Mounia Akl on the bittersweet feelings of screening 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' in Venice

While every film in the Venice Film Festival line-up this year appeared to be actual and meaningful, none more than Mounia Akl's 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' provided as urgent a watch because of the insight it delivers into the current crisis in the filmmaker's home country.
Mounia Akl on the bittersweet feelings of screening 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' in Venice

Costa Brava, Lebanon was probably what I most yearned to watch at this year's Venice Film Festival. Included in the Orizzonti Extra section, which really only made it eligible for an Audience Award and none of the competition prizes, Mounia Akl's debut feature promised to provide everything I yearn for when watching cinema. A current story, contemporary themes, a glimpse at humanity and a crucial understanding of everyday world affairs that threaten to destroy our very existence as we know it.

When I watched the film, at its first screening for press and industry on the Lido, all my expectations were met. Akl masterfully delivered everything the film's premise promised, and then some. Family dynamics were explored, Lebanese corruption exposed and the compromises we all make for love and life, were intimately portrayed in a film that makes wonderful use of Nadine Labaki -- a superstar, filmmaker and activist who keeps Lebanon in the news for all the right reasons.

And don't even get me started on Saleh Bakri in the role of the patriarch!

Costa Brava, Lebanon is as much a film about the garbage crisis in Lebanon, as it is a warning tale of how the world has a way of infringing on our most precious relationships. The Badri family, led by mom and dad Labaki and Bakri, have carved an idyllic existence for themselves in the mountains. But a garbage dump suddenly rising out of the forest in the lot next door to their self-built home mixes up everyone's feelings and kicks off a "fight or flight" instinct in all four members of the family, including the young Reem and teenage daughter Tala. The result is a film that is as global as it is intimate. And beautifully written. Akl's first film, the short Submarine, premiered in 2016 as part of the Cannes Cinéfondation selection, and also dealt with the different manners in which human beings deal with a crisis.

I met up with Akl and in person, and she turned out to be the perfect interview. Kind, beautifully stylish but also wise beyond her years -- well, even beyond mine. Here is our chat from the Lido, uncut.

I heard from Saleh Bakri that he came on board when you connected through your short film in Dubai. So how did you then bring Nadine Labaki into it, for the role of Souraya?

You know the Lebanese film industry is quite small and everyone knows each other. We knew of each other without knowing each other personally and we were living on the same street in Beirut. Her husband’s music studio, he’s a music composer and also composes for her movies, was right below my childhood bedroom.

So growing up and as a teenager I used to hear the soundtracks of her films being edited before getting to know her. And she probably heard the soundtrack of my life without realizing it — so we were in each other’s lives. We knew of each other without crossing each other and our energies collided. And then when I was looking for an actress to play Souraya, I always loved her acting. I always thought she was a great actress but also always felt I’d never seen her in a role that is very different from her. And I felt the woman she was becoming as a person was beginning to resemble the character I was writing. 

I had a coffee with her and told her the story of the movie, and this conversation for me was the day I knew she was going to be Souraya because we really connected on a human level, which is the most important thing. And she really connected to the story and the character. When I left this beautiful meeting, I started writing the script with her in mind. And my process working with her was no rehearsals, but a lot of conversations.

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki in a still from the film

When did you start writing this script?

After the garbage crisis in 2017. After Submarine, my first film, because it premiered in Cannes it really opened up a lot of doors for me. The themes kind of follow each other. 

But at the that time, Lebanon wasn’t in the place it is today, which makes the film so heart-wrenching to watch. Did you know it would be so actual?

Unfortunately, not. When I wrote the script it was five years ago and it was set in a dystopian future, in 2030 and the country was drowning and on the verge of a collapse — environmental and economical. And now, the reality caught up with us and this reality is so much worse than the dystopia I imagined… My way of adapting that was to scratch the idea that the movie is set in 2030. Now is worse than the dystopia of 2030.

Where do you live?

I have lived in Lebanon all my life and went to film school at Columbia in NYC. It’s been a few years that I go back and forth.

How does it feel to go back to Lebanon?

It’s been two years now that I’ve been back in Lebanon, I moved back for the shoot but also to be with my family during the pandemic. 

Do you notice things more?

It’s really hard to be in Lebanon right now. Especially if you’ve experienced the explosion and I was in Beirut when the explosion happened and miraculously survived with minor injuries. But it was so traumatic, and so hard that right now being in Beirut feels like a constant reminder of the trauma. Which I hate to admit, because it makes me feel fragile and we don’t want to be fragile but I also accepted that. It feels like every time I’m in Beirut I want to go to the mountains because it’s so hard to look at the city you love so much and see how sad, dark and disfigured it has become. 

When I was watching the film, I imagined that there is something autobiographical about this story, since the characters are so well rounded. What is about Mounia in the film?

I think I’m each of these characters, at different moments of my life. I write what I know and it comes naturally. Yes, I had OCD when my parents were divorcing and yes, I inherited the fear and PTSD of my parents because I was born in ’89 when the civil war had ended and didn’t live the war but subconsciously inherited the trauma without realizing it. And also was a shy teenager and I’m a woman living in a patriarchal society where expressing your deepest desires was not always an easy thing to do. I broke free from it. Also, when I started writing the script, I was a Souraya, I was protesting every day during the Revolution, I was dreaming of change and wanted to be part of the change. And I wrapped the shoot feeling like I was a Walid, that I’d lost hope in the country, had PTSD and fear of Beirut but loved it so much.

I’m even the grandmother, in the sense that I feel sometimes I work so much and I don’t live life as much as I should — the same way she feels she missed out on life. 

I also totally see myself in the aunt, a character who has left but has never left and who feels rooted nowhere, and everywhere. So I am every one of these characters. 

Nadine Labaki, she plays a role that finally shows her as a woman, not just the cinematic goddess we know her to be. She is human, vulnerable, almost everyday in the part and that’s exceptional coming from an icon like Nadine -- how did you manage that?

I’m really happy that you said that. That was the objective, she told me at our first meeting “I really want to get lost in that character.” And she did, because she wanted to and she related to the character. 

Nadine is not just a red carpet, incredible filmmaker. She is a mother, she’s an activist and she’s connected to nature. It’s a side of her we haven’t seen because it’s her private side — and she gave it to me. 

And the audience, we feel like we are watching something incredibly precious, because it is her private side. First film in Cannes, first feature in Venice — how does it make you feel?

Yesterday I was very composed because I was so scared to start sobbing. The standing ovation was so overwhelming and this city is so magical. I just feel so lucky. 

But it’s bittersweet, because I’m celebrating this film in the most beautiful place and this film is about my love for Lebanon and Lebanon is in such bad shape, so it’s a bittersweet feeling.

I also feel guilty but what helps with that is that I’m taking Lebanon here. The movie is about Lebanon, the movie happens in a forest but it’s about Beirut. I’m in Venice but I am in Beirut. 

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