MOUNIA AKL ON HER FEATURE DEBUT “COSTA BRAVA, LEBANON” AND MANIFESTING MAGICAL REALISM THROUGH CINEMA

Happy #FEMALEFILMMAKERFRIDAY everyone!

Today, I am very happy to share my conversation with a special guest, my dear friend Mounia Akl, who shot her first feature “Costa Brava, Lebanon” during a really difficult moment for the whole world with the pandemic, but especially for Lebanon which, on top of that, had to endure the explosions in Beirut. I’m sure she’ll tell us a little bit about how that came into play while shooting her film, but it is such a beautiful film and it’s so moving. I think it’s a testament of the power of storytelling, not only for the people that see a story, but for the people that make the story – to be able to make something so beautiful in such a difficult time.

“Costa Brava, Lebanon” is the story of a family that seeks refuge away from the pollution of Beirut in the mountains of Lebanon. They build their little paradise, but then the government decides to open a landfill right next to them.

It premiered at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival under the Horizon category and has been touring the festival circuit since then. It was Lebanon’s submission for the Oscars and I can’t wait to hear all about it.

Here is the podcast if you prefer listening and don’t forget to subscribe!

And here are links to specific areas of the interview if you are interested in jumping around:

About the director

Story and writing process

Budgeting and financing

Production

Lessons and advice

FILM MAMMA (FM) Congratulations, Mounia! Thank you for being here with us today, we are very excited to hear about your experience making your first film, but I’m especially happy to just see your face, welcome!

MOUNIA AKL (MA): Me too, I’m so happy to catch up with you after so long, really. It’s so good to talk to a friend.

FM: Yes, always. Let’s start from the beginning. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself. How and when did you decide to become a film director?

MA: I think it was a feeling that was inside my body, but that I wasn’t really calculating so much. I know that in the home I grew up in, cinema was part of our everyday life because my parents loved films, so I used to watch films that maybe kids my age wouldn’t watch because they would allow me to spend some time with them. Even if they sometimes argued on which ones I could watch and which ones I couldn’t. There was a secret shelf that I couldn’t reach and that I wasn’t allowed to watch films from. But, of course, when everyone was asleep I used to cheat and watch those films. I think I became a cinephile thanks to them and I think that I developed empathy also thanks to them, which is so important as a screenwriter. To try to appreciate every character you write despite all their complexities and flaws. My family – my sister and my parents – are the people I love the most, but at the same time, a family is a place where you see people in all of their truth, so I think the screenwriter in me was born by observing the people I love the most, having complex behavior. That’s when I think I developed that type of empathy that later I used for writing and directing.

Then what happened was that when I was 17 I was too scared to study film because I grew up in a society where being a filmmaker seems like a big risk to take and everyone makes you question it. I think I wasn’t strong enough to do that then so I went to the second best thing for me which was architecture because that’s what my parents were and I thought if I’m going to do something before following my dreams then let it be something I like. So I entered a 5-year program in the architecture school and, of course, I used to escape certain architecture classes to go to film classes and those years in architecture school confirmed to me how much I wanted to be a filmmaker. On one side I was learning a lot, but on the other side I was frustrated not to be doing what I wanted to be doing, so I kind of adapted my way of experiencing those years by telling myself – Okay I know I will do film later so how can I use architecture studies for what ultimately will be my film studies?

FM: That’s great. I do think that the architect in you shows in your use of space and light and I’m looking forward to hearing about  your directing a little later and how that has influenced it. Can you tell us how many shorts you did before you decided to shoot your first feature and how did you know you were ready for it?

MA: When I was in architecture school I did my first short film. Obviously, I knew nothing about film so me and a friend of mine, Cyril Aris, did this short together which was a cheesy, clumsy homage to Amelie Poulain where we acted, did the sound and wrote. We did it with a VHS camera and that was my first way of playing with film without knowing anything about it. In a very strange way, that short film launched a lot of things for him and I. But then later, when I understood who I wanted to be, I did another short and then another one and then at Columbia University I did two more shorts. I think I did around six shorts and then the short that really opened up a lot of doors inside of me was Submarine which was my thesis short from Columbia. 

