Oualid Mouaness tells the story of a boyhood crush and a nation at war in '1982'

We uncover the story behind the Lebanese film before its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival

Nadine Labaki stars in Oualid Mouaness's first feature film '1982'. Abbout Productions; Tricycle Logic; Mad Dog Films
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It took eight years for Lebanese-American writer and director Oualid Mouaness to get 1982 on to the screen. The film, which stars Lebanese actress and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nadine Labaki, revolves around a boy who is anxious about winning over a school crush. The movie will have its world premiere on Wednesday, September 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival.

It's a universal narrative that both Mouaness and Labaki say generates familiarity and empathy, which will help 1982 resonate with regional and international audiences alike. Mouaness sets the autobiographical story during a day of fear and conflict in Lebanon, yet infuses his film with tremendous heart, childhood imagination and innocence.

'1982' is Oulaid Mouaness's first feature film. Courtesy of the director

The drama, which is set in a private school outside Beirut and takes place over a single June day in 1982, is based on Mouaness's childhood remembrances of his experience when Israel's invasion of Lebanon began in the summer of that year. The story will also feel personal to anyone who lived in Lebanon during that time, such as Labaki, who was in school in 1982 and plays the role of a teacher called Yasmine in the film.

Newcomer Mohamad Dalli plays Wissam, a pupil in Yasmine's class whose only concern is finding a way to share his romantic feelings with classmate Joanna, played by Gia Madi. Wissam is a dreamer who likes to draw super­heroes and hopes the note he's slipped into Joanna's locker will win her heart. But everything changes in an instant as explosions are heard close by, with fighter jets visible from the classroom window.

Mohamad Dalli’s character, Wissam, left, is determined to tell his classmate Joanna that he loves her. Abbout Productions; Tricycle Logic; Mad Dog Films

Mouaness says he wanted to tell the story through Wissam's eyes because a child's view of conflict was his experience of war and he wanted to be true to that. "I felt like I had to express it. It wasn't easy, but I did it," Mouaness says of the emotional toll of reliving his past while writing the script.

Yasmine and another teacher, Joseph (Rodrigue Sleiman), reflect the schism Mouaness recalls seeing among adults in the days after the invasion, as people were divided by the politics of the situation. The story jumps between innocent childhood yearnings and adult worries about looming threats, heightened by the suggestion Yasmine's brother has joined the fight. Meanwhile, the teachers try to keep the day as normal as possible to avoid panicking their pupils, insisting they continue to complete their exams until the adults can find a way to get them home.

Nadine Labaki, right, and Gia Madi who plays Joanna in '1982'. Abbout Productions; Tricycle Logic; Mad Dog Films

That resonated with Labaki, who recalls having to leave school, the panic of finding the right bus to take her home and losing contact with her sister in the chaos. "That was one of the reasons why I wanted to be in that film and play that teacher, because I understood it very well, I understood her," she says. "What happened during that day in the film is something that is on the mind of each and every one of us who grew up during the war in Lebanon."

Mouaness didn't create the character of Yasmine with Labaki in mind, but after he met her in 2014 and worked through later drafts, he knew he wanted her for the role. "Nadine has a presence. She's an old soul and she brings that to the screen almost effortlessly and she carries herself so well in this film," he says. "There is something about her eyes and her presence and bearing. You know this character comes with a history and I feel that's what this character needed."

It took a long time to cast Wissam, with the process starting with 700 boys auditioning informally for the role. Dalli was chosen, with Mouaness describing him as a natural actor. Labaki says she drew on her experience as a mother to a son, 12, and a daughter, 3, to help bring maternal elements to Yasmine's character. She worked on the film last summer while taking a brief break from editing her drama Capernaum, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this year. But a break for her isn't exactly time off.

A behind-the-scenes shot that shows director Oualid Mouaness with actor Mohamad Dalli. Courtesy of the director

"To be on a film set and experience something new, it was a good challenge," she says. "I was very happy to do it and experience something new and work with Oualid."

Mouaness, whose short film The Rifle, The Jackal, The Wolf, and The Boy made the Oscar shortlist in 2017, says he believes Arab filmmaking is having a renaissance and that he is pleased to be part of a new wave of Lebanese cinema. He says he hopes his latest film can help to change how the country is viewed by the wider world.

"We're perceived through the lens of the war," says Mouaness. "OK, I can show the war, but here's what's really going on – it's people and it's us wanting to lead normal lives and wanting to grow and express, to teach. I want [the film] to be seen in the world because I want Lebanon to be understood worldwide."

He appears to be getting his wish. Certainly, the audience in Toronto will have a wide range of Arab films to experience this week. There are 13 Arab feature films on the schedule at Tiff this year, including Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour's The Perfect Candidate.

Mouaness says Arab cinema "is growing at a very intense and beautiful rate". It is a view shared by Labaki. "I'm really optimistic and I think it has a very bright future," she says. "I can see [Arab cinema] developing and I think the curiosity of the world is turning to the Arab world and what's happening." 

Labaki is likely to have a significant role to play in that, having achieved enormous global success with Capernaum. The filmmaker said previously that she wanted the film to lead to discussions about child endangerment and refugees taking place across the world.

As for what's next in her career, Labaki says she is not sure "what will drive me next or what will be my next obsession". But she says that she does feel a responsibility, even a duty, to use her films to humanise problems and struggles, to give a fresh perspective on issues and encourage empathy.

"We have done something very surprising … coming from a small country with no film industry," she says. "What we have achieved has been an amazing journey."

1982 is only the latest step for Lebanon's filmmakers.