“When you live in a place like Lebanon, you have a mission”: Meet the fearless director Jessy Moussallem
Here, the poignant filmmaker discusses her deeply human films which provoke both thought and conversation.
In December 2017, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl named Ahed Tamimi was arrested at her home in Nabi Salih in the Israeli occupied West Bank. In the small Palestinian village, known for its weekly marches against the occupation that it had been subject to since 2010, Ahed was arrested for confronting, and slapping, two Israeli soldiers, documented in a handheld video which went viral. She was then detained for eight months and the video sparked international, political debate while Ahed quickly became a symbol of the Israeli resistance movement. Her valiant actions spoke volumes to the Palestinian community. In one punch, she encompassed the struggle against Israeli occupation and political oppression worldwide.
Currently considered a freedom fighter for Palestine, her actions have been compared to Malala Yousafzai’s in her fearlessness. The activist, who is now only 18 years old, continues to inspire the pro-Palestine movement fourfold. It’s a fierce intensity that can be felt resoundingly in the work of the director Jessy Moussallem’s music video Cavalry. The three-and-a-half-minute short was created last summer to accompany a track of the same name by renowned Lebanese indie rock band Mashrou’ Leila. But defying music video convention, where visuals come second to sound, Cavalry is an explosion of narrative and visual potency blasting in the opposite direction. It possesses all the sophistication and gut-wrenching emotion of a feature-length film, tightened into a gripping commentary of what Jessy, and others in the Middle East, are experiencing around them.
“You and your cavalry, You got nothing on me,” the chorus sings out in Arabic, as its steady melody beats against a militaristic baseline. “Push me off a cliff and watch me fly, Then I strike a pose in the sky, You can try but you’re losing, Say goodbye – face the music, You can’t keep us down, Drop by drop the river melts away, Every pillar standing in her way.” It’s an urgency that is desperately felt throughout the film’s storyline, dialogue, soundtrack and editing. It’s also apparent in the way Jessy speaks, as if the wind is rushing out of her like there isn’t enough breath in the world to say all the things that she feels, and wants to communicate.
“When you live in a place like Lebanon, you feel like you have a mission,” she says, audibly impassioned, a tone brimming with a charge that carries throughout our entire conversation. “I’ve always had an interest in human stories that are not specifically bound to my nationality, but having been raised and living in Beirut, it’s natural for me to talk of what is around me. It’s not easy to live here, not everything is going right. So even if I’m not trying to be political, it happens indirectly because of what’s around me. But it is also universally relatable because everything is connected at the moment.” Jessy’s work provides an insight into her identity, but also a collective one. It hints to stories she’s heard from friends and family, shedding light on the vast mountainous planes she remembers playing on as a child, above the turquoise cool of the Levantine sea.
Through a candid lens, Jessy’s soaring visuals reach far beyond the experiences of the Middle East. Her work is fundamentally humanist, connecting audiences from all walks of life with a subject that every nation in the world can relate to; political oppression. Growing up in the wake of the Lebanese civil war, she recalls “there weren’t that many things to do.” As a child, she remembers watching films on repeat with her threem older brothers. It shaped a love of film early on in life, solidified in adolescence as Jessy went onto study cinema at university. But it was a childhood spent absorbed in films which “made my dream about another reality than what was around me,” she explains.
Despite the civil war, “there was an openness in Lebanon that we grew up with amongst the sea and the mountains and the four seasons,” Jessy goes on. She tells me about the big lunches dished out in the garden surrounded by family, sleepovers with cousins, firework nights and playing outside on the humid streets. “There’s a feeling of generosity between people in Lebanon and a very deep connection with the people,” Jessy adds on her idyllic upbringing undeterred by the face of war. “Growing up in Lebanon gave me a certain feeling of freedom, of thinking that things can happen, and a sense of hope. Even in the saddest moments, like what’s happening now with the revolution, there is always a feeling of hope.”
“Even if I’m not trying to be political, it happens indirectly because of what’s around me.“Jessy Moussallem
By comparison, she equates misery to living in fear. She soaks her films in this all-embracing hopefulness, seeking out a purity that fuels a vision of freedom. “I really think about what’s inside us, happiness is knowing that you can do something,” she adds perceptively, a personality trait I knew existed already from watching her films.
It’s a vision expressed in all her films. From Jessy’s 2017 film for Mashrou’ Leila, Roman, which features 100 cast members, highlighting the strength of Arab women. To Embrace, a 15-minute short studying the idea of masculine heroism, set against the backdrop of Lebanon and accompanied by a track from French DJ Agoria. In Heart of Sky, Jessy takes us on a tour of the red hashish cultivation in her home country. Blending cinematic realism with notes of arthouse and documentary, the emotive film immerses the viewer in stories from the farming communities in the Bekaa valley, situated in between the eastern mountains of Lebanon.
