CAIRO: “Why am I obsessed with trash?” asks Mounia Akl with a laugh. “Actually, it’s funny because I have been called ‘the trash director’ by friends. But I think ‘Submarine,’ for me, was a stepping stone to ‘Costa Brava.’ So it’s not like I’ve been obsessed with trash all my life. It’s just that ‘Submarine’ was a fragment of ‘Costa Brava’ in many ways.”
The Lebanese director is sitting quietly in a corner of the TU Berlin Campus El Gouna, patiently discussing her debut feature, “Costa Brava, Lebanon.” At the film’s core is Lebanon’s trash crisis — a toxic and tragic disaster that has laid bare the fissures in Lebanese society. It’s a topic Akl knows only too well, having covered similar ground in her award-winning short, “Submarine,” and protested during the country’s 2015 trash crisis.
“It was the first time that I felt like I belonged to a movement, because that movement was leaderless in a way,” says Akl of the protests. “I grew up after the civil war in a country where you only matter when you’re following a certain person or a certain political party. And I don’t. I never felt like I belonged to that world. At the time of the garbage crisis I remember it felt like the streets belonged to my generation. The crisis also felt like it was a great metaphor for everything that was wrong about the country. It was not just an environmental disaster that transformed our city. It was all linked to political corruption.”
Into this world of activism Akl has thrown her fascination with family. In “Costa Brava,” that family consists of former political activists Walid (Saleh Bakri) and Souraya (Nadine Labaki) and their children Tala (Nadia Charbel) and Rim (Geana and Ceana Restom). Together they live a life of splendid isolation in the mountains overlooking Beirut, having escaped the city’s toxic pollution to enjoy an eco-conscious, self-sufficient existence. Living with this quirky, free-spirited family is Walid’s ageing mother, Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury).
However, their utopian dreams are shattered when the construction of an illegal landfill site on a hill bordering their property brings the country’s trash crisis to their doorstep. It is an act of environmental vandalism that will soon cause familial fault lines to appear.
“I’ve always been obsessed with family and how, by observing the structure of a family, you can understand the cracks in a society,” says Akl, who co-wrote the film with Clara Roquet. “Growing up, I always thought that it was because of Lebanon that my parents were fighting. I was convinced that there was a relationship between the outside pressure that they felt and the fact that my parents had moments of vulnerability. So I wanted to make a movie about that friction. About how outside pressure in Lebanon leads to people not having the time to exist or to take care of themselves, which brings out our own demons because we’re always in a state of crisis.”
Filmed over 36 days in November and December last year and produced by Abbout Productions, “Costa Brava” had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September and won the NETPAC Prize at the Toronto International Film Festival soon after. It would go on to pick up the audience award at the BFI London Film Festival, but it was arguably in Egypt that the film began to gather serious momentum. The movie not only won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Debut Film at the El Gouna Film Festival earlier this month, but the inaugural El Gouna Green Star Award for sustainability. In doing so, it catapulted Akl and the film’s young stars into the regional spotlight.
“It’s been a very heartwarming few months because I feel like we’ve been receiving a lot of open-hearted reactions from audiences,” says Akl, who cast her close friend, Yumna Marwan, as Walid’s sister Alia. “Being in London was quite emotional for me because not only was the room filled with an international audience that was very moved by the film, but also a lot of Lebanese expats who felt they really related to some of the struggles that the characters go through. And that’s something that has been very heartwarming — seeing how different people, whether in Venice, London, Toronto, or here in Egypt, react to the film. Because I feel that in each country people relate to a different character for different reasons.”
Much of the film’s success lies in its intimate portrayal of a family in crisis, but also in its two youngest and brightest stars. When Akl walked on stage to collect the first of the film’s two awards at El Gouna with Marwan and producer Myriam Sassine, it was the Restom sisters who stole the show. Seemingly unfazed by the cinematic spotlight, the twins were a highlight of the festival, with their charismatic and captivating portrayal of Rim (they took it in turns to play different scenes) integral to the film’s lovingly eccentric core.
“I remember seeing a video of this kid and I fell in love with her,” recalls Akl, who had already watched more than 100 other videos before casting the sisters. “Then the casting director told me there was another one and that they were twins. So I brought them both to the casting session thinking one of them would be Rim, but both of them were so great. Each of them had a trait of the character that the other didn’t. One of them was very emotional and hyper-empathetic and was like a 70-year-old person in a seven-year-old body. The other one was like this wild child Mowgli from ‘Jungle Book.’ So I divided the scenes between the two and it was a practical decision because one would get tired and we’d cast the other the next day.”
Filming was by no means easy. The August 4 explosion derailed the film’s production schedule and traumatized many in the crew, while the pandemic and the country’s deep economic crisis piled the challenges high. Such was Lebanon’s plight that the original idea of setting the film in a dystopian future was removed as reality caught up with the film’s production. In addition, green measures were implemented to create sustainability on set. That meant recycling, saving water and electricity, and reducing carbon emissions. It also meant utilizing special effects to create a landfill on an otherwise green mountainside.
“I don’t think filmmakers should have messages in their films, but raise questions,” says Akl. “The most important thing for me is that some characters in this film are in agreement with each other that things need to change. That’s something that was important for me. Because when you believe you can change, then maybe there’s a bit of hope.”