Ely Dagher skyrocketed to fame when his short film Waves ’98 won the Palme d’Or at the 68th Cannes Film Festival. What comes next for the Lebanese artist?

When Ely Dagher won the Palme d’Or for his short film Waves ’98 last year, he was catapulted into the international spotlight. Born in 1985, the Brussels-based Lebanese artist is something of a creative polymath. He studied graphic art, illustration and animation at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, before going on to earn a Masters in contemporary art theory and new media at Goldsmiths, University of London. Prior to his Cannes win, Dagher worked in multiple media, including film, photography and installation, and Waves ’98 reflects something of this diversity.

The film follows a teenager called Omar on a surreal journey. Having grown up on the outskirts of Beirut, Omar lives a mundane life, plagued by boredom, his parents’ financial problems and his own lack of direction. He spends his time listening to music, watching anonymous news readers repeat themselves on the television and staring out at the city he has never visited from the rooftop of his school. One day, Omar sees a strange, beautiful light shining in the heart of Beirut, and sets out on his bike to discover what it is.

The film combines live action footage lifted from old news reports with hand-drawn animation, computerised graphics, photography and a haunting instrumental soundtrack. Dagher’s decision to mix so many visual techniques adds to the film’s dreamy, magical atmosphere. Stunning shots of the city seems to hover, as though glimpsed through a heat haze, and it times it is difficult to tell if the image on screen is a photograph, an extremely detailed sketch or live film footage.

The 15-minute short was inspired by Dagher’s own complicated relationship to Beirut. But Waves ’98 is ultimately a story about escape, whether mental or physical. “I wanted people to be able to identify with it without necessarily knowing the Lebanese context,” he explains.

Omar’s escape initially seems like a positive thing, a chance for adventure and evolution, but slowly the underlying problems begin to reassert themselves. Does this mean that Dagher sees escape as a negative thing, a means of ignoring problems, rather than working to solve them?

“The film was about figuring out what I thought about that, actually, because I was struggling with it,” he says. “I was travelling back and forth, and I actually started having problems going back to that lifestyle of denial, because you see things from a more objective point of view… During the process of working on the film I had a sense of detachment from the issue. I wouldn’t say I have a positive or negative point of view right now — it’s more like I learned to live with it. I don’t make any judgements. I understand people in Lebanon who learn to live with its bad side, without doing anything about it, but I feel like that maybe started changing last summer, with the protest movements.”

Ironically, the news clips Dagher uses in the film discuss problems with rubbish collection back in 1998 — the same issue that ignited a series of demonstrations 17 years later. “It was completely random,” he laughs. “I hadn’t noticed until I saw it again after the summer. It was mainly because I was looking for footage from ’98 that was not political, that was about a social issue that would unify voices — and I guess this happens quite often.”

Waves ’98 was largely self-funded and took two years to make. It was the first Lebanese film to compete in the official competition at Cannes since 1991. Dagher’s win may have brought him fame, but his talent was already in evidence. Aside from commercial work, shooting music videos for artists including Mashrou’ Leila and Yasmine Hamdan, he has produced several other mature works of art.

One installation, Holiday Inn Apologue, consists of a set of surreal photographs taken inside the ruined Beirut hotel, played in overlapping sequence by two slide projectors and accompanied by an audio track based on snippets of interviews with militia fighters recalling the Battle of the Hotels. Dagher used large stuffed animals to re-enact some of the scenes they describe inside the derelict building, creating a semi-fictitious history that interrogates the possibility of truth in memory.

“I spoke to different sides, so they all have their own accounts of what happened, and they also have their personal stories… That’s why I wanted to keep it more fictionalised and work on the mythological aspect, to highlight the importance of the building,” he says. “You don’t have any history books, you don’t have any archive of what happened, and this is one of the last remaining testaments.”

Currently, Dagher is touring film festivals almost non-stop with Waves ’98, but he reveals that he is also working on the screenplay for a new film, this one a live action feature.

“It’s definitely going to be set in Lebanon,” he says. “What I’m working on is kind of related to the themes that I explore in Waves ’98. It’s a completely different story, but it just kind of builds on it. I feel like there are lots of things that I still need to explore before I start opening up to other subjects.”

A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Creative Issue #36, pages 147-149.