By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/13/21 – At the AFI Film Festival in Hollywood on Friday October 12 was a screening of Mounia Akl’s Costa Brava (Lebanon, 2021), a film about an off-the-grid Lebanese family impacted by the rubbish crisis that began in Lebanon in 2015. Costa Brava is a compelling fiction-feature debut Costa Brava is co-written by Akl and Spanish filmmaker Clara Roquet (El Adios), centered around a Lebanese couple who moved out of Beirut eight year before in the hope of living a pollution-free life in the mountains. Their seemingly utopian existence is destroyed, however, when the Lebanese government decrees that a landfill be built right next to their new home, bringing the city’s rubbish right to their doorstep. Suddenly, the Badri family face being torn apart as tensions rise in their household. Lebanon’s waste crisis actually began in 2015 when a huge landfill site closed and government authorities failed to implement a contingency plan in time to replace it; dumping and burning waste on the streets became widespread. The campaign group Human Rights Watch calls it “a national health crisis.” The involvement of international environmental organizations forced the government of Lebanon to find surprising and much-needed solutions in the face of slow political change.
Lebanese director Mounia Akl begins the film with the ominous arrival of a statue in the port of Beirut. It’s loaded onto a truck, then moved from the bustling city, where people shout curses as it passes by, to the mountainous countryside, where it will adorn the newly commissioned “green” landfill that just happens to be located next to the cloistered compound of the Badri family. Patriarch Walid (Saleh Bakri), burned out by the stress of a life of activism and protest, moved to this off-the-grid utopia eight years prior. His outspoken singer wife, Souraya (Capernaum writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki), joined him with their daughter, Tala (Nadia Charbel), who is now a teenager feeling all the usual adolescent stirrings, as well as Walid’s mother, Zeina (Liliane Chacar Khoury), who, though humbled by age and illness, is filled to brimming with pithy and pointed opinions. Walid and Souraya’s youngest, 9-year-old Rim (played by both Ceana and Geana Restom), is the only member of the clan who has known nothing but this idyllic existence, which the new, badly managed dump (let’s call it what it is) now threatens.
The trash of a country brought literally to the edge of their property in the mountains of Lebanon when this landfill dump was created by the government in its poorly-planned attempt to get the massive amount of garbage off the streets of Beirut. The metaphor is too obvious and overworked to the point of absurdity, and despite Akl’s confident directorial hand and her cast’s exceedingly natural rapport, it strains credulity. The real-life precedent for some of the narrative particulars are based on, in part, on Lebanon’s 2015 waste crisis, which mobilized many activists to address the garbage until a recent financial collapse and the worldwide COVID pandemic upended many of the gains and hopes. Still, in this fictional framework, the family dynamics are interesting although it seems that the political message is far too contrived. Nadine Labaki is excellent as the wife who was previously a successful singer in Beirut. Saleh Bakri as the patriarch Walid embodies the man-of-the-woods machismo, which breaks down the more the many women in his life assert the personal points of view that they’ve sacrificed so as to prop up his society-rejecting cravings.
The best scenes in Costa Brava reflect the characters’ internal longings and surreal fantasies – with a bit of magical realism. In one nighttime scene, Souraya (who pines for the bustle of city life) falls into a trance in a room that suddenly starts moving about like a locomotive. In another, Tala’s fascination for one of the landfill’s young male managers is visualized as a gently hazy erotic reverie, her legs, beaded with sweat, rubbing together beside the family’s makeshift pool, the water of which has turned blood-red because of underground pollution. Even Walid gets a beautifully poetic flight of fancy as, at his lowest emotional point, he imagines all the garbage bags in the landfill rising to the heavens like sky lanterns.
Mounia Akl divides her time between Lebanon and New York. She is an actress who starred in the TV series Beirut, I Love You, which she co-created and co-directed. She has also helmed a number of shorts, including the 2016 effort Submarine, also set around Lebanon’s waste crisis. After the screening of Costa Brava, there was an insightful Q&A with Mounia Akl via Zoom where she talked about making the film during the COVID pandemic and how she sees a bit of herself in each of the characters in the story.