Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s feature debut, Costa Brava, Lebanon (2021), is vital and reflective work for our present day. The free-spirited Badi family has sought refuge in the mountains, building their home far away from the city’s social unrest, which is the source of traumatic memories for the patriarch of the family, Walid (Saleh Bakri). Their idyllic peace is disturbed when the government, under pressure to resolve the pollution and environmental issues, begins building a garbage landfill next to their home. The intrusion stirs up divisions in the family. Walid’s wife, Souraya (Nadine Labaki), a musician, reminds him that they intend to one day return to the city with their daughters, Tala (Nadia Charbel) and Rim (Ceana Restom/Geana Restom).
The conflict at the heart of the story is between isolationist idealism and social engagement. It taps into the conflict between introverted and extraverted natures and the fear response. Whether intentional or not, Akl’s story is built on the foundations of human psychology.
Set in Lebanon, it transcends its spatial trappings to communicate universal ideas of generational fear, nature versus nurture, and it shares with its audience some wisdom. The story can be interpreted as suggesting that we should not look for victory in defending what our lives are in the present context, but remain flexible to embrace the transformation of our lives, the journey from one chapter to the next. For the Badi family, it’s the movement between the city’s social unrest and the mountain utopia, the journey of withdrawing out of fear, to deciding whether to re-engage with the outside world and liberate themselves and their daughters from a life of fear.
In conversation with PopMatters, Akl talks about using cinema to bring cultures and communities together, how each country can be a microcosm of another and her internal struggle where her hopes for changing the world are unsettled by feeling powerless.
During our interview, she references the explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020, that left more than 200 people dead and several thousand injured. The domestic investigation has faced criticism for its failure to assign accountability. Government officials have been protected by immunity from prosecution for mismanagement of the port that led to the detonation of combustible chemical compounds.
How would you describe your relationship with cinema?
Growing up in Lebanon, I remember often having to stay home because of the tensions. The window of my bedroom became my outlook on the world. As a person who loved films for a reason I couldn’t understand, my imagination started expanding, and the window to the outside became a way for me to create images and expand my imagination.
It was also a way to discover the world, and watching a movie from another country made me feel like I was discovering another culture. In the beginning, cinema was a way to understand people and me because it brought me inwards, but it also took me outwards. Later, it became a way to question the status quo.
In a country like Lebanon, we’re often angry about how confusing and absurd things are. It [cinema] became a way to question either my inner demons or, the outer ones – the things that made me angry about the place I live. Then after the explosion of making Costa Brava, Lebanon, it became an act of resistance. It travels between those two things.
Can watching a film constitute an act of protest? For example, watching a documentary about the Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny or abortion rights in the US, can cinema make us implicit in the act of resistance and protest?
Absolutely. It opens a dialogue between communities, and we’re all creating history together. Each country can be the microcosm of another one. Right now, Lebanon feels like the worst-case scenario with everything that can happen if things go a certain way elsewhere. Like so many other struggling countries, Lebanon is also a victim of a world political structure.
Everything is linked. When I watch a movie about abortion set in America, I feel it’s about me because I’m a woman who is a part of this world, and we all owe it to each other to have a dialogue and communicate. […] cinema is an opportunity to bring cultures and communities together and through that experience, protest against what’s wrong.
The father’s struggle in Costa Brava, Lebanon, focuses our attention on the disruptive far-right forces worldwide that don’t register shame and guilt. They want to dictate and subjugate others to their will, and through the father and the wider family, we’re reminded how powerless we can feel against an opposition that resists dialogue.
We often felt powerless in Lebanon. In October 2019, I was protesting, and I was in a state of euphoria – I felt we were going to change the world. A year later, I’m looking for my colleagues under the rubble after the August 4 explosion, to which there’s still been no accountability. So I move between, we can change the world, baby step by step when I’m in a wiser state of mind. I’m aware that it’s going to take time, and I’m going to have to be patient. Then I feel powerless and helpless at other times, like in a David and Goliath situation. I wanted to explore this in Costa Brava, Lebanon, because I could have written a father who’s a hero, who’s going to go and change everything, but I wouldn’t be telling my truth.
