TIFF 2021 Women Directors: Meet Mounia Akl – “Costa Brava, Lebanon”
Mounia Akl was born in Lebanon. She completed an MFA in directing at Columbia University. Her directorial credits include the shorts “Beirut, I Love You (I Love You Not),” “Anoesis,” “Eva,” “Submarine,” and “El Gran Libano.” “Costa Brava, Lebanon” is her first feature.
“Costa Brava, Lebanon” will premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11. The fest is taking place September 9-18.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
MA: For me “Costa Brava, Lebanon” is a story that talks about the big conflict Lebanese people are in today and have been in too often: Do you remain in the place that has broken your heart and try to change it from within? Or do you run for your life and build your joy outside of it? Fight, or flight? It is also about the realization that if there’s a wound that you have — in my case, Lebanon — that you feel nothing can heal, the only chance you have at healing, and maybe moving on, is by looking at it in the eye. To me, it feels like the source of this pain cannot be excluded from the healing process. If not, it will follow you everywhere and you can’t escape from it.
In “Costa Brava, Lebanon” the free-spirited Badri family escapes the overwhelming pollution and social unrest of Beirut by seeking refuge in a utopic mountain home they built for themselves. Unexpectedly, an illegal garbage landfill begins construction right next door. With it comes the very trash and corruption they were trying to escape. As the landfill rises, so do family tensions. The Badris are left with a choice: stay off the grid or leave their idyllic home and face the reality they fled, hoping to stay true to their ideals. “Costa Brava, Lebanon” is ultimately about what it takes for one family to come together and reaffirm their commitments to their values and to each other.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
MA: Firstly, my desire to talk about family dynamics. To observe the family structure as a mirror or the structure of our specific society. I’ve always been fascinated with family dynamics, with the trauma you inherit from your parents, with the way you absorb the lessons you receive at home, and how in a country like Lebanon, the bridge between the intimate and the non-intimate doesn’t exist. The society I refer to — Lebanon, my biggest heartbreak — was the other important subject that I wanted to observe.
Growing up in Lebanon, I was surrounded by chaos and poetry. The country was always on the verge of an apocalypse, leading us to live in the present though never letting us sleep peacefully. This was both within the confines of my home and family, and the broader confines of the country. I was often surrounded by people in extreme states of being and I developed a fascination with human flaws and the truth that emerges in times of personal tragedy.
I started observing the tools that we arm ourselves with to fight trauma, often reverting to impulse or denial. This dichotomy is what Lebanon is, and who I have become. It has brought our society to a place of absurdity and has driven people to reinvent and sterilize their homes to protect themselves from a dystopian reality that is too painful to face. It has also armed us with limitless imagination, humor, and a visceral experience of life.
Today however, even that escape is no longer possible. The dystopia has entered our hearts. In “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” I try to look at this family’s structure in hopes of mirroring the one of our society. The Badri family’s ideal of staying pure by disdaining society is an escapist fantasy. But from fracture and discord, there is an opportunity for the Badri family — and Lebanon — to rebuild with clear-eyed truth and compassion.
W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?
MA: This film was made with so much love and honesty by a team I am lucky to have worked with. It really took a miracle to make it happen. My wish is that people leave the film with something strong in their heart, and a feeling of connection to this family and the country they live in. That connection would be more than enough.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
MA: The circumstances we shot it in. I miss the days where my obstacles were creative ones only. Shooting after the deadly August 4 explosion, everyone going through PTSD, also during a pandemic, and amidst a country falling apart was a great human challenge. It sometimes made us stronger and gave us a sense of purpose. It showed us what we missed about our old life; it also reminded us of the importance of working with people who are kind and generous and empathetic. With them, the challenges feel like life lessons and not obstacles. They help create a sense of community.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
MA: It’s an international European co-production with national funds and also equity from the U.S. and France.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
MA: Life. My parents. My city, Beirut. Belonging to these two worlds really confirmed to me I had stories I wanted to tell, and this is how I wanted to tell them. It doesn’t mean I will only tell stories about Lebanon or my family, it just means these two made me who I am, and made me aware of the importance of never accepting what’s in front of you, especially when it is toxic — whether it is a criminal government or a toxic environment. Telling stories is just my way of questioning the status quo, and the truth the comes out of us in times of crisis. It’s the tool I found in myself when it came to challenging the reality I live in, or at least, raising questions about it.
The love and empathy I saw in my family, also made me realize how much I got out of loving. And this is something that cannot be excluded from the filmmaking process: loving. Loving those you write about. Those you make the film with.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
MA: Good advice I’ve received is to just let go sometimes, and to not constantly try to get what I want out of life. It is also the worst advice I’ve ever received.
W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?
MA: To tell their own honest stories, the ones no one else can tell, the ones that are hidden somewhere inside their hearts, the ones that make them, them — these are the hardest ones to tell but they are the ones that define our own identity. All stories have been told, so shaping our own point of view feels like the crucial step to being original. I am not saying anything new, but just realized how much of a driving force this can be and that this is also advice I constantly give myself.
And these stories, tell them tirelessly and shamelessly, and with so much love, no matter how many people get in the way.
I will also say that I’ve realized the importance of not surrounding yourself only with films, or the film world. Inspiration and stories come from the strangest places and it’s important to not be constantly surrounded by the same thing. It makes us richer, more interesting souls.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
MA: “An Angel at My Table” by Jane Campion is one of the most tender, raw, empathetic, cinematic, heartbreaking films I’ve seen. It moves and shakes your soul, in an effortless way.
W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?
MA: It is hard to navigate life as it has become. I keep creative and it’s my way to stay sane, but having your life rhythm be filled with so many unknowns can be an obstacle to both creative and life flows because nothing can be planned anymore, and your rhythm is never flowing. I try to grab opportunities in the present moment but I also try to be a little less tough on myself, and try to learn from what I feel the last two years have taught us.
I’ve realized the importance of work-life balance, of taking care of yourself, of spending real quality time with yourself and those you love. This also arms you with life experience and therefore with more stories to tell. After the explosion, I went right into director mode and made the film. It gave me strength but it also made me postpone the healing process of this near-death experience. I wouldn’t postpone taking care of myself anymore and would find ways to include it in whatever I am doing.
W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?
MA: The talent is there, there to tell their own stories and replace negative stereotypes. It’s just about giving them the platform and following models you see, for example, at Sundance, whether it be at the Labs or the Institute. The stories and their storytellers are here, and they need to be invested in more and more, so they can turn the tide. Stereotypes in cinema and TV have a big negative impact on people’s lives and growth. I can attest to that as an Arab woman. Stereotypes are dangerous. And they can be avoided by making sure those who hire and finance and support are putting their investment in the right places. It will be good for everyone.