Mounia Akl’s ‘Costa Brava, Lebanon’ Is Both Personal and Universal

Set in the near future, one family’s quest to live a peaceful life outside of Beirut is interrupted after the garbage from which they are escaping ends up in their backyard, literally, in Lebanese filmmaker Mounia Akl’s feature debut “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” a striking drama focused on the troubles in a specific part of the world while exploring universal themes. Nadine Labaki stars alongside Saleh Bakri as Soraya and Walid, a married couple who have built an idyllic home in which to raise their two daughters in the mountains looking over the city, only to have the government show up to build a landfill on their property. This intrusion is a result of the garbage crisis in Lebanon that started in 2015, the latest setback in the country to cause unrest and migration. 

Once upon a time, Soraya and Walid lived very different lives from the one they are living together when they are introduced. Soraya was a major pop singer when she met activist Walid at a protest during a moment in her life in which she was feeling restless. They went on to marry and have a daughter, Tala (Nadia Charbel), now 17. They left Beirut after she almost died from pneumonia and had another daughter, Rim (played by twins Ceana and Geana Restom), now nine, who has never known another life. Living with them is Zeina (talented non-actress Liliane Chacar Khoury), Walid’s mother, who spends quality time with her family after a lifetime of working. Walid and Soraya built their home on property owned by his sister, Alia (Yumma Marwan), who now lives and works in Colombia and represents all the Lebanese expats in the world, but none of them have the power to stop the construction and piling of garbage from happening in their backyard.

“I think it was two things,” Akl told Entertainment Voice when asked what inspired her to tell this particular story. “One is my desire to talk about family, which I think is where so much of what I learned and understand about people comes from. The second one is my desire to talk about my relationship to my home, Lebanon, through the garbage crisis, which, in itself, was a great allegory for everything that’s wrong about the country.”

Akl, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clara Roquet, not only set up an interesting family dynamic, but put a piece of herself in every character, starting with Soraya, who finds it increasingly difficult to suppress her true self for the sake of her recluse husband, especially after one of the government workers, Tarek (François Nour), recognizes her from her superstar days. Tala, who never even had access to the internet until Zeina, who is way more mischievous than either of her granddaughters could even be, smuggles in a smartphone, similarly feels a yearning for the outside world. This is a large part due to her budding sexuality, and she develops a crush on handsome Tarek.

“The mother and her nostalgia and her broken heart for the city, I relate to,” said Akl. “I relate to the grandmother with her regrets as a workaholic. I have regrets that I’m not living life enough. Tala and her teenage angst and her desire to escape from to a space where she can be free, that, of course, I can relate to.”

There is a pivotal scene in the final third of the film involving Tala and her quest to take ownership of her sexuality. She sneaks out of the house late at night to visit Tarek in the trailer from which he is guarding the site, and there she makes her move. It is an uneasy scene to watch unfold due to the age difference between them (he’s about mid-twenties. Akl opened up about the making of it.

“The first take is the take that is in the movie, because the discomfort was really there, the type of discomfort the three of us were trying to create… Of course, there was a lot of care and tenderness between them and I, and we just spoke a lot about it and then just went for it and shot it. She knew what she wanted and she wanted to just, as a character, gain agency and be in a position of power that she has never been in.” 

On the flipside, there’s Walid, who clings to his isolated existence, even going as far as to tamper with the government equipment. Rim is his little soldier, and although it seems like she has plenty of room to roam around outside and is happy until the government shows up, she is actually a victim of generational trauma passed down from her father. Akl put so much care into the writing of this character, and the young sister actresses do a wonderful job of bringing her to life. Rim’s trauma has led to OCD which manifests itself through a habit she has of counting to 44 when she is confronted with something troubling. The filmmaker revealed that this actually came from her own life, explaining that she saw Rim as her alter ego when she first started writing. 

“When I was younger, I had to deal with a big traumatic event in my life. I had a whole year where I had OCD. That was me basically understanding that I had no control over anything. That event completely altered my whole reality. So what happened was that in my body and my mind, that anxiety manifested into OCD, which was counting. It was my way to have a sense that I could control things.”

She went on to speak about Walid, whose desire to keep isolating his family comes across as increasingly unhealthy. However, he is a character who deserves our sympathy, although it is somewhat difficult for those from outside Lebanon to grasp this at first.

Akl explained, “As a person who went through the August 4th explosion and almost died with the whole team, I completely relate to the father’s fear of the city and anger with the city and desire to control everything as reality keeps being changed. I think that’s one thing about being Lebanese that is shared with all the characters, is that we are used to living in a place where at any moment, our reality can change completely, which for the world was something like Covid, for example, put us in a state of anxiety.”

Akl is referring to the explosion that took place in Beirut on August 4, 2020, a result of government neglect, that killed 218 people and injured thousands more. At the time, Akl and her team were in a pre-production meeting, as the film was finally greenlit after a long process the day before. She opened up about the horror of that moment and its aftermath. While many would have thrown in the towel at that point, she and her team persevered and made this brilliant work.

“We went from a creative meeting to being [covered with] blood and wondering if this has killed any of us in the room. Suddenly, our whole reality was changed. I think I left a part of myself in that broken office. All of us feel like there’s a before and after that day. Pushing through and making the film was for some of us, an act of resistance. For others, it was an act of denial, because we didn’t want to face the loss, so we just needed a reason to wake up in the morning. And for others, it was a need to be surrounded by your film colleagues and tell a story together.”

“Costa Brava, Lebanon” delivers an urgent message about protecting the environment, so it was important for Akl to practice what she was preaching. She collaborated with environmentalists to set up a green production, one of the first of its kind in the Middle East. And, most of the trash we see in the film was added through CGI in post production. She explained, “I’m not saying that films can change the world, but they can take little baby steps.”

Costa Brava, Lebanon” releases July 15 in New York and expands July 22 to select cities.