Lebanon in a Loop: A Retrospective of “Waves ‘98”

15 July, 2022
Out­take from Waves ’98 (cour­tesy Ely Dagher).

 

In the sur­re­al­ist film Waves ’98, a young Lebanese man named Omar wastes away in Beirut’s seg­re­gat­ed sub­urbs, in the late ’90s. Even­tu­al­ly, his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with post-civ­il war sub­ur­ban life lures him into the city’s depths, where he slow­ly los­es touch with real­i­ty as he strug­gles to main­tain his sense of belong­ing to the hol­low world around him. 

 

Youssef Manessa

 

We open on the decrepit face of a sad, old man — slow­ly zoom­ing in until an abstract cur­rent with­in him leads us into what looks like inner decay. Footage from an LBC broad­cast is then screened, but before the anchor can deliv­er the news, it cuts to our pro­tag­o­nist Omar, on his bed, star­ing up at the ceil­ing as the news anchor drones on about the waste crisis.

A phone sud­den­ly rings, but no one answers. No one seems to see a rea­son to. So it goes to voice­mail over a mon­tage of news footage and Omar’s drab apart­ment and dis­in­ter­est­ed parents.

The voice on the machine tells us:

“I’m tired of hear­ing the same sto­ry over and over again. It’s like everything’s stuck in a loop. I’m tired of my house, my bed. Tired of all these depress­ing sto­ries. Every­one is fed up. They wake every morn­ing to the same news, same chaos, and mess. Noth­ing ever changes. I don’t want to end up like them.”

As we’re hear­ing this, we don’t know who’s call­ing or what he’s refer­ring to, but we don’t need to.

Any­one from Lebanon watch­ing this knows exact­ly what he’s talk­ing about.

 

 

Much has been said over the years about the com­plex rela­tion­ship Beirutis have with their city. Gone are the days when the cap­i­tal of this belea­guered nation could call itself “the Paris of the Mid­dle East,” and in the after­math of a bru­tal civ­il war, few, if any, were sold on the promis­es of the recon­struc­tion era that vowed to restore the cap­i­tal to its for­mer glo­ry. Now that peace has last­ed for decades, a new gen­er­a­tion of artists has emerged who were not con­scious of the war but grew up in its wreck­age, acute­ly aware that the promis­es of a gold­en age restored were friv­o­lous lies. These lies were told and retold to us as our future was stolen right out of our bank accounts — leav­ing us with the emp­ty plat­i­tudes of Mr. Lebanon and his neolib­er­al par­adise that was always just a cou­ple of years away.

Using a mix of ani­ma­tion, live-action footage, and pho­tog­ra­phy, the Lebanese short film Waves ‘98 incom­pa­ra­bly cap­tures the decep­tions and dis­ap­point­ments of the era in all its com­plex­i­ty and nuance, nev­er offer­ing us the sim­ple solu­tions that we’ve become weary of as Lebanon spi­rals out of con­trol. Set dur­ing the waste cri­sis of 1998 — an event cho­sen by its writer/director Ely Dagher as it was one of the few that affect­ed every­one in Lebanon from all sects and both sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum — the film fol­lows Omar, a Lebanese teenag­er wast­ing away in the seg­re­gat­ed sub­urbs of Beirut, where his dis­il­lu­sion­ment with post-civ­il war life lures him into the city’s depths. There, Omar slow­ly los­es touch with real­i­ty as he strug­gles to main­tain his sense of belong­ing to the hol­low world around him.

It’s not long before he encoun­ters a colos­sal crys­talline ele­phant in the heart of the dying city — the film pan­ning up to it in all its glo­ry, then zoom­ing in on to Omar as he stares up at it in awe. For the first time, the screen is awash with warm col­ors, the allure of some­thing so sub­lime irre­sistible in a place as mis­er­able as Beirut.  As Omar approach­es the elephant’s snout, an open­ing reveals itself. When he looks to his side, he sees oth­er youth jump­ing into oth­er open­ings, but still hes­i­tant, Omar balks at the opportunity…only for a beam of light to shoot out and pull him into the elephant.

And here, one styl­is­tic choice sticks out. 

