When Jana returns home from studying abroad in Paris, her hometown Beirut is not what she remembers. A disappearing view of the sea at her parents’ house and a downtown that keeps growing into the sky, are just some of the changes that have taken place in her absence.
Jana is depressed. She refuses to leave the house, and barely speaks to her parents at home though not for lack of trying. Adding to the problem is the reverse cultural shock – she goes to the supermarket with her mother and comments that the cars behind her in the traffic are too close.
In a tight-lipped performance, the French-Lebanese actress Manal Issa plays a Jana grappling with family issues – the father asks her mother to spend less so we presume they are struggling financially – and follows her relationship with Adam, which she has rekindled, but who seems to make her even more depressed if that is possible.
But it’s hard to capture exactly what the film is about beyond what it feels like to emigrate and then come back. Why did Jana leave? She studied at a prestigious art school in Paris, perhaps her return highlights that actually leaving and making a new life abroad is not as glamorous or easy as it is made to look and that it can be hard to return and admit that.
The cloudy skies, grey buildings, and dull coloured clothes Jana wears play into this melancholy atmosphere which is all encompassing and also draining. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says to her mother. “Don’t worry,” she replies. “We are all lost.”
Jana’s depression for almost two hours of the film is hard to watch and the journey the characters are on is not easy to work out. It’s too long and could benefit from some ruthless editing, such as an awkward scene where Jana’s long face watches Adam dance in his living room for a really long time, though it’s not clear why.
The city of Beirut is a character in its own right and The Sea Ahead is as much a portrait of Lebanon’s capital as it is of Jana, her parents, and her boyfriend. Capturing a young woman who wanted to go is topical – one in three young Lebanese people want to leave the country as unemployment spirals.
The Sea Ahead touches on the politics that has spurred this wave of emigration, for example, Adam keeps his money in a box, it’s safer than in a bank, he tells Jana, a comment on Lebanon’s ongoing financial crisis which is the result of decades of economic corruption and mismanagement. In 2019 banks tightened their limits on foreign currency withdrawals, a situation compounded by the covid crisis when cash from these accounts were halted.
Whilst cruising in Adam’s car one evening he comments that the sea is full of rubbish, a result of the 2015 landfill crisis when the government hired a company to collect the waste but they threw it into the sea instead, sparking a protest movement, You Stink. They are two young people frustrated with what their city has become.
As Jana navigates the overwhelming sea of emotions, the ocean featured throughout is symbolic of something endless and so massive it is beyond comprehension. Generally speaking, the sea also symbolises hope, but there doesn’t seem to be much of this in director Ely Dagher’s latest production.
The Sea Ahead is screening as part of the London Film Festival at the ICA on Thursday 14 October at 18.00 and on Saturday 16 October at 12.10 at the ODEON Luxe West End