Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s silver-screen success story

Lebanese director Mounia Akl  has been praised by critics for her debut feature film. (Supplied)
Lebanese director Mounia Akl has been praised by critics for her debut feature film. (Supplied)
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Updated 28 October 2021

Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s silver-screen success story

Lebanese director Mounia Akl  has been praised by critics for her debut feature film. (Supplied)

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.   




Mounia Akl. (Supplied)

“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). 




The film stars Saleh Bakri and Nadine Labaki. (Supplied)

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.”


Actress Lindsay Lohan gets engaged to financier Bader Shammas in Dubai

Actress Lindsay Lohan gets engaged to financier Bader Shammas in Dubai
Lindsay Lohan and Bader Shammas are engaged. File/Instagram
Updated 28 November 2021

Actress Lindsay Lohan gets engaged to financier Bader Shammas in Dubai

Actress Lindsay Lohan gets engaged to financier Bader Shammas in Dubai

DUBAI: Congratulations are in order for Lindsay Lohan. The Dubai-based actress has just announced her engagement to her partner Bader Shammas.

The Hollywood star shared the news with her 9.7 million Instagram followers, posting a series of coupled-up snaps that showed off her diamond engagement ring.

Lohan, 35, wrote: “My love. My life. My family. My future.”

The actress and financier were first spotted together at a music festival in Dubai shortly before the pandemic hit in 2020.

In May 2020 The “Mean Girls” star’s mother Dina Lohan spoke of Shammas, saying: “Lindsay is dating a wonderful guy right now, but that’s neither here nor there. When she’s ready to talk about her personal life, she will.”

Lohan was previously engaged to Russian businessman Egor Tarabasov but the pair split in 2016.

In addition to planning a wedding, the actress has plenty to look forward to.

The “Freaky Friday” star, who made a return to acting, is currently filming a new project for Netflix. The movie is untitled at the moment but is a Christmas romantic comedy, in which Lohan stars as a “spoiled hotel heiress” with amnesia. The upcoming film is expected to release in 2022.

She also recently inked a deal for a new podcast which, she told Deadline, will give listeners “a chance to experience a never-before-seen side” of her and will “share her authentic voice.


What We Are Reading Today: The Lessons of Tragedy

What We Are Reading Today: The Lessons of Tragedy
Updated 28 November 2021

What We Are Reading Today: The Lessons of Tragedy

What We Are Reading Today: The Lessons of Tragedy

Authors: Hal Brands and Charles Edel

Today, after more than seventy years of great‑power peace and a quarter‑century of unrivaled global leadership, Americans have lost their sense of tragedy. They have forgotten that the descent into violence and war has been all too common throughout human history. This amnesia has become most pronounced just as Americans and the global order they created are coming under graver threat than at any time in decades.
In this book, Hal Brands and Charles Edel argue that a tragic sensibility is necessary if America and its allies are to address the dangers that menace the international order today, according to a review on goodreads.com.


Arab World Institute in Paris launches exhibition on Eastern Jews to ‘fix ignorance’

The show exhibits 280 works of art that bear witness to 15 centuries of Jewish cohabitation in the Arab world in a 1,000-square-meter space. (ANFR Photo/Anne Ilcinkas)
The show exhibits 280 works of art that bear witness to 15 centuries of Jewish cohabitation in the Arab world in a 1,000-square-meter space. (ANFR Photo/Anne Ilcinkas)
Updated 28 November 2021

Arab World Institute in Paris launches exhibition on Eastern Jews to ‘fix ignorance’

The show exhibits 280 works of art that bear witness to 15 centuries of Jewish cohabitation in the Arab world in a 1,000-square-meter space. (ANFR Photo/Anne Ilcinkas)
  • The Parisian institution exhibits 280 works of art that bear witness to 15 centuries of Jewish cohabitation in the Arab world, in an area larger than 1,000 sq. m.
  • ‘This event is a response by reason, by culture, by knowledge, a response by history,’ says Arab World Institute president 

PARIS: After exhibitions titled “Hajj, the pilgrimage in Makkah” in 2014 and the “Christians of the East, 2,000 years of history” in 2017, the Arab World Institute in Paris is continuing its trilogy dedicated to monotheistic religions with “Jews of the East, a multi-millennial history.”

