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Lebanese Writer Mounia Akl on Her Directorial Debut Premiering at Venice Film Festival

Mounia Akl. Photo: Joe Saade

For Lebanese writer and director Mounia Akl, her debut feature film Costa Brava, Lebanon, marked her entry into the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the Torino Film Lab. Costa Brava, Lebanon also comes with the completion of her residency at the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinéfondation. Co-written with Clara Roquet, the film starring Nadine Labaki explores how the Badri family sought to escape pollution by relocating to the mountains but have it all upturned when a landfill is built outside their new home.

Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki in Costa Brava, Lebanon. Photo: Rudy Bou Chebel

Following its premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival under the Horizons category, we caught up with the 32-year-old director. Below, she shares how Costa Brava, Lebanon explores family dynamics as a microcosm of society and her advice to aspiring filmmakers.

A still from Costa Brava Lebanon. Photo: Courtesy of Mounia Akl

What were some of the challenges you faced in creating this film, and how did you overcome them? 

This film faced a lot of obstacles and unfortunately, none of them were creative ones. The team that made the film happen is made of heroes — whether it’s the cast, the crew, or the international co-producers. They made the process easier than it could have been. However, the real obstacle that we faced was the hardship in Lebanon during the past two years. On August 4, after constantly bickering about the finances of the film, the explosion took place. We went from having a creative meeting to picking up the pieces of shattered glass from ourselves and making sure everyone was well and alive. We were in a state of grief; for our city, but most importantly, the people that we lost. After two months, it felt like our lives had come to an end, but we decided to come together to discuss whether or not we should go ahead with the project, despite everything we were going through. This is when we realized that what we needed is for all of us to be together and to lift each other up. We had a message to deliver and it was our duty to share it with the world. The best decision we made was to go ahead with the shoot, and that was a blessing in disguise.

Akl with the cast of her film. Photo: Courtesy of Venice Film Festival

What message do you wish to convey through this film to the viewers?

My greatest hope is that when people watch the movie, they understand that it is a love letter to Lebanon. This is a film that tackles the question, which most of us might be asking: Fight or flight? Do you fight for a place you feel you have lost or do you save yourself, for your own mental and physical health? My wish is that people get out of the screening feeling emotions that stir questions within them.

How much of the film is inspired by your life?

Costa Brava, Lebanon was inspired by my lifelong fascination with families and the discussions that usually take place among them. You could really understand the structure of a society, and how it operates, just by looking at the interaction between each family member.

It is the mirror of a country. The screenwriter and the director in me were born out of observing my own. People who I loved and captivated me, as well as people who I realized, throughout the years, were as real as I am. Every character in this movie represents a part of my life. I was the teenager, the eight-year-old, I was Soraya, played by Nadine Labaki, a woman who wants to fight for change and her urge to go back to her beloved country, Beirut. As soon as I finished shooting the film, I was in the state of mind of the character Walid, played by Saleh Bakri, who felt very cynical and broken. He is a character that didn’t want to go back to Beirut, which brought up feelings of fear.

I write about what I know. I cannot write about what I do not know. I made a movie that addresses the status quo, my experience as a Lebanese person, my experience as a young girl, and lastly, my natural desire to fight for change.

A still from the film. Photo: Courtesy of Abbout Productions

What advice would you give to aspiring Arab filmmakers?

To know the importance of writing about a topic that inspires you so deeply, and that you know by heart. The other would be to collaborate with people who mean well, distancing yourself from people who function on ego and getting closer to people who function on empathy and kindness. Something that I have also learned is that I would never take advice from people who don’t know me well.

Since you chose to wear Elie Saab, Sandra Mansour, and Karma el Khalil jewelry, how important was supporting local designers at the Venice Film Festival to you?

It was a real honor to wear Lebanese designers, and it is my way of standing together with other artists from the country. Although I have a lot of respect for the fashion industry, to me, it was more about carrying Lebanon with me in any shape or form. The meaning of carrying them with me went beyond fashion — it was about having a piece of my country sheltering me, reminding me that I am not alone.

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