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THESSALONIKI 2021

Review: Costa Brava, Lebanon

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- Debuting filmmaker Mounia Akl explores environmentalism in Lebanon through the lens of one defiant family, in this beautifully shot drama

Review: Costa Brava, Lebanon

A pulsing, overspilling landfill – it’s a vivid metaphor for environmental neglect run amok, until it’s literally seeping through your front door, the most unwelcome next-door neighbour in your cul-de-sac. The Bacri family – originally from Beirut’s upper-crust bourgeoisie – have upped sticks for the countryside to flee the city’s garbage problem, its mismanagement of waste and sewage marking a deeper civil unrest in Lebanon’s urban areas. But the powers that be have instituted a new landfill just a few feet away from their idyllic hovel, and in Costa Brava, Lebanon [+see also:
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, we observe the attendant pressure on these familial ties that bind. Debuting Lebanese director Mounia Akl, who received her filmmaking education in the USA, has founded a fresh, and definitely environmentally sustainable, new sub-genre with this “eco-family drama”, which premiered in Venice’s new Orizzonti Extra section, before a long autumn festival run, culminating in its appearance at Thessaloniki and the reaping of prestigious awards at BFI London, Montpellier's Cinemed, Seville and Geneva.

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Akl has vast prior experience in fashion visuals, architecture films and advertising, and this beneficially rubs off on her work in Costa Brava, Lebanon. Rather than prettifying or making light of an urgent topical issue in her home country, she uses her visual sense – especially her gifts with lush master-shot compositions – to create a world bravely trying to maintain its dignity. Even the colour scheme she chooses, with DoP Joe Saade, has an originality to it: she gives the exurban countryside the texture of an intricate heap of autumn leaves, dismally being engulfed by chipping industrial plastics. The screenplay, assisted by well-travelled Spanish scribe Clara Roquet, maps out convincing ethical dilemmas, but loses marks on plausibility and behavioural questions. For instance, although inspired by Beirut’s garbage crisis and the resulting protests in 2015, the setting is apparently a “near-future dystopia”, which many initial reviews of the film seem to have missed. Although well acted, a few decisions and remarks made by the characters make us squint and go: “Really?”

Walid (Saleh Bakri) and Souraya (decorated Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, bestowing a grace from an older filmmaking generation on the project) are one handsome couple – which makes sense because they actually were near-celebrities before they opted for their Thoreau-like next chapter: raising chickens, home-tutoring their two daughters and devising their own central heating. Walid was a newspaper journalist covering the crisis at its boiling point, and Souraya was a legendary singer of traditional Arabic music, lending her prestige to the popular response – the uncanny image of a celebrity activist on the front lines of a protest. But apparently, in this dystopian future, the garbage comes to find you, as the government has semi-legally built a new landfill, motivated as an election strategy, on the edge of their land. “Where shall we run to this time?” is Souraya’s remark, and in a not-plot-driven but still gripping manner, Akl uses her film to share in this long ponder.

Walid’s idealism belies a kind of brutishness, a patriarchal grip awkwardly linked to his environmental conscience, which keeps his wife and older daughter tied down and voiceless. The film grows into a feminist victory of empowerment, with Walid eventually as malign an influence as the garbage dumpers. What’s pessimistic – and wistful – about Costa Brava, Lebanon, especially in this time of COP26 and hopeful decarbonisation, is its resignation about the decline of our planet, and how we just have to hold each other close instead.

Costa Brava, Lebanon is a co-production between Lebanon, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Qatar, staged by Cinéma Defacto, Lastor Media, Fox in the Snow Films, Barentsfilm As, Snowglobe, Gaijin and Abbout Productions. mk2 films is its world sales agent.

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