It exhibits 280 works of art that bear witness to 15 centuries of Jewish cohabitation in the Arab world in a 1,000-square-meter space.

“This institute would only truly find its vocation if it were open to all the spiritual and intellectual heritages that have marked the history of the Arab world,” IMA President Jack Lang said in a speech to the press a few days before the exhibition’s inauguration. It is set to take place from Nov. 24 to March 13, 2022.

The Parisian institution exhibits “exceptional and unpublished” work, which were made available by 35 lenders — institutions or individuals — bearing witness to 15 centuries of Jewish cohabitation in the Arab world, from the Atlas plateaus to the banks of the Euphrates.

“Was it normal that the Jews, their culture and the Jewish religion did not have their full place here?” IMA’s president asked.

He began to handle the issue two years ago, “shortly before the appearance of these movements, that are in reality very old but reappear regularly in France, of negationism, of hatred, of racism, of denouncing the truth, of confusion.”

He continued: “This event is a response by reason, by culture, by knowledge, a response by history.”

For French President Emmanuel Macron, this is a “great lesson” about “coexistence, mutual enrichment and exchanges between monotheisms.” 

He said: “Identity is always more complex than we think and rubs against other identities to feed on it,” while also denouncing the “obscurantisms” of recent times.

For the first time, Arab News en Francais has partnered up with the IMA for this exhibition. “We are very happy to work with you,” Lang rejoiced in an interview, evoking his “immense admiration for the work accomplished today in the Kingdom by Saudi authorities in general and by Prince Badr in particular.”

“People around the world have absolutely no idea how far a real cultural revolution is taking place in Saudi Arabia, in all fields such as art, cinema, theater, literature, painting, sculpture, music…,” continued the president, who will fly in a few days to Jeddah on the occasion of the Red Sea Film Festival, which promises to be a “huge event.”

He added: “I told Prince Badr, whom I met with 10 days ago: You are not broadcasting enough the magnitude of the cultural changes taking place in the Kingdom today.”

Among these Saudi sites “which one day will be more known” is the Khaybar oasis, represented by three photographs by Humberto da Silveira at the beginning of the exhibition “Jews of the East,” which retraces in a chronological and thematic journey, 15 centuries of Jewish presence in now Arab countries. The Khaybar oasis, located on a major caravan route in the Hejaz, was indeed occupied by Jewish tribes in ancient times, before the Prophet Muhammad made it the “land of Islam.”

“Today, there is a French team of archaeologists undertaking research on the spot to better understand this complex history of the Jews and the Muslims in this historic place, Khaybar, with the consent of Saudi authorities,” added the IMA president.

One of the pieces of the exhibition that most impressed Lang also comes from the Arabian Peninsula. 

He admitted having great difficulty in choosing just one, given the richness of the works exhibited: “Jewish women of Yemeni origin, who have now become Israeli citizens, have created a fabulous music group that travels the world. This relationship is extraordinary, because these Jewish Yemeni women sing in Arabic.” The three Haim sisters (Tair, Liron, and Tagel) with their group A-WA, have enjoyed phenomenal success on YouTube with their song “Habib Galbi,” which mixes traditional Yemeni songs with hip-hop beats.

The public will rediscover the “Hana Mash Hu Al-Yaman” clip at the conclusion of the exhibition, the last stage in a history spanning more than 2,000 years. It shows the history of Jewish communities in the Arab world, of the first links forged between the Jewish tribes of the Kingdom and Prophet Muhammad up to the final exile, the emergence of great scholars, such as Saadia Gaon, Maimonides or Joseph Caro, during the medieval caliphates in Baghdad, Fez, Cairo and Cordoba, and the rise of Jewish urban centers in the Maghreb and the Ottoman Empire.