This is just one of the many interesting things about Jessy. While I’ve talked constantly about her films in this article, in the more mainstream sense, she is yet to make one. She’s currently in the process of writing her first feature-length film, the director’s impressive body of work so far consists mostly of music videos. On the one hand, Jessy sees music videos as a kind of “training” to think deeper into the themes and characters at hand. On the other hand, she purposely utilises the mass communication of music videos to reach a different, and often wider, audience. “In music videos, you can get through to people in a different way,” says Jessy. They can be used as “a tool to amplify something,” which in the case of Cavalry, was injustice.
That was the main intention of the film – to highlight injustice – through a medium which can also hit hard in communication. “This is the magic of film,” continues Jessy, “it makes people see what they cannot see in their daily life because they live in another country perhaps, so this open mindedness, it makes people have conversations.” About 20 minutes earlier, Jessy described films as being “eternal” because of their ability to open minds.
Gifted with an equally enduring desire to tell stories, it was film’s capacity to “pluck at our hearts and see through things,” that first made her want to fill the role of director. Then, as she got older, she became aware of the lack of film industry in Lebanon and films representing her culture. “You feel like you have a mission you know?” she said, emphasising her determination. “You feel like you owe something to your country, there are so many stories to be told in Lebanon, I really feel this,” she says with earnest. “And you can make things happen here.”
“You feel like you owe something to your country, there are so many stories to be told in Lebanon.”Jessy Moussallem
It is with this determination in mind, that Jessy made Cavalry. She wanted it to be a film echoing the voices of both the young and the old, and for humanity. “There are three things which are very important to me which I think make a good film,” she tells me as we discuss the subject of her latest film. The script, the casting and the editing.
The casting is what we focused on, for obvious reasons if you have seen Cavalry and witnessed the triumphant force which is Jessy’s young protagonist, a hot headed radiation of Ahed. Like all aspects of the production process, Jessy is heavily involved in the casting. It’s imperative that she casts her productions herself. For Cavalry, she “searched the four corners of Lebanon to find this specific girl,” eventually meeting her on the streets of Beirut.
“I saw somebody that is fearless and has a grace in how she fights,” she says of her protagonist. “In every film I do, the casting is the thing that takes the most amount of time in the process. I seek authenticity, I seek honesty in the characters.” When she directs actors, she inspires a tenacity in their performances, wholly evident on screen despite their limited professional experience. She looks for characters from all walks of life, as long as she sees “something sparkling in their eyes” indicating lived experience, or pain. “If they bring something honest, then I know,” she reflects.
The shoot for Cavalry took one short day, but at the start of it, the actors knew very little about what the film was going to be about. “Move. You think I’m scared of your gun?” exclaims a young girl as she pushes back an armed soldier in the final film. “Don’t tell me to shut up. We won’t shut up. If you had any honour you would get out. Coward!” the protagonist shouts, striking out at a car window as the soldiers unload from their military tanks. Hours earlier, the actors weren’t unaware of what they’d be faced with that day. It’s a purposeful technique that Jessy uses to incur the freshest, and most raw performances, free from being overthought or over rehearsed.
“Why don’t you shoot me? Shoot me!” the young protagonist, not even in her teens, despairs close to tears. “Or will you keep carrying the gun for nothing?” The soldiers force their way into the house. “How many boys are in the house?” says one of them, his speech muffled by a balaclava as other soldiers search under beds and in wardrobes. Behind the scenes, an intricate web of crew members collaborate whole-heartedly to ensure the shoot goes smoothly. Mashrou’ Leila allow Jessy complete creative freedom, and with it, Jessy delivers blow after blow of cinematic energy.
“It’s so important to make our voices heard and let the rest of the world know that we are here while the Western media turns a blind eye to the reality.”Jessy Moussallem
On set, she welcomes the chance for surprises. Throwing herself into all aspects of the production, and in spite of the short amount of time on set, she allows an organic process to unfold. “I don’t necessarily do what I’ve got planned, I like a bit of chaos, I like to be surprised, to not know exactly what’s going to happen” Jessy goes on. Up until this point, she lets go. She’s been involved in every meticulous detail of the film’s production so far, but once on set, she lets the actors’ creativity unravel, positioning herself from the viewer’s perspective, and recognising the brilliance in moments that could only be unforeseen.
“I raised this tree like my own child,” the family’s grandfather cries out as he is ushered away, two arms grappled by soldiers. “Shoot me but don’t cut it.” The soldiers escort the males from the family into a tank, struggling to hold back the torrent of anger and raised fists from the rest of the family. “Don’t worry brother,” screams the protagonist as the tank pulls away. “Prison can’t take away your freedom.” The credits start to flash on screen. As the absorbing daze that comes with all Jessy’s films begins to dissipate, I am reminded of the mission she repeatedly mentioned during our interview. “When you live in a place like Lebanon,” she emphasises, “you feel like you have a mission. You know, I love it here, I am based here, I grew up here. You feel like you really owe it to your country to say something which is authentic and moves the world. It’s so important to make our voices heard and let the rest of the world know that we are here while the Western media turns a blind eye to the reality. I hope at least, that I can let people think, and have an open conversation.”
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