocks. All this while the world continued to grapple with an ongoing global pandemic.

One of the producers of Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, Myriam Sassine, is also the producer of Costa Brava, Lebanon, which was edited by Cyril Aris. The director of Costa Brava, Lebanon, Mounia Akl, co-wrote Cyril Aris’ films including The President’s Visit (2017). Their intertwined professional and private relationships granted Cyril Aris almost complete access, providing empathetic insight into the crew’s multilayered struggles both as an outsider to this film project and as an insider who feels and senses together with the team. Initiating and concluding with excerpts from Maroun Bagdadi’s Whispers (1980), a documentary that follows a poet as she traverses locations emblematic of a bygone era, Cyril Aris masterfully parallels Lebanon’s past and present. He mirrors the ruins of yesteryears with those of today, weaving a poignant narrative about the disheartening cyclical history they endure. His camera remains intimately close to the protagonists, who occasionally address him directly despite his consistent off-screen presence. The hand-held cinematography imbues the film with an empathetic and emphatic tone, underlined by a subtle yet palpable urgency. Cyril Aris’ editing, carried out in collaboration with Nadia Ben Rachid, known for her work on Timbuktu (2014), is both relational and punctuating.

By choosing to take up a camera in the aftermath of an almost unprecedented disaster, the director poses the existential question of cinema’s role when confronted with uncontrollable catastrophic forces. He probes the meaning of persisting in filmmaking and what can be done for this country. This question resonates not only with Mounia Akl and Myriam Sassine, but also with Lebanon’s younger generation who dedicate themselves to protests and demonstration on the streets. Through documenting the film crew’s experience of the aftermath of the disaster, Cyril Aris reflects upon a country in chaos, ravaged by corrupt governance yet blessed by its resilient people united in solidarity. It is a vivid tapestry of emotions, spanning from resistance and survival, through desperation, and with occasional optimism.

Cyril Aris, the Beirut-based director, screenwriter, and editor, harbors a profound affection for his city and country. His intimate, evocative portrayal of a city grappling with crisis is powerfully intuitive, marking an indelible “before and after” for many Beirut residents. Opting to confront the upheaval through his camera lens, Cyril Aris makes filmmaking an anchor of resilience amidst political, economic, and social disarray. He talks with Film International about this filmmaking journey in Karlovy Vary.

How did you meet the crew of Costa Brava, Lebanon, and how did you decide to make a documentary about the process of their making Costa Brava?

Variety

I met the crew a very long time ago because we worked together. Mounia Akl and I have been working together for over a decade. We started working together in 2010 and co-directed. Then very quickly we took our distinct paths, but we always worked together. She co-wrote my script, and I edited her work. Sometimes I produced her work, and she edited my work. There is this collaboration on almost every project we do. And Joe Saad is a cinematographer with whom I have been working for 7 years, and I have done all my projects with him. Myriam Sassine is a producer with whom I worked on several projects. So, I knew them, and they are not only my work partners, but also close friends. I had no intention of filming anything related to the making of their film, but when the explosion happened, it imposed on me this instinct of just lifting a camera and trying to document what was happening. For example, I was quite inspired by the fact that all the Lebanese residents basically came to Beirut very shortly, within a couple of days after explosion. They brought their brooms and started cleaning everything. There was this intense cooperation with the desire to rebuild the city, but it was all on a very grassroot level and not orchestrated by the authorities, which are criminal, incompetent, and inexistent, to say the least. I was quite inspired to document that moment and this aspect of creating and rebuilding in the context of destruction. But then, I started asking myself what my role in this was, as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a Lebanese. I have all these questions about what the role cinema in such a context really is, if any. Then I saw Mounia, Myriam, and their team, who were already in pre-production and who were wondering if they needed to continue with the shoot or not. They were also asking themselves what their role here was; is it to stop, to fight, to resist, or to try to create? There was this aspect of creation versus destruction. I felt this little story of this crew was actually telling the bigger story of all of the Lebanese who were trying to rebuild Beirut in a very organic manner. I thought that if I follow this crew, I’d have this narrative: will they make it or will they not make it? What kind of obstacles are they facing? It almost feels like a nice structure for a fiction film, with all the storytelling elements. By shooting this narrative, I could explore through them the bigger story of Beirut, what Beirut was going through, the spiraling down of Lebanon, and these questions of what the role of art is, and what effect it has at the end of it.

How did you navigate the wide range of disasters the crew faced, from explosion to flooding, from border problems to daily power cut?