By this point, I had felt that the person I was at that moment was not present in any of the previous work that I had done so I had this anxiety and this frustration that I hadn’t done anything that I was really proud of, that represented who I am, because I am the type of person that is sometimes very in touch with her emotions and other times there’s an ocean between myself and I. I take a lot of time to digest, so I was feeling frustrated that I couldn’t find my current mind in the work I had done. Therefore, I put all of that frustration in the writing of this short film, Submarine, which in many ways became a link to Costa Brava, Lebanon because it was a short that served almost like a business card for it. It’s a short that attracted certain people that became part of the Costa Brava journey. It explored similar themes and it also explored a certain language I’m interested in which is how to try to put the magic that comes from our daydreams and our secret subjectivity into images. Something which is always much better done in magical realism literature than in cinema, but I wanted to try to challenge that. So I would say Submarine was what gave me the courage to venture into my first feature, but you never know if you’re ready for anything. I think I was just driven by the desire to tell the story and maybe now, a year later, when I think about it, I thought I was invincible, but no one is and that’s how we learn. So all of the things that I feel like I “failed in” with Costa Brava are the things that I will attack first in my second feature.

FM: You co-wrote the script with Clara Roquet. Another amazing writer and director. Can you please tell us about the process of co-writing this script and how many drafts did you write?

MA: First of all, the way Clara and I came into each other’s lives was in film school. I remember that Clara and my friend Cyril met by trying to skip a queue so that’s when they understood they’re both Mediterranean (laughs) and that’s how Clara came into my life; through my friend who was also from Lebanon. I think the most important thing for me when looking for a collaborator is to know if we vibrate the same energy or if we see life in a similar way somehow and, humanly, I found something that really attracted me to her and vice versa.

Mounia Akl with co-writer Clara Roquet on set

Then when I read her scripts I understood on a more intellectual level why she and I connected. Partly because we had gone through similar things as people. We had in common some of those little events that start shaping you as a person. So that was the first moment where I understood that I wanted to create something with her. We wrote a short film together at Columbia, then we co-wrote Submarine when I went to her with the idea and then, naturally, because Submarine was a link to Costa Brava, it was logical for Clara to be the co-writer.

I went to her with a general pitch of the story and then she joined in and we started. There were never four hands writing, we both need silence and time alone to write so the time we would spend together would be brainstorming and outlining. Then I’d be like – I want to write those scenes – and then she’d be okay and then I’d send them to her, she’d rewrite them and then she would continue. We each wanted time alone with the scenes so the time together was mostly outlining and giving each other feedback. We wrote a lot of drafts. We didn’t write full time for 3 years, we actually did other stuff in between so we would try to find moments where we would isolate together and write. 

One thing we did that I thought was interesting as we were trying to find our protagonist was that we wrote different drafts, each from the perspective of each character in this family, until the day we got to the conclusion that we wanted it to be a multi-protagonist story because we didn’t want to sacrifice certain things that we would need to sacrifice if we would commit to one character. That was a big challenge for me, though, because I had never made anything that wasn’t about one character. In my directing, I was always used to following one person in a radical way. But I was very attached to each of the characters so I didn’t want to sacrifice any of the moments with each one. I will say, though, that Rim, the 8-year-old kid, who is played by twins in the film, was a character that always started the story. When I was seven, an event happened to me in my life that makes me feel like there’s a 7-year-old trapped inside my body because of it. So I think that I really projected onto this character because she’s at that age where she has no filter, where all of her emotions are out there whether it’s her wonder, her sense of magic, her anxiety –  it’s all out there so she allowed me to write certain things that I may be more timid about otherwise.

FM:  That’s beautiful. It’s such an honest portrayal of family dynamics and my next question was going to be how does the story come to life and where is it coming from? You kind of answered that with Rim – she was the gateway for the rest of the family, is that right?