Through­out the short film, a col­lage of ani­ma­tion and film­mak­ing tech­niques is used to meld the fan­tas­ti­cal and the mun­dane — height­en­ing Omar’s dis­ori­en­ta­tion as he slow­ly los­es touch with the real­i­ty around him. Notably, Beirut and its ever-present news broad­casts are nei­ther ani­mat­ed nor even illus­trat­ed. Rather they’re depict­ed with footage and pho­tographs of the real thing. Real­i­ty, it seems, must always be drawn from live-action footage and pho­tographs just as the fan­tas­ti­cal is only shown to us through animation.

Yet Omar and those around him are ani­mat­ed — just like the crys­talline ele­phant is. 

Per­haps, that’s what allows them inside?

But what hap­pens inside the ele­phant is as mun­dane as the ele­phant is sur­re­al. Omar is allowed to live out the life that Beirut pre­vents him from enjoy­ing — the life he craves, being both beau­ti­ful and heart­break­ing in its mod­est desires. What we are shown here is that the won­ders of the unre­al are our only hope when impris­oned by the list­less­ness of the real. But even though the ele­phant seems to be Omar’s only way out of the dol­drums of Lebanese life, it is also an illu­sion that iso­lates him from the life he’s actu­al­ly liv­ing and harms the world around him.

Hang­ing heav­i­ly and vis­i­bly over the city, the ele­phant isn’t the safe haven that Omar and oth­er youth make it out to be. As it makes its way through the urban sprawl, it destroys build­ings and dam­ages roads until it can no longer sus­tain itself and col­laps­es. Unlike the con­crete that over­whelms Beirut, the ele­phant is made out of a frag­ile sub­stance mal­leable enough to change and accom­mo­date those it allows in — but that also means that it could fall apart at any moment. 

Yet, in Omar’s eyes, both some­how coex­ist on the same plane. 

What that means is only appar­ent when the crys­talline ele­phant col­laps­es onto the city after yet anoth­er news broadcast. 

Not only is the ele­phant what Beirut isn’t, but it’s what Beirut could be…


One ques­tion lies at the heart of the film:

Who is the old man?

When we are first intro­duced to him, he appears to be some sort of appari­tion haunt­ing our pro­tag­o­nist. But is he the kind of phan­tom that reemerges from our pasts?

Not quite.

We can’t be sure of whose speak­ing when we first hear the voice mail — only when the scene on the shore, lat­er on, is ser­e­nad­ed with Omar’s mus­ings that we final­ly under­stand that it was him all along. But then, at the end of the film, snip­pets from the voice­mail come out of the old man’s mouth as he re-emerges from the darkness. 

What is being com­mu­ni­cat­ed to us is clear:

The old man was once Omar. Omar may become the old man.

For the old man is not a revenant from Omar’s past, but a specter of the future he fears for himself.

And, when he and it final­ly con­front each oth­er, this is the phrase that the old man repeats: 

“It feels like every­thing is stuck in a loop?”

This is where the cycle comes togeth­er. But will it loop or repeat?


Chal­leng­ing and exper­i­men­tal, the film was unlike any­thing Lebanese cin­e­ma had seen up till the point of its release in 2015. What could’ve eas­i­ly end­ed up an impen­e­tra­ble mess result­ed in a mov­ing med­i­ta­tion on the post-war dis­il­lu­sion­ment of Lebanese youth — one pre­scient enough that, even though I was only three years old when the film takes place, I could’ve eas­i­ly imag­ined it being about me or any of my friends grow­ing up in Beirut more than ten years later.

And there’s some­thing heart­break­ing about that.

Ely Dagher is a Lebanese direc­tor, screen­writer, and artist known for his short film Waves ’98 and most recent­ly his first fea­ture film The Sea Ahead, which had its pre­miere at the 2021 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val. Waves ’98 won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val, becom­ing the first Lebanese film to ever receive the award.