Obviously, I was not expecting any of these obstacles. A year before the explosion, towards the end of 2019, Lebanon entered a profound economic crisis and financial crisis. Our currency started devaluing after 25 years of pegging to the dollar. Now we realized that it was artificially pegged, but anyways. That created a lot of social turmoil, political turmoil. All the bank deposits basically vanished. Banks stopped handing any savings to their customers. We were already undergoing an intense crisis, and then on top of that there was the explosion. So, it was evident that everything that followed was the consequence of not only the explosion, but also the accumulation of the entire year before the explosion. If we talk about the government completely crumbling down and the inexistence of the state, it led to the fact that the roads were clogged, badly mismanaged. So, if it rains a bit more heavily than usual, it’s going to flood everything. It’s not like we had this intense force of nature, like a hurricane, that flooded Beirut. It was just a bit of mismanagement and corruption with a bit of an unusual event that led to catastrophic consequences. Same for the gas business. There is severe corruption of what we call the mafia of the gas business, which is also controlled by politicians. It led to the fact that there was significant shortage and mismanagement that resulted in us not being able to go to the location. We knew we were entering a very dark tunnel when we were going into the film, but at the same time, what are you supposed to do? Just sit down, victimize ourselves, and think, look what happened to me, look what happened to my house? For some people it was extremely difficult to get back to their buildings and get back on their feet, and when someone lost people dear to them, it became even more complicated.

I felt this little story of this crew was actually telling the bigger story of all of the Lebanese who were trying to rebuild Beirut in a very organic manner.”

The film crew of Costa Brava, Lebanon was very close to the explosion physically. On paper they should have been dead, if you look at the surroundings and the fact that people very near them during the explosion became casualties. I think it did give you this extra push of, now I want to make it even more; I really have a point to prove. So, navigating this whole thing was actually quite cathartic because I was not dealing with it on my own. There were a lot of people around me, and they were going through the same doubts, the same fear, the same aspirations that I was going through. When you experience this at a collective level, you kind of make it easier, and it’s like we all understand each other. When I saw Mounia at a moment of weakness, or Myriam at a moment of desperation, I was not just an observer watching. I knew exactly how they felt because I was probably feeling exactly the same at that moment. So, we became a bit like the same, but I was behind the camera, and they were in front of my camera, and they were behind their own camera filming their own actors in front of it. Ironically everyone was going through the same questioning, and these moments of comfort and almost euphoria when things were working on set and things were being built.

In the film we see a lot of solidarity and mutual support and the determination to do things together against all odds…

Dancing on the Edge of the Volcano' Debuts Trailer Ahead of Karlovy Vary  Premiere - Variety

That’s the whole purpose of them making this film. When you are making a film, you are not alone. There were 80 people around you, and in the case of that film, on a day with a small crew, there would be 30-35 people, and on a good day there would be like 80. This really created a community. Even under regular circumstances, every filmmaker would tell you that while shooting a film, the crew kind of becomes their family. Of course, there is always tension as in any other industry, and that’s perfectly normal, but in this specific context it became even more of a support group as they were creating, building, and as they were really playing. They were just filmmakers playing and creating this little world, and temporarily gathering all their energy to focus on something that was not about the explosion and that was not about the darkness surrounding them in Beirut. They were shooting in the mountains, and that created even more of a bubble and even more of a distance between them and Beirut. You might question the illusion of just running away and being in the mountains and not talking to people for two months, but I needed to not think about what happened and what was happening. By the end of it, we went back to reality, and it was even worse than the one you left. It really became a matter of questioning what I had I done this whole time. I saved myself maybe, but on a collective level, what cinema had really done. That’s the more pessimistic output.

What you said is tied to the title as well. “Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano” can be a variety of things….

The Volcano is Beirut, and there is the literal dancing and the metaphorical dancing of people. In the film, there is this big dancing scene in a club. This is very true and very reflective of the night life in Beirut which is very vibrant, and I recalled the same scene from the documentary Whispers from Mahroud Bahdadi which was shot in 1980. He also shot the same club scene of people dancing in the context of the war. It seemed to me that the element of dancing, here we are talking about physically dancing, is really embedded in the identity of the Lebanese. There is also this aspect of joie de vivre that is very prevalent despite the dystopia that we found ourselves in. The more metaphorical dancing would be making this film, collectively being in harmony and creating something on a volcano that literally explosed on 4 August.

Did Mounia and Myriam and other crew members see the film? What did they think?