“Never before has the history of the Jews been told in these countries which have become Arab countries today. It had never been told on a millennial scale, from ancient times until today,” said Lang, adding: “It is a way of repairing ignorance, of showing that the Arab world is rich in successive religions and cultures, which fashioned its originality.”

Asked about the apprehensions that this exhibition could arouse on the Palestinian side, the Lang explained that “the exhibition absolutely does not address the political questions of today.” 

“There are other occasions for the IMA to bring them up,” he said, referring to the upcoming publishing of a book titled “What Palestinians Bring to the World.”

Just like the general curator of the exhibition, historian Benjamin Stora, who said that “we would miss our target if we only spoke of the end, of the ‘why’ did the Jews depart,” Lang insists on showing that: “Above all, we want to show that the presence of Jews goes back a long way in history.”


The best dressed stars at the 2021 Cairo international Film Festival

The best dressed stars at the 2021 Cairo international Film Festival
Tara Emad posing on the red carpet at the event, running until Dec. 5 at the famed Opera House in Zamalek.AFP
Updated 28 November 2021

The best dressed stars at the 2021 Cairo international Film Festival

The best dressed stars at the 2021 Cairo international Film Festival

DUBAI: The 43rd edition of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) kicked off in style on Friday evening with a plethora of glamorous A-list Arab celebrities walking the red carpet at the annual opening ceremony in Egypt.

Running until Dec. 5 at the famed Opera House in Zamalek, the Arab world’s longest-running film festival brought together a host of stars, including actors Tara Emad, Dorra Zarrouk and Salma Abudeif in addition to 68-year-old film icon Fifi Abdou, who were all dressed to the nines in up-and-coming as well as established regional designers.

Check out our pick of the best dressed stars at the 2021 Cairo International Film Festival below.

 

Tara Emad in Nicolas Jebran

Youssra in Rami Kadi

Bushra Rozza in Samah Mahran

Dorra Zarrouk in Zuhair Murad

Laila Eloui in Hany Elbehairy

Mona Zaki in Maram Bohran

Nelly Karim in Maison Yeya

Nour in Sandy Nour

Raya Abirached in Zuhair Murad

Salma Abu Deif in Valentino

Fifi Abdou


Past and future meet in UAE-based trio’s ‘Beyond: Emerging Artists’ display

Past and future meet in UAE-based trio’s ‘Beyond: Emerging Artists’ display
“Beyond: Emerging Artists,” a section of the now-wrapped up Abu Dhabi Art fair features work by Hashel Al-Lamki.. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art
Updated 28 November 2021

Past and future meet in UAE-based trio’s ‘Beyond: Emerging Artists’ display

Past and future meet in UAE-based trio’s ‘Beyond: Emerging Artists’ display

DUBAI: A woman dressed in black with a light blue colored sack over her head moves gracefully amidst a dark forest — she holds in either hand a branch with white feathers. The video work, executed in 2021 and titled “Too Close to the Sun,” is by Emirati artist Maitha Abdalla and it is on display in “Beyond: Emerging Artists,” which wraps up on Dec. 4 in Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al-Saadiyat.

The exhibition kicked off as part of the wider Abu Dhabi Art fair that ended Nov. 21. Curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath, “Beyond: Emerging Artists” explores the challenges of the future and painful reminders of the past while highlighting three UAE-based artists.

Alongside Abdalla's showcase are rooms featuring work by Emirati Hashel Al-Lamki and American Christopher Benton, who is based in Dubai.

A view of the room of Emirati artist Maitha Abdallah in Beyond: Emerging Artists, a section at this year's now concluded Abu Dhabi Art fair running until Dec. 4th. Courtesy of Abu Dhabi Art
 

Bardaouil and Fellrath told Arab News that the three artists’ strong links with Abu Dhabi allowed them to examine the city’s history and diversity, as well as its challenges and opportunities.