Though set in 1998, lit­tle if any­thing had changed when this film was released in 2015. Even though the film­mak­er firm­ly estab­lish­es the time peri­od he’s exam­in­ing — going as far as to include it in the title — there’s some­thing time­less explored here about the Lebanese con­di­tion. A con­di­tion that seems to be stuck in a loop, on repeat, end­less­ly. That’s why it comes as no sur­prise to me that Lebanon would expe­ri­ence yet anoth­er waste cri­sis only months after this film was first screened. Led by the grass­roots orga­ni­za­tion “You Stink!”, protests took place through­out the sum­mer, cul­mi­nat­ing in large gath­er­ings that August that would spawn the polit­i­cal cam­paign known as Beirut Mad­i­nati. This ini­tia­tive would his­tor­i­cal­ly gar­ner more than 50% of the votes in the Chris­t­ian dis­trict of East Beirut and more than a third of the vote in Sun­ni Mus­lim neigh­bor­hoods, sig­nal­ing an unprece­dent­ed shift in the local polit­i­cal scene. These dwin­dling sen­ti­ments in the tra­di­tion­al post-war polit­i­cal class, cou­pled with a bur­geon­ing eco­nom­ic cri­sis, col­laps­ing infra­struc­ture, and endem­ic cor­rup­tion stirred up a rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor unseen since the Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion of 2005. Mil­lions gath­ered on the streets of Lebanon, con­demn­ing sec­tar­i­an rule and call­ing on the res­ig­na­tion of the Lebanese polit­i­cal elite who for the first time in decades feared the peo­ple whose lives they ran into the ground. It wouldn’t be long until Saad Hariri, the Prime Min­is­ter at the time, would resign, and the future that was promised to us by his late father seemed to be final­ly with­in reach…but the protests would not last.

Con­front­ed by the vit­ri­ol of the peo­ple, za’ims (polit­i­cal lead­ers) sent thugs out into the street to aid the army in quelling the rebel­lion. It wasn’t long until a finan­cial cri­sis — one of the worst in record­ed his­to­ry — would deval­ue the cur­ren­cy and eat up all of our sav­ings. The Beirut Blast would soon fol­low only a cou­ple of months lat­er. By this time, the rev­o­lu­tion was over and Saad Hariri would be des­ig­nat­ed Prime Min­is­ter again, only to fail to form a cab­i­net again only for Najib Mikati who had been Prime Min­is­ter twice before to take on anoth­er term. Again…

Nat­u­ral­ly, those who could flee the coun­try would, and those who were forced to remain, were now pre­oc­cu­pied with try­ing to main­tain what lit­tle these za’ims — who took every­thing from us — had allowed us to hold on to.

This is not the first time the Lebanese have lost their sav­ings, nor the first time that our cur­ren­cy has been made worth­less by the care­less fis­cal pol­i­cy of the finan­cial elite. It is not the first time that Beirut has been rav­aged, nor the first time in mod­ern his­to­ry that it has been dec­i­mat­ed by an explo­sion. Years on from the waste cri­sis of 2015, we still haven’t even been able to clean up the moun­tains of trash from that time. These moun­tains loom large over Lebanon — larg­er every day, garbage pil­ing on top of garbage, only for the struc­tures to col­lapse in on themselves…then grow again with fur­ther accumulation.

This has all hap­pened before, and alas, if his­to­ry is any indi­ca­tor, it will hap­pen again.

Mr. Dagher is right.

Lebanon, it seems, is in a loop, end­less­ly reliv­ing the same tragedies over and over again — the same news, same chaos, and mess. Noth­ing ever changes.  There is lit­tle doubt in my mind that those of us left here such as myself, will end up like them.

And there’s noth­ing we can do about it. 

 


 

There is a sense of enti­tle­ment in what we expect from art. We expect art to offer solu­tions to the state of affairs it explores, not just por­tray it in all its suf­fo­cat­ing listlessness…but can it?

Watch the film here.

In the dark­ness, Omar’s eyes open again.

An open­ing from out­side the ele­phant appears, shin­ing light onto his weary eyes.

We see now that the crys­talline ele­phant is sus­pend­ed above the sea.

Omar stands on the ledge, the wind blow­ing against him, as the old man haunt­ing him fades back into the dark­ness he came from.

The film ends with the cam­era slow­ly zoom­ing out on the lone fig­ure of the crys­talline ele­phant hov­er­ing before the end­less sprawl….

Does Waves ‘98 offer us, or in oth­er words, Omar, a way out?

Not quite.

After it col­laps­es, Omar wakes up in the ele­phant again, stand­ing on the edge of the open­ing as it hov­ers above the sea — the dream behind him, the night­mare fac­ing him — always fac­ing him.

What will he do next?

Will Omar jump into the sea or head back inside?

Will the cycle break, or will it loop?

But, in the end, does it even matter?

In all of these options, there is no escap­ing Beirut.

For it seems that Beirut isn’t just a city. It’s a state of mind.

 

Watch the film here.