Saleh Bakri on the globality of 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' and working with women filmmakers

For Mounia Akl's impressive feature debut, which premiered at this year's Venice Film Festival, the Palestinian superstar infuses the character of Walid Badri with his own special brand of human vulnerability, in the story of a family whose existence is threatened by the corrupt politics and environmental disaster which plague their beloved country.
Saleh Bakri on the globality of 'Costa Brava, Lebanon' and working with women filmmakers

Catching up with actor Saleh Bakri is an experience I would wish on everyone. Coming away from a fifteen minute meeting with the actor is both a lesson in fair world views as well as a precious gem of insight, understanding and wisdom. The kind you then tuck away into the inner recesses of your soul and carry with you for months, even years to come.

What you've seen of Bakri on the big screen is really what you get in person. As with his characters -- from those in the cinematic masterpieces by Annemarie Jacir, to his supporting roles in world cinema contemporary classics -- there is a depth, a kind of slow burning fire always smoldering below the surface, which makes every film Bakri stars in a must-watch. And with Mounia Akl's masterful Costa Brava, Lebanon, the experience is enhanced by a great script, a cast which includes Nadine Labaki as Bakri's on-screen wife Souraya and a conflicted character who challenges both the actor and us -- the audience, and our concept of what makes a great man.

I caught up with Bakri on the Lido, in the garden setting of the Hotel Ausonia & Hungaria, while Miss You by The Rolling Stones was playing in the background. The result is an interview that felt like a conversation between two friends.

There is a lot of you in this character — he could well be Palestinian. You can take the story out of Lebanon and substitute a few things and it easily becomes about the Palestinian struggle.

Well the only thing is that for a Palestinian it’s not so easy to find a landscape. Most of the landscapes are confiscated.

I do think the film has a lot of elements that you can take out of the Lebanese context and put it into a Palestinian context and it works. A lot of elements.

Or an African-American context…

Exactly, or even some elements in a global context — like the environmental question is a global question not only a Lebanese issue. There is something very universal about it. 

When did you first come on board in the project?

It was during a festival and I met Mounia there and watched the short which premiered in that festival — I think it was the Dubai International Film Festival — and I fell in love with her short Submarine. Liked it very much. That was also about the garbage crisis in Lebanon, and then she offered me this role in the film. I read it and liked it very much and I’ve done with her a workshop in Sundance about the film. I’ve gone with her a long way.

So you’ve been with her since almost the beginning of the film?

Three years, two years after the first draft.

Bakri with filmmaker Mounia Akl in Venice

You have this wonderful affinity with the amazing Annemarie Jacir, and now this talented new filmmaker who has directed you. Do you like working with women filmmakers and how is it different from working with a male filmmaker?

I like to work with filmmakers who are sensitive and clever at the same time. Which is rare, generally speaking. It is more rare in men than in women so maybe that’s why I work more with women.

It’s rare in life too!

So maybe that’s why sensitive and clever women are attracted to me and I’m attracted to them. 

Are you sensitive and clever?

I don’t know...

You’re sensitive, definitely.

Yes, I’m sensitive. Definitely. Clever, I’m not sure.

I think you are clever as well, but I also think you are deep, which is a better word than clever.

I do hope to be as transparent as I am deep.

What is going on with you?

I have a child. Now he’s a year and seven months. I got married. 

And what happened to you during the pandemic?

I was lucky to have a child before the pandemic, he was one month old when the pandemic arrived to Palestine and I had to be with him almost a complete year, twenty four hours a day. I was with him and it was very special. And then I got to do this film with Nadine and Mounia in Lebanon. 

Was Costa Brava shot before or after the explosion in Beirut’s harbor?

We started shooting the film three months after the explosion. We were supposed to begin shooting before the explosion and then it happened and people were in shock, so they weren’t even sure if the film was going to be made. It took them some time to think. And then one day they asked me on the phone if I’d do it, after the explosion that had happened, since people were afraid. Of course I’m going to do it! Come on, I’m from Palestine, not from Switzerland.

Your character is courageous in the film, even if at one crucial moment in the narrative he backs out. But Walid’s overall outlook is courageous.

This character has a lot of contradictions and few different layers. It was a challenge for me to do it. He’s revolutionary against the whole functioning of the system, against authority — corrupted authority — and so he decides to raise his children far away from this corruption, from this system. But at the same time he isolates them from a very basic and essential aspect of life, which is the social aspect of a human being. He’s against laws and against the system but at the same time, he follows the system when it comes to his teenage daughter. So he fails there as a revolutionary father. In other aspects, he is a revolutionary.

How was it like working with Nadine Labaki?

Amazing, she’s an amazing actress. She’s an activist and when we met, there was something beyond words. Something that we understood, about the characters, about the situation and about the film. Also the artistic experience we both have… So there was something already there, we didn’t need to talk about it too much. 

So you had an instinctual connection.

And a chemistry. Something related to the secret of the universe and it worked! And I really appreciated it because when I acted with her I was there, I didn’t really examine her work. I cannot examine the actors’ work in front of me while I’m working. So when I watched the film yesterday, for the first time at the premiere, I could see her acting from the outside and wow, what a beautiful work she’s doing! 

Have you ever thought about directing?

Yes, but now I’m more into writing. I started to write theater and now I’m writing my first play. Maybe, if I succeed as a writer, I will be able to think of being a director. 

What is next in the works for you?

There is a film in Morocco, a nice film, I love it. Sometimes I fail and do things I’m not totally into and I don’t totally believe in, because of life struggles. It’s not easy and I need to work to live. 

We all do things to survive.

Yes, but as an artist, someone who has interactions with audiences, it demands more responsibility from me. So I fail sometimes. It’s OK, I’m a human being. I fail sometimes to do only what I love. I wish I could do only what I love and only what I believe in. But the next film is something I love and believe in and I hope I’ll be able more and more to only do things I love and believe in.

Sometimes I wish I could just stop acting, stop this acting stuff, to avoid taking decisions I don’t want to take. And do something else. 

So if you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?

Anything, anything related to creativity. I think I’d be a painter, a sculptor. Something, perhaps, more solitary than acting. 

You may also like