Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano: The show must go on
Everyone knows the titular phrase of this article, and everyone knows that it means that, regardless of what happens, whatever show has been planned must be staged. However, in Cyril Aris’ second feature documentary, titled Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, the people involved in the show don’t deal with the usual inconveniences and incidents we’re used to hearing about.
Here, the 35-year-old, Beirut-born helmer follows the turbulent vicissitudes of the cast and crew of Mounia Akl’s debut feature, Costa Brava, Lebanon, a production which was in the making at the time of the Port of Beirut explosion in 2020.
The tragedy unfolding in Lebanon’s capital predictably disrupted everyone’s plans, forcing all the technicians and artists involved to question whether to keep on pursuing their project.
"Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano reveals all the travails behind the making of this picture [Costa Brava, Lebanon], without taking too obvious turns and ultimately reminding us what’s left: a huge question mark about Lebanon’s future and – hopefully – its rebirth"
The picture was world-premiered in the Crystal Globe competition of this year’s Karlovy Vary Film Festival (30 June-8 July), one of the most important summer cinematic gatherings.
Aris opens his film with some footage from Maroun Baghdadi’s 1980 feature Whispers. This proves to be an effective choice, as we realise that Baghdadi’s old images depicting a devastated Beirut are more timely than ever.
Accompanied by poet Nadia Tueni’s voice-over narration and filled with lyricism and nostalgia, the film is also a declaration of love riddled with sadness. “Beirut is my city, and someone destroyed it,” says Tueni, before Aris offers the viewers a series of phone recordings, news reports and other archive footage from the aftermath of the explosion.
Through a fast-cut sequence, we hear the scattered testimonies of some of the victims and several comments from the journalists reporting from Lebanon. One of them in particular defines the catastrophe as “the manifestation of a multitude of endless avenues of miserable corruption,” after which the city of Beirut, “once adorned as Paris of the Middle East, sits scarred and ruined, in a scale still incomprehensible, yet again.”
After this highly immersive introduction, Aris follows the consequences of the explosion by zooming in on a few crew members (e.g. we realise that the DoP, Joe Saade, has lost sight in one eye) and provides us with some on-screen time references, revealing how close or far the team is from entering production.
In this work, Aris manages to catch three important elements of this ‘filmmaking odyssey.’ The first, most obvious one is the despair many fell into after the explosion, while things get more and more complicated. A number of problems and incidents arise, making them feel trapped in a downward spiral.
The second is the resilience of the ones who wish to go ahead, despite the objective difficulties and the growing challenges. Costa Brava, Lebanon is not just one of the many works of fiction, but it is an urgent, powerful political film inspired by the devastating waste crisis hitting the country since 2015.
In detail, it focuses on the misfortunes of a family, the Badris, who have escaped Beirut by seeking refuge in a beautiful mountain home. After eight years of tranquillity, a garbage landfill is suddenly built right outside their fence, and it seems that there is no solution to get rid of it.
Lastly, the third element emerging throughout Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano is irony. On several occasions, the protagonists don’t hesitate to turn to black humour, in an attempt of releasing tension.
They face problems such as the lack of fuel and electricity; some crew members contracting COVID-19 (thus forcing them to post-pone filming); severe financial struggles which put at risk the backing of international co-producers; frustrating quarantine and visa restrictions that seem to impede them to bring Saleh Bakri (the actor playing Walid, one of the lead characters of Akl’s film) to Lebanon, and, above all, an overwhelming climate of political and economic instability.
“Why the hell are we still in this country?”, someone wonders during a team meeting. It is perhaps one of the most genuine expressions of the crew’s emotional burden and a question spectators may ask themselves throughout this journey.
For the most part, the viewing of Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano is literally a rollercoaster. We’re finally relieved to see that, to some extent, the members of the cast and crew managed to build a small bubble of joy and felt protected during the filming phase. From the very beginning, we know that Mounia Akl’s film will see the light and, as we move towards the ending, we may rejoice to see the cast walking the red carpet ahead of the world premiere held at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.
I was sitting a few rows behind these people on that special day. I enjoyed watching Costa Brava, Lebanon very much, and I wrote a few words about it for this outlet.
Certainly, I could have never imagined all the hardships they went through and the plethora of obstacles they were forced to overcome. Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano reveals all the travails behind the making of this picture, without taking too obvious turns and ultimately reminding us what’s left: a huge question mark about Lebanon’s future and – hopefully – its rebirth.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni