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Leave it to a film production company to make the best of a bad situation. At least cinematically, that is. In 2020, Beirut-based About Productions was in pre-production on a film titled Costa Brava, Lebanon when the city was rocked by a devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut that decimated much of the area. Cyril Aris’ documentary, world-premiering in Karlovy Vary, chronicles the production team’s single-minded efforts to move forward with the film despite a plethora of obstacles. Not only have they faced catastrophic damage to homes and offices, but also the pandemic, fuel shortages and a free-falling currency. Dancing on the edge of a volcano convincingly tells the story of cinema with fire.
Beirut, of course, is a place that has seen more than its share of travail, as the opening footage of the city in ruins in 1980 during the Lebanese civil war illustrates. It has been rocked again by the catastrophe of 2020, the result of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate carelessly stored in a warehouse.
Dancing on the edge of a volcano
Making cinema with fire.
Place: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Director-writer: Cyril Aris
1 hour and 27 minutes
“This is the soundtrack for the last two weeks,” says cinematographer Joe Saade, referring to the sound of breaking glass on his balcony as he attempts to water his plants. “On the bright side, I have a snap!” he jokes. On the dark side, he’s lost the sight in one eye, which he admits is ironic for a cinematographer.
The company offices were badly damaged but were fortunately spared any looting. “Thank god nobody cares about the film,” someone dryly remarks about the undisturbed cans of film on the premises.
The desperation of company members emerges during a production meeting when a woman exclaims, “Why the hell are we still in this country? I can not take it! Elsewhere, one of the film’s child actresses tenderly comforts a weeping staffer whose friend was killed in the explosion.
Costa Brava, Lebanon, directed by Mounia Akl, is about a family who leave Beirut and take refuge in a makeshift house in the mountains, only to learn shortly after that the government plans to build a landfill right next door. The film’s themes of government corruption and plunder were made all the more resonant by the disastrous explosion that threatened to shut it down.
Despite the huge hurdles involved, the filmmakers haven’t lost their sense of humor. “I feel like I’m inside Lost in La Manchajokes one of them, referring to the documentary about Terry Gilliam’s painstaking efforts to make his film adaptation of Don chisciotte. “But my husband says I am Apocalypse Now.”
The film’s lead actor, Saleh Bakri, had to take a tortuous route from his native Palestine to Lebanon due to Covid restrictions. He films himself at various stages of his journey, berating the “Zionists” for their repressive dictates. When he finally arrives in Beirut, production is delayed once again because the twin actresses who play his daughter have tested positive. Then, a torrential rainstorm floods the set.
Post-production on the film was also hampered by a number of significant problems, including a fuel shortage that led the government to cut power for long periods of each day.
“Beirut’s charm lies in its chaos,” comments one of the people working on the film. “He’s famous for that.”
Luckily, Dancing on the edge of a volcano (the title comes from a phrase originally used to describe Weimar-era Germany) has a happy ending. We see footage of the cast and crew celebrating the premiere of Costa Brava, Lebanon at the Venice Film Festival, where it received critical acclaim. It seems inevitable that both films will have a future life as a double feature in repertory theaters.