Nadine Labaki on 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' and living the sustainable life

For this interview, right after the Venice Film Festival world premiere of Mounia Akl's all-too-contemporary film, the ever inspiring actress and filmmaker touched on issues that have only gotten worse in her native Lebanon in the past few weeks...
Nadine Labaki on 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' and living the sustainable life

In Mounia Akl's Costa Brava, Lebanon, Lebanese superstar and award-winning filmmaker Nadine Labaki plays Souraya, the wife and mother at the center of the Badri family. Along with leaving behind a successful music career, Souraya, along with the Badris have given up a life in Beirut and decided to live off the grid in the mountains. But while they navigate that idea with a sense of love, sustainability for the environment and care for one another, their lives are interrupted by the world outside, closing in on them.

The idea of life interrupted is one all too familiar to the Lebanese people. If it's not some other country meddling in their affairs, it is their own corrupt politicians who do their best to make their resilient citizens' lives a living hell. After people starting taking their discontent to the streets in 2019, the Covid pandemic broke out in a country with a sanitary system unprepared, thanks to said politicians, for such an outbreak. And if that wasn't bad enough, in August of 2020 an explosion rocked the port of Beirut, killing, injuring, or displacing most who called the city home.

In the weeks after Costa Brava, Lebanon premiered at the Venice Film Festival, things have gone from bad to worse and while Akl had at first imagined setting the story in a "dystopian future" as she admitted to MIME in September, it is now coloured in much-too actual themes and issues.

I'll admit that each time I've caught up with Labaki for an interview, it has been a learning process. Yet this time it was a heart-wrenching lesson in the power we each hold, that great power of one that we should exercise in each and every choice we make. As always, Labaki inspired, and changed the way I view I world. Here is our uncut, short and wonderful conversation, as the film gets ready to premiere in the Middle East on October 20th at El Gouna Film Festival in Egypt.

How did you become involved in this project, I mean it seems like a natural fit for you with your activism…

I’ve known Mounia for a long time now and when she spoke to me about this project, we had a coffee, and she explained to me what this project was about. I immediately identified with Souraya’s struggled because every Lebanese person living in Lebanon now is in that situation of confusion. What do we do? 

I mean, not only Lebanese, this collapse is happening everywhere. So what is the right system? What is the alternative system that we need to find? Is is really isolating ourselves, protecting ourselves from others and creating this bubble? Is the answer the self sustainable and self sufficient bubble like the Badri family are doing or is it the contrary — diving into the chaos and being part of the change? What is the right decision.

What is better for us as humans as well, because at one point you have to also stop fighting for things for other people only. That’s the incredible theme at the center for this film, what is good for the Badris? Because fighting the fight of Lebanon is a big burden to carry. You know this personally!

I live that same contradiction, because you know, after the blast in Beirut, we decided to be in a safer place for our kids, which is the mountains. And now we are growing our own vegetables, making our own cheese so we are living a kind of self sufficient, isolated way. But at the same time I’m very involved, you know, socially, I’m there. So you don’t have to take a decision actually.

Souraya in the film takes a decision to go back but I don’t think that you have to — you can do both. You can create a way of living with much less: less consumerism, less things that you think you need, but actually I’ve learned now that we need so much less than we think. And so living this sort of healthy and logical way with less. And not necessarily being less happy — not at all! On the contrary you feel more happy and more spiritual. It’s like the more things you have, the more the backpack becomes heavy and the more you have to drag everything behind you, and the more you are unhappy actually. So I’ve learned this. 

Plus you can be connected, because of the internet, and be able to work from your home. Travel, I’m not saying don’t travel, but you don’t have to travel to do a meeting of half an hour every time. You simplify your life and only do the things that are necessary, that you really have to do. And be the change — this is going to be the change. We are not going to be able to continue the way we have been going. We have to find other sustainable ways of living. 

You can politically active, be with the people and support the change and still have your own haven. And haven doesn’t mean something luxurious, haven means really knowing what are your real needs. And listening to that. 

That’s so wise!

That’s the luxury, the real luxury.

Knowing how to simplify your life really is the ultimate luxury. There is a poignancy in this film because you talk about the environment, but there is also mention of corruption in politics and all the things that are bringing Lebanon to its knees right now. How does it feel to present a film that carries so much gravitas?

You know when I watched the film yesterday, it was the first time that I saw it in its entirety, after its completion, with the music and everything. Before watching the film at some point you start having this guilt feeling of being here, and leaving Lebanon and even feel guilty smiling. You feel guilty dressing up, or putting makeup on, or having a nice suit, or whatever. But when I watched the film I felt it was part of my mission, at that moment.

To be there, it was an act of resistance. To be there for the film, talk about Lebanon, really it was part of my mission. 

Even though I was very hesitant before coming, I was dealing with that — guilt. Am I allowed, can I even give myself this opportunity to celebrate something and smile? And be happy? Do I have the right? And then yesterday it’s like the pieces of the puzzle came together and I was like, of course, I need to be here, and I need to represent my country in that way. 

It’s so important this film, and it’s so important that it is shown now. After the explosion in the harbor, how difficult is it for you to be in Beirut?

Everything was destroyed, our office, our house. We are not able to go back to Beirut yet. It has been really difficult, so we are still living in the mountains and unless we really have to go back, for maybe the school, we won’t. You feel like you’ve been torn away from your own identity. It’s like you lost a city. It’s not only you lost your house, you lost a whole city, you lost whatever it represents, its identity, its history. It is everything you’ve fought for. It’s very difficult to go back — but we will go back.

You will go back, because you are Beirut! The last question I want to ask you is about the song you sing in the film, Beirut Habbi. You come from a musical family, your husband is a composer and your daughter sings a rocking rendition of Bella Ciao in the Netflix shorts collection. So are you a singer naturally? I love that song.

I’m not a singer at all! It was really my first experience and I was so shy and I don’t know if it’s good or not. I just wanted to close my ears and not hear it. I am fascinated with people who have a nice voice, really fascinated. It’s amazing to discover that, and that is why I love acting so much. You push yourself in directions and then you discover in yourself things you didn’t know even existed. Because you’re shielded, protected by this character. Things you don’t necessarily dare to do in your real life, you do it because you’re not you, you’re this other character. You experiment, and I love this experiment. 

Is directing in your cards in the future?

Absolutely, I’m sure I’m going to become obsessed with a new idea or a new theme very soon. Not yet, but it’s gonna come.

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