MA: Yes, definitely. We said – Okay, it’s a multi-protagonist, but this kid is carrying the main mission of the film, it’s her journey. The films that I watch that really make me feel empowered are those where I can see some sort of transformation even if it’s almost invisible. In the case of this film, I wanted it to be about this girl breaking free from the borders of denial and, maybe of privilege, that had been defined for her. This girl is saying – You know what? I want to go into this world that I have been sheltered from and I want to stop trying to be the person who’s trying to please everyone. That’s also something that she shares with her sister Tala, the teenager whose lack of self-worth leads to her being a people pleaser and who, thanks to the garbage arriving, finds that secret space in which she can break free from what feels like an open air prison for her.

Still from Costa Brava, Lebanon

FM: Yeah, that last moment when Rim decides to go and leave her father behind is really unexpected because of the relationship, but at the same time it is her way of breaking free, as you said. And because of the character that you constructed it is also inevitable in some way because she is her own person and inside she’s free and now she’s going to go and be free outside.

In order to make this film you’ve gone through a lot of workshops and labs. I know between them there’s Sundance and the Cinéfondation Residence. Can you please tell us a little bit about these experiences and how and if they were helpful for you as you are developing your film?

MA: Some of them were extremely helpful because they allowed me to stop time and stop worrying about the rest of things in order to focus on the development of the story. For example, the Cinéfondation Residence was just six months in the beautiful home of the Cannes Film Festival in Paris with no mentorship or anything, it’s really just time to focus in this beautiful space, with beautiful filmmakers that you live with for the six months. 

Then there’s the whole opposite of that with the Sundance lab which was an intensive month in the Sundance mountain where you choose 4 scenes from the script and you workshop them. You shot list them, you direct them with actors from there or you can potentially bring an actor. I brought with me Saleh Bakri, who plays the father, because I knew I wanted him to be the father, but we didn’t really have a relationship yet, except for mutual respect. So it was great for him to join me there and for us to live a moment together that totally confirmed he should be the father. It was an intensive one month where every week I would shoot, direct, and edit with great people there. This felt so free because there were no stakes, no one will ever see those scenes. It’s just me playing with film language and experimenting. It’s a feeling that I wish I had kept up until the shoot, but then on the shoot there’s money, there’s a team, there’s stakes. There’s a day you need to finish by. I felt that I was more free with myself when I had no stakes and that’s the challenge for my next film – how to feel like a kid again without worrying so much about the stakes that surround the project. 

Every week there would be new mentors that would come and react without imposing anything, just react and have chats with us. The mentors that were there were people that have remained friends until now and they’re people that had done things that I had a lot of respect for. For example Dylan Tichenor, who edited films that I love like Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights, Magnolia or Brokeback Mountain, actors like Ed Harris. Ilyse McKimmie’s and Michelle Satter’s presence and the way they nurtured the fellows really gave us a space where we could create and play with film language with no stakes. We could workshop our own film before having to go out into the world and do it. It was a month on a beautiful mountain away from the world and that made me aware of the importance of taking care of yourself mentally in order to be able to create better.

And then there was the Torino Film Lab which was also helpful for my producer because not only the pitch award that we won was money that went into the production, but also allowed us to make important connections. In the Torino Film Lab you have a session with each member from one field, so Peter Albrechtsen was the sound person that we spoke to about the script, Cristian Mungiu was the director one, and later when we locked a co-production with Denmark and we got money from Denmark, we went back to Peter Albrechtsen who ended up being the person who did the mix. He knew of the script already and he had a relationship with it. 

So basically these different workshops each brought something and that was great for my producers and I. However, at some point it was too much for me. I understand that this is important. This is the first feature and every one of these encounters, names and workshops help for the financing, but when you’ve gone through a lot of workshops that helped you a lot you get to a point where you feel you need to spend time with yourself and the script. At the same time, Lebanon doesn’t have financing for film. For this reason, we need to do all these things in order to secure financing so I wouldn’t have done it any other way, but I hope that I don’t have to do it again in that way all the time.

FM: From inception to completion, how long did this project take you?

MA: In 2016, when I traveled to festivals with Submarine I started thinking about the story. Honestly, I don’t remember, but I would say that I wrote the first treatment of the film in 2017 and then applied to things with the treatment. Once the producers came onboard, on and off it was from 2017 to 2020. In 2020 we shot, we wrapped a day before new years and then we premiered in September, 2021. Maybe five years in total.

FM: How did you pay your bills while you were working on your feature?

