How a Lebanese film overcame the Beirut blast, floods and Covid to reach Venice

Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano captures how a catalogue of chaos repeatedly derailed the making of Costa Brava, Lebanon

Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano tracks the obstacles filmmakers faced following the Beirut Port blast in August 2020. Photo: Reynard Films
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Films about films are rare – but those that are made often become as famous as the originals.

Think Lost in La Mancha, which follows Terry Gilliam’s disastrous shoot for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; or Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s account of her husband Francis’s out-of-control production for his Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now.

Joining them now is Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, a documentary on the making of Lebanese filmmaker Mounia Akl’s 2021 familial drama Costa Brava, Lebanon.

Speaking at the London Film Festival, where it recently screened, director Cyril Aris notes his film is different to Lost In La Mancha or Hearts of Darkness.

“The obstacles that they were dealing with are obstacles that come from filmmaking itself," he says.

"It's like filmmaking gone wrong and production gone wrong. Here, it's the country that's going wrong and that's imposing actual obstacles on an artistic project that happens to be a film.”

In August 2020, on only the second day of Costa Brava, Lebanon’s pre-production, Beirut Port exploded.

“When the explosion happened, that was really the starting point of the documentary,” says Aris, who worked with Akl previously. Described in the film as “a semi-nuclear bomb soaking in the sun for six years”, the 2,750 tonnes of the ammonium nitrate had been languishing in a warehouse in the port.

It led to more than 200 deaths, 7,000 injuries and an estimated $15 billion in property damage. For the Costa Brava, Lebanon team, whose production office was wrecked by the blast, causing injuries and hospital visits, it sent the film into freefall.

“A lot of projects or, to use a bigger word, a lot of dreams were shattered on that day,” says Aris. “But then it's the fact that they decided to move on with their production, that made the story worthwhile.”

It did, he feels, throw up “bigger questions” than simply whether they’d succeed in making the film.

“Specifically the role of cinema, in times of crisis,” he clarifies. “But it was important not to have the story of people who abandon their project ... people who are victimised in a way, but really people who tried to get back on their feet.”

He calls the film “an effort of resistance, an effort of survival and, to a bigger extent, of catharsis and healing”.

Indeed, it’s remarkable to see what the team went through – especially when electricity outages after the explosion and fuel shortages meant working generators were in short supply. Flash floods destroyed sets, very much in a Lost In La Mancha way.

This all happened during Covid-19, too, meaning Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri was forced to take a circuitous route, via Istanbul, to reach Lebanon. When he finally did, he was detained at the airport, despite guarantees of his safe passage. Worst of all, the film’s finances were held in Lebanese banks facing economic turmoil and currency devaluation.

Ultimately, Costa Brava, Lebanon was finished and, better yet, it had its premiere at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Aris felt they needed to show how Akl’s film, and all the efforts the team put in, led to something positive.

“But the film couldn't end there," he adds. "I needed to make a point that the narrative has a happy ending, but the film itself doesn't necessarily because then you see that Beirut is still spiralling. There's no justice, no accountability ... these are very important themes.”

Aris shows footage of the one-year commemoration of the explosion, a mass gathering with banners expressing anger on the streets at politicians and other authority figures whose collective failures led to this disaster.

“There's a huge mistrust and contempt towards our government," he says. "But at the same time, these people get democratically elected. So there is a portion of the population that does support these people and that's like another film by itself, to try to explain why this is happening.”

As Aris notes, a lot of Beirut’s wreckage has been rebuilt in the intervening three years, with help from NGOs and foreign donations. However, electricity is still scarce – with some residents turning to solar panels.

“There is a lot of self-sufficiency,” he says. As for Akl, she’s been shooting the UK television show Boiling Point, based on the 2021 film starring Stephen Graham, while Aris is working on a fiction film.

“It's about a romance that's told in parallel to the contemporary history of the country,” he says.

Even in crisis, abandoning Lebanon just seems unthinkable.

Updated: October 13, 2023, 6:45 PM