“Throughout our curatorial practice we have always been closely connected to the art scene in the Gulf region, and to the UAE in particular,” Bardaouil and Fellrath told Arab News. “Each of the three artists are either from Abu Dhabi or have been based here for a very long time. It was important to us that there is a strong connection to the city the works are exhibited in, to its history and diversity, as well as to its challenges and opportunities.”

The artists rely on media ranging from painting to sculpture, soundscapes, video works, found objects and site-specific installations.

The core focus of the program is on mentorship. Its aims thus venture outside the traditional role of a curator. “We wanted to work with artists where we felt we could contribute to the development of their practice,” said Bardaouil and Fellrath. “It was important to us to give each artist their own distinct voice and offer them the freedom and support to develop a project that they already had on their mind. Each of the three artists pushed their initial ideas to create truly immersive installations that are made up of different individual components.”

Abdalla’s commissions are part of a series of works that “negotiates the wild nature of women that social forces have often attempted to tame,” according to the artist.

In her room, Abdalla recreated US psychoanalyst Pinkola’s “wild creature” through her immersive installation. The visitor walks into an immersive space with a window that looks outdoors where there is a video of a performance where the performer, Abdalla, is attempting different poses of Pinkola’s “wild woman.”

“In my work, I am interested in storytelling and folk tales, and for this exhibition I was inspired by the book ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves,’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, an American psychoanalyst. She talks about how in every woman there is a wild creature and that this creature is powerful. She calls it wild woman and says this creature is an endangered species,” Abdalla said.

“Maitha’s work is amazing—from performances that revolve around notions of female wildness (characterized by a quasi-mythological woman, Sila) to sculptures and paintings that provoke thought and discussion around what’s considered right and wrong behavior and thought in communities,” Fair Director Dyala Nusseibeh told Arab News. “She reminds me in some ways of Paula Rego in the intensity of her paintings.”

Each room is conceived as an immersive space through which visitors can delve into each artist's work, practice and personal life. The walls and tiles of Abdalla’s room are painted pink, for example, to recall her childhood bathroom. As Nusseibeh says, “the ambitious claiming of each room” by the artists provides a unique portal into their world. 

 


 

Hashem Al-Lamki, Neptune. Courtsey of Abu Dhabi Art

 

Benton’s installation of a chained palm tree also fosters debate around labor economies and the appropriation of Middle Eastern culture in the US.

Christopher Joshua Benton, chained palm tree installation. Courtsey of Abu Dhabi Art

The artist’s film “The Kite Has Come” features archival images of Zanzibar from 1860-1910 — when the world’s last slave market operated in the city — and explores how slave histories in past centuries resonate in today’s world.

What profoundly resonates with the visitor even after they have left the room is how Benton’s work remembers the presence of the East African diaspora in the Gulf and the in-depth thought he has given to slave histories and how their stories over the last few centuries continue in today’s world.

Al-Lamki’s room on the other hand, entirely painted in a mystical soft blue, looks at the rapid pace of transformations shaping the UAE today, particularly evident in the building up of his hometown of Al-Ain.  

The artist, who founded the art group Bait 15 in a residential neighborhood in downtown Abu Dhabi, uses natural pigments collected from regional locations, referencing traditions that are under threat from new technologies and consumerism.

“The extravagance of the glitter and dyes in his paintings alongside the use of batteries, star stickers and popcorn in his sculpture, contribute to a sense of spectacle and futurism, but also a note of wistfulness for what is left behind,” Nusseibeh said.

What is so poignant about the works by each of the artists is that they go beyond of their formal, physical realm as art to tell the stories of their creators and the past and present histories of the world around them.

As an overall exhibition, the three rooms offer immersive solo shows covering each artist’s diverse practices within the context of their shared relationship to the UAE, its past and present histories and rapidly unfolding future.