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Jessy Moussallem: Agoria, Embrace

Work / Film

“I like to make things that are soulful”: Jessy Moussallem on her compelling filmmaking

A filmmaker from Beirut, where she is still based during the winter months, Jessy Moussallem’s works are entirely captivating. Born in the final year of the Lebanese civil war, Jessy “had a lot of time to be bored, so I developed a special relationship with TV” while growing up, she tells us. Watching films on loop offered a reality far from the one she was living in and a trip to see Titanic aged seven sealed the deal: “I was moved by the way people fall in love, the way they cope with the tragedy of death. I knew this is what I wanted to do. Films.” Today, her practice encompasses narrative rich, intimate storytelling, uncovering the voices of those often ignored or forgotten.

“I have a desire to tell stories,” Jessy tells us, an early inclination which led her to study at the Lebanese Academy of Arts. In the resulting years, the filmmaker has produced works which draw on her rich experiences, “seeing the symphony in chaos, seeking purity in pain and, above all, constantly confronting the complexity of human beings”. In 2017, for example, Jessy directed a music video for Mashrou’ Leila’s single Roman. The short featured 100 Arab women in an ode to their “strength and grace” and now boasts over two million views on YouTube.

It was Jessy’s most recent work, a video for Agoria’s Embrace which really caught our attention, however. Opening on a soldier lit by sunlight flooding through a grate in the ceiling, the film follows a group of soldiers as they train, live and work together, feeling more like a trailer for Danny Boyle’s next film than a music video. Over four and a half short minutes, Jessy sculpts an entire world packed full of drama and emotion.

“The video is inspired by my uncle who was killed at the age of 22, two days before Christmas in December 1983, while fighting for a militia during the civil war in Lebanon,” she explains. “Growing up and hearing stories about him and his comrade, I questioned the militarisation of human beings; how these young soldiers are trained to kill, and at the same time willing to sacrifice their lives.” Embrace, in turn, allows Jessy to explores notions of heroism and sacrifice, while showing the intimate life of soldiers in training.

The rest of Jessy’s portfolio is no less involved either. A year ago, when she was scouting for another film in the Bekaa valley, she came across “a beautiful green stretch of marijuana”, a discovery which prompted her documentary and fiction piece, Heart of Sky. A group of women labourers were sitting on the ground, taking a break from their work. “The peaceful scene in the controversial setting made a strong impression on me,” she recalls. “The hashish trade is illegal in Lebanon. Hypocritically, however, they are operated and protected by political secretariat militias who benefit from the profits.”

From here, Jessy spent a month and a half researching while living in the valleys, meeting people from every level of the industry. “I spent time in the fields with farmers, in manufacturing garages, with outlaws in hiding, in the homes of small-time dealers and the mansions of big-time ones,” she outlines, “somehow, I worked my way up until I found myself in the presence of the Middle Easts’ Escobar.” The result is a compelling short which details Jessy’s discoveries through scenes scripted around real people and situations. Ultimately, it’s a perfect example of Jessy’s directorial approach. “I like to work on films with heart, that project the voices and lives that are under the radar," she concludes, “I like to make things that are soulful.”