MA: So it’s five years, but of course, it’s on and off. Those five years include the fact that we had to push the shoot by one year because of everything that happened in Lebanon. It involves two years of on and off writing. A lab here, a lab there. The Sundance lab, for example, supported the fellows. They gave us a grant. The producer created a budget and it involved money for the writing, so every time we would win an award from development it would go to Clara and I until we completed the writing budget. Then there’s the directing salary and the salary during post. 

Then, outside of that, the way I’m living my life in parallel is through sometimes working with brands. I sometimes make fashion films. For example, recently with Dior or with Elie Saab and Sandra Mansour. These are projects that I like because I have full creative freedom and it’s a collaboration with another artist so it’s not like a booklet of what I need to shoot. It doesn’t feel like a money job, but it is. It’s a good way to exercise our creative muscles and have creative freedom, but also doing something commercial. I don’t do that all the time, but that’s one way and then there’s other projects that I’m working on like commercials and things like that. 

Also other ways like working for TV, doing episodic, the other project that I’m developing which is my second feature, collaborations with architects and other fashion designers and then there’s master classes and teaching. So these, I think, are general ways that money could be made.

FM: Can you tell us a little bit about the commercials that you’ve directed? The directing commercial world is a little bit of a bubble. How did you get started there because it’s the chicken and the egg with commercials – you have to have directed a commercial so that the client trusts you with their commercial.

MA: I don’t do a ton of commercials, but it’s funny because my bridge to that world was through my sister. She went to school in Lebanon with a girl called Sandra Mansour who was that young person who was drawing all the time in school and she drew really well. Then later, she became a fashion designer, but what’s great about Sandra is that she’s the kind of person that enters the room and wants to be invisible. She’s in her jeans or t-shirt and she’s the opposite of her designs which are full of magic and dreams. They’re like works of art. And because she’s friends with my sister, she designed her wedding dress so I went with my sister to Sandra while she was drawing it for her friend and Sandra told me that she was fascinated with cinema and that she liked a couple of things I had done. One of them was a short that I had done in New York and another one was Submarine which, ironically, features so much trash that it was almost hard for me to understand what drew her to it. (Laughs) But then I understood that what drew her to it was that we both share a fascination for surrealism in literature, in art and in poetry. I saw her mood board and it had nothing related to fashion. It was really all the sources of inspiration that I had. She told me her dream was to one day collaborate with a filmmaker and create visual images, and she told me that her next collection was about the power of dreams and of the subconscious and the strength it gives us to create. I told her that that was something that interested me as well so she and I, very naturally, decided to make a film together called 11 Minutes, which was eleven dreams. And it was the most organic creative process because I would just sit looking out the window, have an idea and write it down. I would have a dream, wake up and write it down. I would look at a painting of Magritte or a text from Breton… Suddenly I wrote like twenty little dreams, sat with her, we selected eleven, she designed dresses for those dreams and we just shot them. 11 Minutes became what brought me to the fashion world because later, others came to me after they had seen it and were drawn to it.  I did fashion films for her again and then for Elie Saab, who is an internationally acclaimed Lebanese designer. Elie and I collaborated on two films which was also really interesting because it’s another vision so it’s very playful as you’re collaborating with another artist; it’s another version of you, somehow. 

Then my producers who represent me for brand films in France, who are called Womanray, contacted me after they saw those works and Submarine and they said that they are cinephiles who work for brands. They told me they represent film directors who sometimes want to venture into films for brands and that’s how they started representing me. With them we did the film for Christian Dior and then we’re doing another film in Paris next month. So this was my way into the fashion world.

Now, I didn’t do many commercials, but I started in Lebanon because people who had worked with me who also worked in advertising – producers and production managers in Lebanon sometimes do both –  contacted me. So it was human relationships and knowing each other from the industry. A person says – You know what? I think I want to trust her with this commercial because we need a commercial that’s not typical. So this is how it started and I did a few, but most of the time I said no because I try to look for the ones in which I can also learn and where I can meet people that I can build a relationship with for upcoming projects. For example, when I worked in Paris on the Dior film, I wanted to work with an assistant director that I knew I wanted to work with on a film. I try to use those in a way that can serve me in my own passion as well.

FM: That’s really smart and I’m sure the agency that represents you has a really interesting roster of directors. Going back to Costa Brava, Lebanon, could you please share with us what was the budget of the film and how did you get together your financing? We’ve discussed some grants, but were there other components?

My producers at Abbout worked really hard to finance this film, I owe them a lot. I think the budget was about $1.2 million, but I’m not sure, I have to check with Myriam. Basically, the financing was very complicated because, again, we don’t have big funding from Lebanon so we have to go and search for that money elsewhere. It was a co-production with France. We got money from France which allowed us to pay part of the sound, to work with VFX companies here like BUF and MIKROS, who were supervised by Peter Hjorth from Denmark, who was paid by the Danish grant. There was a co-production with Norway, we got money from the Sørfond that has money for minority countries. There was a co-production with Denmark that allowed us to hire three people from Denmark, production design, sound mix and visual effects. We had a co-production with Sweden that allowed us to pay for a few things like the SFX and the music. Every co-production came with certain conditions. There was one with Spain that allowed us to do the grading and the editing there. So each of these co-productions allowed us to create a certain part of the crew and then there were grants like for example DFI and AFAC from the Arab world that supported us. There was also MG from MK2 and also equity and money that came from our US partners, for example, Abbout Pictures and also Participant Media. I’m not the best person to talk about this, but this is basically a complex structure and it made it complicated for the producers to create the financial plan, but it was the only way at a moment where even some of our money got stuck in the banks because of the economic collapse and the bank crisis that started while we were in pre-production. Money lost its worth so the producers had to scrape for more money. 

On set for Costa Brava, Lebanon

FM: You had worked with Myriam Sassine before and it was your first time working with George Schoucair, right? How did you decide that you wanted to work with Myriam again and how did George come along? It sounds like they put a great plan together, can you tell us about your experience?

MA: Myriam and George watched Submarine in Cannes. They had their film Tramontane screening in Semaine de la Critique and Submarine was screening in the Cinéfondation. So as part of the film industry from Lebanon, we got to know each other. There was a Lebanese party that included those two films and a film by Wissam Charaf. The Lebanese film industry supported each other during this festival and I met with them. Myriam knew of my work from a TV show I did when I was younger and was just trying to learn cinema by making films. She liked Submarine so she asked me what I was working on and I told her about the feature. She told me she was interested in talking about it more through the company of Abbout and that’s where our relationship started. Then when the Factory of the Director’s Fortnight chose Lebanon as a country, I was one of the directors who co-directed a film for it and Abbout were the producers for the four short films so I got to test our collaboration on a short film. Then later, after that collaboration was successful, we decided to indirectly sign together. So when I went to Cannes during the Factory, they and I started doing meetings together trying to meet the future partners of Costa Brava, Lebanon.

FM: Let’s talk a little bit about the cast. Your cast is wonderful. You have established actors, you have non-actors, you even have one of your protagonists who is actually a director. Can you please tell us what was the experience of working, for example, with somebody like Nadine Labaki and how did that influence the dynamics in your actors? I am especially interested in the twins that played Rim. They interpret this character that we discussed before, so full of hopes and fears and also her own anxiety. I recognize in her traits of what you can call obsessive compulsive thinking, right?

MA: Yes, yes. I thought of one of your shorts now. You had a character who constantly had a helmet, right?

FM: Yes I did and I smiled when I saw that bit. Rim is such a well-rounded character and I really connected with the depiction of her anxiety. How did you manage to work that character with them and also what is the process of working with twins? How do you have that emotional continuity?

MA: It was an interesting cast because it was mixed. I had to adapt my directing with the actors in five different ways. For example, I had a grandmother who had never acted before. She’s the mother of a friend, a wonderful woman. I had Saleh Bakri, who is a known actor and has worked a lot in theater and in films. I had Nadine Labaki who is a director that sometimes acts and has acted a lot, obviously, and who’s really used to being on set. I had a teenager played by Nadia Charbel who had never done a feature film before, she was from the TV world. I had François who played Tarek who is not an actor, he’s an environmental activist. And then there were the twins who were kids who had never been on set before and who were both playing one role. 

One of my favorite things to do as a director is to work with actors because I feel like it’s where I can do some of the things that I enjoy doing the most in life. I’m a very maternal person so it felt natural to change my way of communicating to each actor because I understood that each of these people had different needs and desires from playing their roles.

Mounia Akl with her actors on set

For example, with the kids it’s often through playing games and getting them to disconnect from the idea that they’re performing and getting them to just be themselves. In fact, the twins fell in love with Saleh Bakri so what you see in their eyes is real. I just decided to sit and watch it and forget that I’m a director who’s trying to create cool frames. Sometimes I was just telling my DP, let’s just keep rolling and let’s just follow what they’re giving us and stop worrying about our intelligent shots because what she’s giving us is more interesting. You shouldn’t trap a kid that is full of energy into a certain frame. When you can, because the frame says something, it is good to do the effort, but other times you will lose something.

Mounia Akl and Ceana Restom on set

And how did I cast the twins? Okay, so I had a really hard time finding this kid. I wanted her to be a bit like the copy paste of her father. In my wildest dreams, I would find someone with blue eyes, but I told the casting directors Abla, Sabine and Ayman – If we find an amazing kid that has black eyes, it’s okay, but let’s try. And one day, they showed me a video of this kid, that after seeing a hundred kids, I felt completely in love with because she had this wild energy. She felt like no one could control her, she felt so free. So I said – Oh my God, it’s her. And she had these blue, blue, blue eyes and I said – Please bring her, I think it’s her, I felt something that I rarely feel. And they said –  Okay we’ll bring her, but actually there’s a funny thing, there’s two of them, they’re twins. I said – Okay, bring both, who knows, maybe one of them will be great and we’ll cast her and then it will be hard to say no to the other. So both of them came into the office and at that moment, with everything that had happened in Lebanon, the office was full of creativity and energy, but we were all a little bit down. We were very triggered by sounds, you could feel it was an office trying to be creative, but there was a lot of trauma in it and those two girls entered and really brought so much light into the room. They kept telling stories, they were full of energy, full of light and we all stopped everything and just sat with them and listened to them. Then I realized that both of them were great and I found myself a little bit confused because I have never done that and we rarely do that in Lebanon. I know that it’s very practical to hire twins for a role of a kid, but that was never the plan. Both of them were so interesting to me, so I thought – Well I’m not going to make a choice. Ceana, one of them, feels like this old soul trapped in the body of a 7-year-old and Geana feels like a person that’s completely in touch with her freedom, her body, her masculine side and those are both things that belong to the character, so I very naturally divided the script between their personalities and I didn’t intellectualize that at all. It just happened in a very natural way and, on top of that, it was extremely practical because I could shoot more.

Mounia Akl with Ceana and Geana Restom

FM: How many shoot days did you have? Any reshoots?

MA: We had 35 or 36 days of shoot and I had a secret day of reshoot that I did without telling anyone where I re-shooted the ending.

FM: How did you manage to do that?!

MA: You know when we were kids and our parents told us not to do something and we found creative ways to do it? What happened to me is that I knew there was no money left to do any reshoots. I had a lot of compassion for what my producers had gone through and I knew that if they could they would. And then, when I was editing in Barcelona, initially the movie ended in the revolution and the protests. But at that moment, in my mind and heart I felt like that ending would feel too naive because that was no longer where I was. I felt like it would be a dishonest ending and I felt like the movie should end with the character we started with and the rest should be off screen. The movie ended with this two shot of them in the car and I had gotten rid of the other ending we had shot. The post process was very fast and didn’t allow me a lot of time for perspective, which, of course, I regret and I’ve learned from. So what happened is that when we went back to Barcelona for the grading I was with the cinematographer and I watched the film once it was graded. The colors and the grain gave a whole other meaning to the film because it was starting to look how I had imagined it, getting closer to the dustiness that starts pervading in the end. All of that put me in a certain state of mind that allowed me to gain perspective. I told Joe, the DP – I just wish that we could end on Rim’s face, we’re just with her as the car drives, and drives and drives towards the unknown. Then suddenly, we hear the voice of her mother as she’s heading to Beirut and we’re trapped in this car with her as she’s wondering if it’s better to give up or not. She’s developing this fear and excitement about the world she’s about to enter which is the one that she’s been protected from. I told him this and I said it would be just one shot of her and I described the shot and then Joe was like – Let’s just do it. I was like – How? There’s no way. We locked the cut. And he said – I can call Pauline. Pauline was his assistant for a very long time and is also a  really talented DP. He said – You FaceTime every two days with the twins, you’re practically their aunt now, you can ask their mom, who is also your friend, if she can do that. I can ask my brother to go with the car to their house and you can talk to Beatrice and Larry, who are in the costume department, and they can just drop the costume. And I said – Ok, but what about her bangs? Because they didn’t have bangs, we cut them. And he said – We’ll just ask them if she’s willing to cut it again. So we called everyone and everyone said yes and we did a Zoom call where me and Joe were in Barcelona, he was directing Pauline, I was directing the kid and his brother was driving the car. We got the camera from someone who gave it to us for free because they understood what we were doing and we did it. It was a two hour shoot and then I put it in the cut and sent it to the producers. They were like – Why did you never use this? It’s such a great shot, it’s a much better ending and I told them and everyone was like – We are glad you didn’t tell us, we love it!

FM: That’s such a great story! I hope that kind of spirit is actually something you can carry throughout the rest of your films. Those are the things that make you a resourceful filmmaker. 

Now, your DP. You’ve worked with Joe Saade before and I just think that the language and the use of light and space in this film is really beautiful. You’re able to incorporate those magical realism elements in a way that is very subtle and organic and I wanted you to tell us a little bit about your collaboration to make the language of this film and how your background as an architect has influenced this if it has.

Yes, so Joe and I worked together on Submarine for the first time. Submarine was such an important chapter in my filmmaking journey because of the team I made it with: a mix of friends from New York, but also mostly a Lebanese team that I had started with when I was younger. I felt like, thanks to Joe, I was able to discover a certain aspect of myself as a filmmaker so it was very important for me that he would be part of the journey of the feature because the feature was connected to that short. Him and I understood each other without having to speak much and he became not just the cinematographer of the film, but my guardian angel. When everyone was so busy with their own thing and struggling – because people were struggling while we were making this film because of everything that was happening – I felt like he became a pillar for me, on a human level, and for that I am very grateful. 

We thought about the moments of magical realism by asking ourselves how we can incorporate them in a way that feels seamless like we did in Submarine. Where you wonder as an audience – Is that actually happening or is that a moment that steps away from reality? I think when we daydream as human beings or when we have dreams there’s no real separation between the moment of the dream and the moment of reality, they’re merged. I can be in this room and escape elsewhere. I wanted to blur the lines between past, present, subjectivity, and reality, so that’s why we conceptualized them in a way that the transition from reality to dream was seamless.

In terms of the space, I designed the house before designing anything else because I wanted to tell the story of these characters through the spaces. Actually with Issa, Thomas and Hanadi, the production designers, and with Beatrice who designed the costumes, we really associated every element of the wardrobe or of the house with a character. For example, with the costumes we thought – This is a family that is living in isolation from the world, it’s been eight years so obviously they don’t go shopping anymore. Also, Rim is obsessed with her father, so we created a system in which they rotate clothes and the kid often wears her father’s clothes. By the end of the film, the father even wears his wife’s shirt and the teenager who’s obsessed with her mom starts to wear her clothes. It was a rotating wardrobe that was establishing them as characters that would have a circular economy, but also who are drawn and have both communication and lack of it with each other.

What architecture school allowed me to understand is that every line you draw defines relationships and society. Every wall means something, whether it’s in urban planning or in architecture, and you can tell an audience everything about a character with no dialogue, just through the space that surrounds him.You can tell a lot through the objects that surround him, through the colors that surround him, through the weather and so that’s what architecture school gave me. It made me aware that both architecture and cinema are like a mise-en-scene of life. So how can I give information about the story and the character through the walls that surround those characters? In fact, that’s how we structured the whole invasion as well. In the beginning of the film, we feel like everything is open, colorful and they are in harmony with nature. Later, it’s a feeling of an open air prison where the blue and the dust of the garbage takes over and the space becomes tighter. A lot of people told me that by the middle of the film they really felt like it smelled bad and they were trapped and I think that’s partly because of that. 

