Set in Beirut between the 1950s and 1970s, Skies Of Lebanon is based on the experiences of French filmmaker Chloé Mazlo’s grandparents. Grounded in reality and illuminated by playful image-making, vivid production design and occasional animation, it is both modest and ambitious in its scale.
Mazlo grew up hearing about her grandparents’ life in Beirut as an idyllic, lost time before political upheaval changed everything. Skies Of Lebanon is told in hindsight, through the recollections of Alice (Alba Rohrwacher), a young woman who leaves her home in Switzerland in the 1950s to take a job in Beirut as a nurse. In a café she meets Joseph (Wajdi Mouawad), an astrophysicist.
She falls in love with Joseph and with his country. They marry and have a child; she makes art and he pursues his dream of building a rocket that will send a Lebanese astronaut to the moon. It is not until 1975, when civil war comes to Lebanon, that Alice’s image of paradise is transformed.
Mazlo was studying graphic design at art school in Strasbourg when she first explored filmmaking through animation. “It allowed me to be autonomous,” she says, “to tell stories about a lot of things with very few resources.” She learned her film craft organically, gradually expanding the tools she used and the frames of reference she drew on. “I discovered cinema by doing it, little by little.”
In 2009 she made a short film, Deyrouth, about her first visit to Lebanon. But she needed the big screen and a feature-length narrative for this particular story, she says, “to explore more emotion, to play with sound and image”. The screenplay was written in tandem with Yacine Badday, whom she had worked with before. She describes their collaboration as “a bit like ping pong, a real exchange”, bouncing ideas off each other constantly, and continuing to work together through the shoot and the edit.
With the help of a historian, Mazlo constructed a timeline to clarify the political events that took place in Lebanon in the 1970s. Yet it is essentially a personal narrative, she emphasises. “Every event that happened in the family is linked to the history of the war,” she says.
She has different ways of establishing the broader terms of the conflict. Sometimes she uses a radio or TV broadcast in the background to convey what has happened; sometimes it is an image of musical chairs or a theatrical dance of death no less unsettling for its stylisation.
The occasional stop-motion animation works in a range of ways: as narration, image, metaphor. “With Alice’s memories,” Mazlo says, “it’s her point of view and it’s not in the realm of naturalism. So I could play with distorting reality, but for me it was reality: the reality of what she saw and felt.
“And I wanted to keep the very modest, artisanal aspect of the animation technique, not to be demonstrating special effects.”
To play the figure based on her grandmother, Mazlo cast Italian actor Alba Rohrwacher. She had come to know her work through the films she had made with her sister, director Alice Rohrwacher, such as Happy As Lazzaro and The Wonders.
As Joseph, Mazlo cast Wajdi Mouawad, a Lebanese–Canadian writer, theatre director and actor who has worked often in France. He had been a reference point for Mazlo for many years. He was a creative influence, and in that sense he already felt like a member of the family, she says. They are both actors able to convey a kind of yearning, poetic quality: their characters are very different, she suggests, from the other figures in the film.
Much of what happens in the film, Mazlo says, was inspired by her family. “I used a lot of the stories they told me.” The family archive “was really helpful for the décor and costumes, and there are extracts from my grandmother’s letters in the dialogue.”
Yet in telling these stories, fact and fiction are not always easy to establish or define. There were times, Mazlo says, when she needed to check with family members to be sure that she had understood emotional or factual details properly and portrayed them accurately.
Sometimes, truth can seem like fiction. The notion of Joseph’s dream of space flight could easily look like creative licence. “I love its symbolic force,” Mazlo says. But it’s based on a real-life project that began in the 1960s that was depicted in a 2012 documentary called The Lebanese Rocket Society.
Viewers might assume that she was taking imaginative liberties when she shows militia members, early in the conflict, taking to the streets in cowboy hats, carnival masks and scarves. Not so, she says. “When you look at the archival footage, you can see it’s true.”
On the other hand, there were times when she had to leave things out, she admits wryly. “Sometimes it was better to cut back the extraordinary aspect of the anecdotes. Lots of things really did sound too crazy to be true.”
Skies Over Lebanon is in selected cinemas.