by J.D. Harlock
Coming out of nowhere to the awe of cinephiles all over the Arab world, Alephia 2053 is the first animated feature film in Arabic made exclusively for adults. Drawing inspiration from cyberpunk, dystopian fiction, anime, and the Arab Spring of 2011, the film follows Ismael, a loyal-to-a-fault intelligence operative working for the authoritarian Alephian government, who, in the wake of his sister’s suicide—following his personal apprehension of her no less—uncovers the truth behind the death of his beloved father, who, as chance would have it, is a former intelligence operative himself.
It seems, that, as chance would have it again, Ismael’s father was betrayed by Ismael’s unscrupulous supervisor, who, as chance would have it yet again, also happens to be the father of his love interest (and yes, she is an intelligence operative too). This, and not the fact that he had to arrest his own mother or that his sister was so sick of living there that she tried to flee the desert country by foot with her lover (only for her to commit suicide when she couldn’t), allows the stoic, grizzled, and “oh so manly!” Ismael to finally see Alephia for what it really is–a laughably flagrant surveillance state–and in turn, he agrees to join the revolutionary group that, as chance would have it yet again and again, his father had conveniently founded decades prior to take down the despotic Aleph II and his totalitarian regime once and for all. What follows is a mission as convoluted as its setup carried out by these revolutionaries that, naturally (and obviously), will lead to the overthrow of this “all-too-real” Orwellian nightmare.
Now, you might stream Alephia 2053 knowing what to expect, and you’ll be more or less right. Besides the fact that this film was made in Lebanon, there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about it narratively or even stylistically—which is a shame since there’s no shortage of Lebanese art and artists to draw inspiration from. The budget limitations are painfully clear with a truncated runtime that barely hits the one-hour mark, choppy animation that shouldn’t have made it to the final cut, lifeless, cliched character designs that are sometimes hard to look at, and even some amateurish voice acting when it comes to some of the minor roles. The fact that the story leans heavily into dystopian clichés on a runtime as short as this means that the characterization and worldbuilding are barely developed, if at all. Certain scenes I’m used to seeing in movies like this were missing here. These are the scenes that are meant to add texture to the characters and world and would’ve set Alephia 2053 apart from the glut of dystopian drivel we’ve been fed ever since The Hunger Games exploded in popularity.
For one, the protagonist is meant to have a change of heart halfway through the film, but it feels so rushed and sudden, I wondered why he ruthlessly dedicated his life to the regime in the first place, going so far as to allow his own sister and mother to be imprisoned, if all it took was one brief encounter with an old friend of his father’s to get him onto the revolutionary’s side. The supporting cast, including almost all of the revolutionaries besides the protagonist, his father’s old friend, and his love interest (who’s also initially part of the regime), fare even worse, with most being relegated to what amounts to little more than a cameo in a film that is meant to be about Arab revolutionary movements.
Alephia itself feels less like a real Arab nation and more like any standard 1984-esque totalitarian regime, only this time with an Arab flavor to it. The film doesn’t have much to say about oppressive Arab regimes or how to overcome them. Instead, it relies on vague platitudes and tired chants that feel disingenuous ten years on from the failed Arab spring. Even though it’s clearly intentional, one has to wonder if having the setting be an amalgamation of various Arab countries simplified what the film could have said about Arab regimes and revolutions. The Arab world is beautifully diverse, and no Arab regime or people are alike. Perhaps having it be about Lebanon specifically (or some other Arab country) would’ve allowed the film to say more than what little it did.
Because of all this, this short runtime doesn’t make the movie any less of a chore to sit through. Everyone watching this can tell exactly where this story is going as soon as the plot comes together and goes through the motions because anyone faintly familiar with the genre has seen this story ad nauseam, and, even if they haven’t, this kind of plot is tediously predictable in and of itself. But, considering what artistically came out of Lebanon before this film and the scant resources Lebanese filmmakers are forced to deal with, it can’t be denied that this is a landmark film in the history of both Lebanese cinema and Arab animation as a whole, and though unsalvageably poor and even criminally incompetent, it’s still an admirable effort that has taken Lebanese animation to new heights—no matter how stunted those heights may be.
Yes, our cinema is that bad, and in the end, we can only wonder what could’ve been accomplished if a bigger budget and better resources were afforded to this local team, but, I can’t help but feel that a lot of the film’s flaws come from the writing itself and giving it more time to breathe would’ve just allowed the writer to indulge in more tired clichés and continue to rob us of a distinct Lebanese take on a genre that’s in desperate need of a fresh perspective.
J.D. Harlock is an Arab writer/editor based in the Lebanon. He is the Poetry Editor at Orion’s Belt, the Poetry Co-Editor at Solarpunk Magazine, the Outreach Manager at Utopia SF Magazine, and the Social Media Manager at The Dread Machine. You can find him on Twitter @JD_Harlock.