April 16, 2024

The sight of dogs ravaging war-torn streets has become an all too familiar sight. Sandra Tabet’s debut feature film “Rabies” (Rage) – a development project at the Atlas Workshops – returns to early 1990s in Beirut, in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), when rabies began to spread rapidly amongst ravenous dogs, leading to some parts of the city being overrun.

Combining horror genre codes with a real-world setting, “Rabies” follows 60-year-old history teacher Julia, who tries to find a cure for her 30-year-old son Ghassan, who after being bitten by a rabid dog slowly transforms into a violent monster.

Having studied in Beirut and London, Tabet left Beirut in 2021 and moved to France.

With “Rabies” she aims to further her exploration of the horror genre, following her acclaimed shorts, “The Howl” (2017), and “Hell” (2021).

The project is a co-production between DB Studios (Lebanon) and Haut les Mains Productions (France). The partners attached are DFI, Red Sea Film Festival and Région Nouvelle Aquitaine.

Tabet talked with Variety about the project.

What is the core inspiration for this project?
Even though I’ve been living in France for two and half years, Beirut remains constantly in my thoughts. When I began writing “Rabies” I didn’t know I was writing a horror film. I was simply trying to explore my feeling of being trapped inside the city I love.

What attracts you to the horror genre?
I like exploring horror genre codes, since they enable a playful relationship with the audience, because sometimes they know things that the characters don’t know, but can also be taken by surprise. In my shorts I’ve done this more in the sound and offscreen. I find it offers a great format to explore the relationship between the space that the characters inhabit and that inhabits them.

What’s the importance of stray dogs for the story?
Above all they incarnate this forgotten past that they bring back with them. They also represent how nature can invade human spaces, especially in the aftermath of war. The Lebanese civil war ended in 1990 with a general amnesty, but the dogs didn’t know that it had ended and so they started attacking people on the streets. We created these beasts and then we had to kill, bury and forget them.

How does rabies enter the story?
It enters the story through the return of these war-time dogs that start spreading the disease, awakening the repressed memories. You know rabies spreads super fast in canine populations. In the years between 1990 and 1994 in Beirut there was also a major problem of trash not being picked up which made this even worse. Now you have this happening again in reality in Lebanon, with the big garbage crisis that began in 2015. There’s also a lot of poverty now because of the country’s financial crisis which has led many people to abandon their pets, so we’ve got a lot of stray dogs now. I’m not saying that it’s happening again but it’s part of history that has been forgotten about. Even the people who were responsible for the war are still governing the country.

It’s quite possible there will be more flashes of these events, and if people try to protest the media will tell people to stay at home, and armed forces may even take over the streets.

Does the horror genre offer interesting angles to explore these issues?
A horror film is kind of a safe space to talk about such things. I was discussing this with my producer and he told me “Yes, you can do it in a film and no one will die.”

I was working on a documentary in Lebanon a few years ago linked to these issues, but in a documentary format and it was completely banned. Sometimes they censor a few scenes. But for this film they said there’s no way you can show it. But it’s got to a point now in Lebanon where I’m not even sure whether we can avoid censorship even for a horror film. I think we have reached an extreme situation in Lebanon with the financial collapse of the country and then after the explosion in the Port of Beirut in 2020. It’s like you are in a place that resembles fiction, sometimes with apocalyptic settings.

Is the search for a cure for the son a metaphor for healing the city?
Well, you know there is no known cure for rabies. The film is layered. So, you have this growing social unrest and violence in Beirut, but we are focusing on his illness until he finally explodes. So, the city and Gassan are mirroring each other.

How do you build the tension?
It all starts with sound, with rumors whispered in the street. But the situation becomes much darker following his infection until there’s a turning point in the film where Gassan is in complete delirium and he breaks a wall of a wartime building that he’s renovating and finds pieces of flesh and rotten guts. It suddenly becomes very visual. We start seeing the dogs and the attacks which were kept silent for so long. The characters are forced to look at the things that they didn’t want to look at. It’s about acceptance and catharsis. It really is a nightmare and horrible, but after confronting it, the city is kind of cleansed in my eyes.

What haunting personal memories do you have in relation to Beirut?
Beirut is always in construction and reconstruction so every time I come back there is a very strange feeling that I don’t know it anymore. I love it but I feel something is off. A few years ago, I was working on another director’s documentary and we entered places that had been abandoned after the war. There was an oppressive atmosphere. I’m not talking about ghosts. But there was really a feeling that was so unbearable and we all sensed it. It’s as if we are living on buried bones. It just hit me that this is what I’m talking about – a mixture of sadness, horror, anger and rage.

Do you see any parallels between your project and the current situation in the Gaza Strip?
They are living another level of nightmare for sure, and I don’t want to compare them. But I think our stories are linked, at least in my mind. In my heart there is really no frontier. You know there didn’t use to be a frontier between us and Palestine. These kind of situations – that involve anger and incapacity to do anything – are happening everywhere, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq.

Do you have any references in terms of horror films?
My favorite horror film of all time is “Don’t Look Now” by Nicolas Roeg. I think a lot about this film because I really love its elegance and how he plays with time in a very eerie way.

The way the main character has a vision of his own funeral and the way that the city is filmed at night. I’m also a big fan of Hitchcock, Lynch and Tarkovsky.

What are you looking for from the Atlas Workshops?
I have a finished script, but I want to write another draft with input from the experts. I really want to to find the balance between the macro and the micro elements of the film. It’s great because we get a one-on-one script consultation and then we’ll get another one remotely after the workshop and then you get to meet all these people and see what they think. It’s a wonderful opportunity.

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