Mounia and Myriam watched the film when I was editing it with editor Nadja Ben Rachid. At some point during editing, we were like, maybe we should show the film to them. At the end of the day, we were telling their stories, and we wanted to make sure that we were not mis-portraying something through the artifice of editing. In the documentary we tried to be as truthful as possible, of course, but by the mere fact that we were playing with images and editing, we might not really portray the exact feelings that this character or that character had at that moment. So, it would be a good idea to show them the film.

I remember it was quite funny because Myriam was actually laughing a lot, and at the end she was like, this is way funnier than I would have imagined. This was about 4 August, and for her she was in a very dark hole working on the production of the film, and everything was falling apart. Everyone was looking at her for answers, and she was like, I don’t have the answers, I really don’t, stop calling me. And, Mounia really had full trust in whatever we wanted to do and however we wanted to portray the situation. She was giving me notes, but relatively speaking her notes were very minor and completely unrelated to her character. She consciously decided not to comment on her character and just trust what I was doing. She was quite grateful that the film exists as a testament of what these people and we all went through, and of these the characters portrayed because it was an important moment of our life, an incident that is embedded in us and that would remain forever. It is important to recreate the experience in this visceral manner so that people can understand, experience or feel what the characters have been subjected to, not at all in a victimizing way, but just as humans: this is what we went through, this is what we did, this is the outcome with the positive and the negative portrayal.

You used a framed structure by beginning and ending the film with the footage from Whispers….

As I was filming this, very shortly after the explosion, I was watching that film of Maroun Bagdadi, a very prominent Lebanese filmmaker, the godfather of the Lebanese cinema in the 70s and in the 80s; we didn’t have a very solid industry for the Lebanese filmmakers, and he was really one of the pioneers. All the excerpts came from the same film, Whispers, and I realized that this documentary that was shot in 1980 could have been done now. It is also talking about rediscovering Beirut that was destroyed after five years of war, and little did they know that there were 10 more years to come. He was filming a poet, Nadia Tueni, the woman featured in that film, as she was discovering Beirut and really going through a lot of these questions like what we do now. He was also filming other people that were all in-between immigrating, giving up on Lebanon and trying to find a better future outside, and people who decided to stay to basically make the most of the situation. He was navigating all of these opposing perspectives in the wake of destruction. It was so relevant that I promise you, if I screen the film to you now, you will think that it was shot after 4 August. This quickly became a reference because I realized that for 40 years, we have been making the same film over and over again, and that is very telling about the cyclical nature of not only Lebanese cinema but also Lebanon itself. It really gets built, destroyed, rebuilt and redestroyed endlessly. There is always something that puts us down to our feet, and we have to get back on our feet again. In the end I decided to include these excerpts to bookend the film to create this communication between contemporary cinema and older Lebanese cinema. Of course, these are big words, but to have this dialogue and this thematic representation of the cyclical nature of Lebanese cinema and artists asking themselves the same question over and over and over again is a very sad realization that it is still the same, and it is all so relevant.

We also see this intergenerational conversation in the talk between Mounia and her father, one of the most touching moments in the film.

It is personally one of my favorite scenes if not my favorite scene. Mounia’s father has been through the Lebanese Civil War. I haven’t personally been through the war; I was born towards the end of it, but I was too young to remember any of it. I dealt with the consequences of it. But him, he has lived the war, and before that he lived through the first shorter civil war etc. He has seen it all, and the fact that he was so wisely optimistic towards the end was was something that I found extremely inspiring. The new generation is so pessimistic right now. You would think that he would be more into intense pessimism, having seen Beirut being rebuilt three times, and he is an architect, which is the irony of it because he is physically building. I thought that the scene is really one of the nicest legacies that can be transmitted from the older generation to the new one.

After making the film, did you feel more optimistic about reconstruction through art?

Huge question. I think that art does help artists in rebuilding themselves, overcoming the trauma and experiencing some sort of catharsis through the process of art, but I do remain very, not pessimistic, but cynical about the role of art in the collective level. Does it serve the community, or does it serve the artist themselves as they are making art? For me the process of making this film allowed me to digest my feelings and experience as a means of catharsis on a collective level with the film crew, but I would not have a clear answer. This is the main question of the film. If I had answered, it would not have been worth two years or two and half years of trying to film and edit and reach an answer.

Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar. Her work has been published in Film International, Journal of Chinese Cinema, and Directory of World Cinema. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs was published by Neofelis Verlag, and she has contributed to the edited volume Greek Film Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

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