The Sea Ahead: An introspective portrait of millennial fear

The Sea Ahead: Ely Dagher's enigmatic debut
5 min read
20 August, 2021

There are few contemporary filmmakers able to capture the fears of an entire generation. One of them is Lebanon’s Ely Dagher, an alumnus of London’s Goldsmiths College and writer-director of The Sea Ahead, screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (6-17 July 2021).

Before completing his debut feature, Dagher rose to prominence thanks to his short film Waves ‘98, winner of the Palme D’Or in 2015.

The story of Dagher’s new effort begins on a rainy, windy night. A young woman in her early twenties, Jana (played by Manal Issa), walks out of the Beirut airport alone and hops in a taxi that drives her back home.

In France, Jana hasn’t found what she had hoped for and things didn’t turn out well. A caring, but judgemental family is waiting for her return, along with a troubled past ready to re-emerge. At home, Jana lives her days apathetically, burdened again by her parents’ pressures on her future.

The Sea Ahead is an enigmatic psychological drama, tackling timely themes and representing today’s new 'lost generation' of millennials with great depth and sincerity

During her time abroad, she tried to pursue a study path in the arts that would have made her happy but offered little prospects. Understandably, she doesn’t want to disclose much about her experience and even the sudden visit of an intrusive, nosy uncle at dinner time makes her visibly nervous.

The only solace seems to be provided by Adam, one of her ex-boyfriends, here portrayed by talented thesp Roger Azar (recently seen in Anne Zohra Berrached’s touching drama Copilot). Adam’s comeback and obscure personality, however, ends up destabilising Jana even more.

Trapped by the memories of a romanticised past, passivity and self-blame, Jana is unable to move forward and is ultimately forced to fight against her inner demons.

The New Arab sat down for a coffee with Dagher on the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs Beach in Cannes. The director disclosed that the creative process behind the making of The Sea Ahead was quite lengthy and not without difficulties: “I started writing it in summer 2015. The first version of the script was ready in 2016. I’ve been working on it for quite some time, and financing the project has been rather difficult.

"I knew that the script wasn’t very easy, so I wanted to take the time to find the right producer to make sure he would have understood the project and wouldn’t have pushed it in another direction. [..] The problem I encountered in Europe is that they [European backers] expect different things from Lebanese or Arab filmmakers... [They say:] “Oh, but the social context isn’t strong enough, and we don’t see Beirut enough,” which for me it’s a bit absurd because the film is all about it."

In The Sea Ahead, Beirut’s look seems to reflect the lead character’s inner turmoil. To convey Jana’s feeling of hopelessness, Director of Photography Shadi Chaaban (known from Ahmad Ghossein’s All This Victory) skillfully depicts a cloudy sky resembling that of an English winter day, several gigantic, grey apartment blocks and the incessant rain hitting the pavements.

The Sea Ahead
In reconnecting with her past, protagonist Jana unearths new questions about her identity [Andolfi]

“Beirut resembles itself much more in winter than in summer,” explained the director, “because in summer all the expats are back and the city looks much livelier. But that’s not the reality of things. Once summer is over and it starts getting cold and raining again, you realise the heaviness of living here. For me, it was very important to show this aspect, away from the sun’s glare.”

Speaking about the pre-production phase, Dagher revealed that he tried to film scenes following the story’s chronological order as closely as possible.

Another important task was to helping Azar and Issa developing their roles: “We didn’t have a lot of time, and we couldn’t rehearse much. They actually worked a lot by themselves. They have spent some time together and built some memories, because the main idea is that, when Jana is back, we get to know that she already had a relationship with Adam.”

Luckily enough, the two actors managed to connect with each other almost immediately, and their alchemy is plain to see on screen.

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The final scene – spoiler alert – sees Jana escaping her toxic relationship with Adam and hopping in another taxi, heading towards an unknown destination. The old man driving the vehicle tells her how he regretted his past choices and his fears for his son’s future, who is likely to end up doing the same job for the rest of his life.

To some, this ending might appear cryptic and ambiguous, but the helmer’s intention was to share a rather different message: “You need to accept both hope and despair. Sometimes, even though you don’t where you are going, you need to find the strength to move forward. It’s not important where Jana is going, but the fact that she’s moving.”

Loosely echoing Michelangelo Antonioni’s artistic research on existential angst, The Sea Ahead is an enigmatic psychological drama, tackling timely themes and representing today’s new “lost generation” of millennials with great depth and sincerity.

Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Cork, Ireland. 

Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni