Lebanese director Mounia Akl’s long-gestating first feature, “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” which screens in Venice Horizons, is about her relationship with Beirut and Lebanon “and the complexity of this love/hate relationship that is becoming more and more complicated as our country is falling apart,” she says.
The country’s complications came literally crashing into the pic’s production when Beirut, on Aug. 4, 2020, was devastated by one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded. It left hundreds dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. It also took place during a “Costa Brava” pre-production meeting.
“Our cinematographer [Joe Saade] almost lost his eye, the office was completely destroyed and we walked out knowing that our whole city was destroyed,” she recounts.
Two months later, the “Costa Brava” team decided to go ahead and shoot despite the blast, and also despite the pandemic and Lebanon’s economic collapse, which had depreciated the value of their funding.
“We felt that creatively this was a mission we had,” says Akl. “It was something I was almost protecting myself with, with the adrenaline. And, as a director, I was keeping the ship from sinking.”
Lead-produced by Georges Schoucair and Myriam Sassine at Beirut-based Abbout Prods., “Costa Brava” pairs Lebanese star and filmmaker Nadine Labaki (“Capernaum”) and Palestinian actor Saleh Bakri (“The Band’s Visit”). They play a couple who have left Beirut with their children for an idyllic, isolated life in the Lebanese mountains, until one day the government decides to build a garbage landfill right beside their house. As the trash rises, so do the tensions.
“You are shooting a movie with all these people that, like you, are experiencing the country falling apart,” Akl notes. “Everyone was more vulnerable than usual, so it kind of spoke to the theme of the film, which is this pressure that comes from the outside.”
“Costa Brava” segues from Akl’s acclaimed 2015 short “Submarine,” about Lebanon’s 2015 garbage crisis and the corruption behind it “which was a great metaphor to talk about everything that’s wrong with the country.”
“Submarine” was in the official selection of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (Cinéfondation) and also played in Toronto and Dubai, where it won a prize.
In 2017, a short titled “El Gran Libano” that Akl co-wrote and co-directed with Costa Rican director Neto Villalobos, opened the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.
Besides delving into her rapport with Lebanon, another theme that she has always been passionate about is family dynamics. “How the structure of a family often mirrors the one of a society,” Akl points out.
Originally, the “Costa Brava” screenplay –– co-written with Spanish filmmaker Clara Roquet (“Libertad”) whom Akl met while studying film at Columbia University in New York –– set the story in a dystopian 2030.
But because the pic’s opening shot is set in the Beirut port –– it’s a shot of a statue leaving the port –– she knew that this image would conjure up memories of the explosion. So Akl decided that “Costa Brava” would be set in the present “because reality has caught up with us.”
Before the start of the “Costa Brava” shoot, Participant Media came on board, teaming up with French sales agent MK2 Films and Endeavor Content to represent its worldwide distribution rights. After bowing in Venice, the film will segue to Toronto.
Meanwhile, Akl and Clara Roquet have been developing a TV show about four women who are displaced from their cities. Akl is also developing her second feature, which is set in the U.S. with a Lebanese character as its protagonist.