The decision of the family to go back to the city, to be part of the change by joining those protests is the most that they can do in their current situation – to try to be less selfish and be alongside those trying to change things. It also starts with understanding the people in your own family, not trapping others because we’re trying to create a community that functions.
At the end of Costa Brava, Lebanon, when the little girl decides to go and discover the city she has been taken away from, it’s an act of protest, it’s an act of declaring war in a positive way against the oppressors. It doesn’t mean they’re going to get what they want when they want it. That’s the reality of life.
The world has always been a complicated place, and our understanding of it is changing. The characters in Costa Brava, Lebanon, are trying to understand how to deal with the fact they live in a world that’s heartbreaking.
Is it right that they run away and choose to shield their children from this harsh reality?
I’m not sure there’s a right or a wrong. All I know is that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can provide your kids with an alternative education that doesn’t follow the rules that we all grew up with – in touch with nature, understanding how to live a more sustainable life, and still being invested in change.
The family is going from one extreme to the other, but there’s always a way to balance things, and everyone has the right to do whatever they want. The problem with this family is that they ran away, and their lives are guided by fear. When you live in fear, you’re imprisoned.
The youngest daughter, Rim, is a fascinating character. Full of energy, she seems fearless, but in truth, she’s shaped by her fear. A thematic interest of Costa Brava, Lebanon, is exploring generational fear, and nature versus nurture.
She’s a character you think is free, but slowly you understand that she inherited that anxiety from her father. She represents my generation. I was in my mother’s belly when the civil war ended. I realised a few years ago, on August 4th, that I’ve carried so much, and it comes out very differently to our parents. They don’t talk about the war with us, but we can feel the struggle and tension in their silence.
Rim, like her father, wants to control everything. She’s inherited his anxiety, OCD, and fear of her reality being altered from. She’s always scared her world will collapse, having grown up with a father who is scared of that because he experienced this.
I never think about the themes or the relevant subjects when writing. I just wrote the story of a family. I dug through my memories, researching the people I was surrounded by growing up. The situations in Costa Brava, Lebanon, are part of our status quo. I was writing my truth and my reality without thinking, ‘This is going to sell’, because the process is inside out. I wanted to tell a story of this family in the circumstances I know.
Your opening answer about how cinema helps you to understand the world is a testament to why art is vital – it connects cultures, breaking down economic, political, and religious boundaries.
I could understand the world through cinema – another girl on another side of the planet. Art is something that’s timeless and helps us ask bigger questions. It’s a dialogue between different communities, and I believe in that dialogue. I’m sure there’s a person that can watch my film and feel it’s too local and not connect to it, but others will connect to it because there’s something they’ve projected onto it. What’s interesting about art is that it’s subjective and free.
Is this why art is seen as a threat by the status quo? Because once it’s shared, it’s difficult to control?
That’s part of it. We have to build the skin for that.
Do you perceive a transformative aspect to the creative process where it changes you as a person?
Like every big experience in our lives, we come out of it a little changed. It’s like waves. We’re constantly changing, which can be hard to accept because we don’t always want things to change.
This experience has changed me. Telling this story has made me feel lighter; communicating with the audience has inspired me. Making Costa Brava, Lebanon, in tragic circumstances, in Lebanon, after the August 4th explosion which destroyed the homes and offices of everyone in the crew, and after the economic collapse, the dissolution, and the revolution – we were all broken souls making a movie together in this act of resistance.
It changed me in good ways and bad ways. It was empowering to say we will tell our story, and they will not take everything from us. Still, it changed me in bad ways because I had this subconscious association between the creative process and the political hardships.
I’ve had a few creative obstacles. They were all big obstacles that remind us of our tragic circumstances. It has been a long road, and I’ve developed a new skin through working with an amazing team of people and through so much hardship. It was empowering.