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Thursday, 29 July 2021

'Passion is the keyword': Lebanese artist Jorj Abou Mhaya on Alephia 2053, first Arab animated futuristic thriller

Created and written by Rabih Sweidan and directed by Jorj Abou Mhaya, Alephia 2053 has garnered over eight million views on YouTube since March

Dina Kabil, Saturday 29 May 2021
Alephia 2053

Lebanese production Alephia 2053 has passed the eight million views mark on YouTube since its release in March this year. Labelled as a dystopian animated thriller, Alephia 2053 is the first futuristic animated feature film in Arabic targeting adult audience.

Created and written by Rabih Sweidan, directed by Jorj Abou Mhaya, and produced by Spring Entertainment, the film is set in 2053, in a fictional Arab country where the destinies of three people intertwine as they try to trace the origin of a computer attack against the ultra-secure surveillance systems of the most authoritarian and developed regime in history. They succeed in their popular revolution and get rid of the despot governor while the statesmen side with the people.

With the Lebanese crew in charge of the work, Alephia 2053 was created in cooperation with a French animation studio.The character design, visual identity, and the graphic part of the animation were all done by Lebanese artists, in addition to soundtrack by Karim Khneisser and the voice-over cast featuring some famous actors,such as Khaled Al-Sayed, Ali Saad, and Gihan Malla.

Released on YouTube, Alephia2053 is an example of the democratisation of the cinema, despite the colossal budgets allocated for animation.

Filmmaker Abou Mhaya is a Lebanese designer and painter born in Beirut during the civil war. Before becoming interested in comics, he began painting. He then became a cartoonist and illustrator for various newspapers and advertising agencies in Beirut and the Middle East. Abou Mhaya's Ville avoisinant la terre (A City Neighbouring Earth) was his first graphic novel published in Arabic by Dar Onboz (2012), and won the prize for best album at the International Comics Book Festival of Algeria (FIBDA).

In an interview with the French-language Al-Ahram Hebdo, Abou Mhaya delved into the details of the illustration process and the success of Alephia 2053.

Al-Ahram Hebdo (AH): Making a purely Arab animated film is a dream that has toyed with the imagination of many artists. How did the idea come about and how were you able to make it happen?

Jorj Abou Mhaya (JM): The masterpieces that we always see made by Disney require an animation industry. In the Arab world we have a few such trials, but we do not have an industry. Arab cartoonists must work with big companies to develop their talents. We have a history of cinema in Egypt and Lebanon, but attempts at animation are very modest.

In Alephia 2053, we relied in big part on French expertise. The film was born thanks to a group of six people with RabihSweidan providing the main idea. It was a big challenge to be able to create 90 minutes of animation. We did not give up, but we focused on the pre-production, that is to say all the preparations for the characters and the creation of the imaginary world of Alephia 2053. We started by having a shot of the film. It's called the animation bible with all the details of the frames, 70percent of the work was done; then we followed the details closely with the studio for the animation production.

AH: You created Ville avoisinant la terre, which also addresses the theme of the imaginary city…

JM: This was my first work that focused on the dystopian life of Beirut. It was released in Paris. At the time, the social movement had just started in Lebanon, yet the timing was a coincidence. Sweidanand I are almost haunted by the idea of dystopia, but this time, in the animated film Alephia 2053, it's with a futuristic vision.

AH: Regarding the design of the characters, it is easy to spot similarities with some Arab dictators. Despite the futuristic look, the plot gives the impression that you are still caught up in the past.

JM: It's an imaginary world, we look to the future. We thought of characters who look like everyone we recognize either as despots or charismatic characters. The important thing is that the portrayal of the character does not look like a particular type, it is more general, a summary of the characteristics of such characters. But the most interesting part is that each viewer finds in the characters a mould of a person who oppresses them.

AH: Alephia 2053 is a dystopia with an optimistic ending... Is it your dream to see the people's revolution succeed?

JM: The important thing for me was not just to be realistic, but for the piece of art to be coherent and convincing. The Arab Spring did not lead to disastrous ends. I think it continues, but with ups and downs. The news bring us a lot of pessimism while the principle of the film is not to dive into the real, but rather to navigate through the fantasy. A revolution is not successful unless the masses are part of it, including the army which is part of the people. You're right that the ending is a bit simple, but we also wanted to show our dreams and move away from the weight of reality.

AH: Why did you release the film on YouTube?

JM: TV channels dictate their conditions. The virtual platform was an ideal solution for us since Alephia 2053 is, by definition, designed to reach everyone. The costs are incomparable to any feature film production, and hardly to be compared with animated films. Alephia 2053's costs did not exceed 10 percent of the latter’s type of production.

AH: Do you think this is an ideal solution for young filmmakers? Would it be easy to cover the costs of production?

JM: The budget is based on the strategy of the company, but I do not think that the goal of all productions is necessarily to achieve financial gains. Out of three or four large works, a production company can afford to do one for fun. It’s as if we are talking about small experimental adventures that allow you to embark on great productions.

Passion is the keyword. Alephia 2053’s entire crew worked with great passion to make this project happen. The success of the film was overwhelming, completely unexpected, with over 1.2 million views in the first five days since the film's launch. Today we have exceeded eight million views on YouTube. This encourages us to do other projects on YouTube, of course.

AH: What is your next project?

JM: I'm currently working on a long graphic novel. It will consist of anecdotes about things I experienced in Lebanon. I tell my personal stories, the experiences with Sweidan, the film, my paintings, my caricatures. I also tell the story of Beirut.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Hebdo (19 May 2021 issue). Additional edit by Ahram Online.

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