FM: We’ve discussed the different challenges you found because of the space where you filmed, which was Lebanon right after the explosions, and how that affected the production. But I also wanted to ask, did you find any obstacles specifically as a female director shooting this feature and if so, how did you overcome them?

MA: On set I would say that a lot of people from the Lebanese industry are against the system of the patriarchy so I I feel lucky that a lot of the men and women that I’ve worked with are people who are fighting against a certain system that is the one that took away so many rights or never gave any rights to women. However, later, in other areas, I was able to understand, on a personal level, how much that system is ingrained into everything. Even in certain women, not just men. Both women and men are victims of it. There were obstacles, yes. I do feel like later, after the shoot, I understood how certain men can be really harmful and that we’ve got so used to certain things that we don’t realize until we have time to process it. But I do feel supported by women and men in the community that are fighting against that. It’s kind of a push and pull between those energies and ultimately things will change.

I think that I didn’t feel the obstacles that are related to that while I was in the shoot because of what I told you about the industry, and also because the obstacles were really larger than life around that time. We were dealing with the grief and the loss of a country because of the corrupt criminal political class that’s holding Lebanese people hostage and, of course, the pandemic, and the economic collapse. So all of these things brought the team to a place where we all shared a similar pain and that was our common obstacle together. And, of course, the fact that when you are put under pressure, which is what we were all put under, then every person is very vulnerable and that’s sometimes overwhelming because everyone around you is hyper sensitive, including yourself, and other times it’s very human.

The cast and crew of Costa Brava, Lebanon

FM: What was your favorite moment during the shoot?

MA: I think there’s not one great moment, just a lot of sweet little moments. For example, seeing the mother of the twins behind the monitor with me being really moved to see something in her children she didn’t know existed. That moved me quite a lot, but also just being behind the monitor and seeing those characters that I have dreamed about for so long come to life. It’s always special, I’m like a child behind the monitor when I see an image come to life; it’s so powerful.

Still from Costa Brava, Lebanon

FM: Having gone through the whole experience of making the feature, if you could go back in time and just give one piece of advice to yourself to make it an easier experience, or a better experience… Just one thing you wish you knew before, what would that be?

To take one month completely off from the world and dive into just watching movies, reading books, discussing with the cinematographer, disconnect from everything else. Not just with the cinematographer, with the artistic team. Try to isolate with the artistic team so that every idea has been thought of and it’s not rushed and it’s really rooted in something deep. Give yourself space, and time and silence to prepare.

My biggest regret, though, is to not have spent more time in between edits. I would have loved to edit for two months, stop for a month, continue editing. Rushing the post process made me aware of how much I need time to digest certain things and I think it would have been great for me to offer myself these times where I can regain perspective before finalizing something.

FM: Finally, what’s next, what are you working on right now?

MA: I’m working on a feature film script that is set in part in the US and I’m also developing a TV show that’s at the early stage. In parallel, I’ve been reading scripts whether it’s TV or features that have been sent to me. It’s always harder to find something that your heart beats to when you have specific themes and subjects you want to explore, but I’ve been on the lookout for books, scripts. I’m kind of in this sponge face again where I want to watch things, read things, meet people. So this is what I’ve been doing, but the story that’s been burning the most in my stomach right now is the one of the second feature so I want to give myself time to get to it.

FM: I cannot wait to see that second feature. Thank you again so much, Mounia, for talking to us this morning. I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure people are going to find this very very helpful. I wish you all the success with all of your projects, always. 

For everyone, Costa Brava, Lebanon is still on the festival circuit. Where is it going to be showing next?

MA: In San Francisco at the end of April: the 24th and 29th. In Barcelona: May 30th. And in France it’s coming out in cinemas at the end of June and then we’ll see for the rest, I’ll let you know.

FM: Exciting! You can find all the information on the film on its website so you can hopefully catch it somewhere. It’s really magic. Thanks again, Mounia.

MA: Thank you, Thais.

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