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Interview with filmmaker Mounia Akl

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on May 7, 2016
This article was updated on November 1, 2017

By Olivia Snaije

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Mounia Akl's short film, Submarine, was chosen to be part of the Cannes 2016 Cinéfondation Selection, which supports new generations of filmmakers.

Set against the backdrop of Lebanon’s current garbage crisis and sociopolitical context and inspired by Mounia Akl’s own search about what it means to be Lebanese during times that appear surreal , Submarine examines the fear of having to leave one’s country and home. In an interview with Bookwitty, Akl describes her journey to Cannes and beyond.

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You came to film school by way of architecture--what was the catalyst for your decision to study film?

Before I started architecture, I had decided I wanted to make films, but I didn’t trust myself enough to take such a risk at the time. I decided to wait a little longer, and even though I had decided to go for a safety plan, I didn’t want to study something I didn’t like. I loved architecture, I grew up in a family of architects, and I appreciate architecture the way a film lover appreciates films. It’s actually my film loving father (an architect) who introduced me to cinema.

I don’t think there was one event that triggered my decision to make films. It was more a way of life as I was growing up. I was surrounded by artists; by pictures, sounds, and a lot of strong emotions. This inspired me, tired me sometimes, but mostly offered me a method of experiencing life, questioning the status quo, observing it. These people and this system became the actors of my own internal film making. And this form of expression became my own spirituality.

Architecture, however, offered me a method for seeing, and allowed me to understand space on a profound level, space as a character, as an expression of a world, a system and of human beings.

You shot the immensely successful television/web-series Beirut I love you while you were a student. When you returned to finish your degree had your outlook changed after this "on the ground" experience?

I made Beirut I Love you while I was finishing my architecture studies. Even though I didn’t get much sleep during these intense years, I hold a wonderful memory of them. Beirut I love you was my first film school when I knew nothing about making films, and was only operating on an emotional level. We were a bunch of young idealistic film-obsessed people who just wanted to play around and make films. Once I graduated I felt free to become a filmmaker, while remaining an architecture lover, without film-making being my parallel life. I continued directing, then felt the urge to actually study film. I applied for a Directing/Screenwriting MFA at Columbia University in New York. The “on the ground” and “guerilla” soul I came to Columbia with helped my learning curve and allowed me to be resistant to the sometimes dogmatic “rules” that can often take a filmmaker away from his or her true self. It allowed me to absorb the wonderful knowledge I was being offered while having the right filters.

"The world inside your film bubble and the spirit of your team is something that you create and that lives inside of you, wherever you are."

Many people want to be filmmakers today. In your view what are the ingredients needed and the obligatory steps to go through in order to get somewhere with your work?

There are a lot of filmmakers that I admire, and none of them have a path that’s similar to the other. I don’t think there’s a recipe to making it. I do think that honesty is at the heart of any strong work. Creating something specific that stems from the guts is the only way to reach a universal place without being general or generic. What the filmmakers I refer to above have in common is the creation of a unique cinematic language; a language that is born out of a certain culture, background, history. They have questioned the film form through their work, raised questions, and their work possesses the truth and perception you find in great literature, the type of art that makes you question and doubt, and that lingers.

You are between New York and Beirut, can you describe how being a young filmmaker in both cities is different-or similar?

In a way, very similar. The world inside your film bubble and the spirit of your team is something that you create and that lives inside of you, wherever you are. Maybe the New York working lifestyle taught me how to make my days extremely productive, perhaps too much sometimes to a point of losing the ability to know when to take a break.

It has been wonderful to be able to merge my Columbia family and my Beirut family on Submarine. 90% of the crew was Lebanese, but some of them were colleagues I met at Columbia. For example, my co-writer Clara Roquet, from Spain, and my editor George Sikharulidze, from the Republic of Georgia, are two filmmakers I met in New York four years ago and that I have continued to work with since.

In a way, studying in New York has brought me even closer to Lebanon, and has fueled my burning desire to talk about what it represents to me. Often, distance, whether temporal or geographical, helps one see things in their utmost raw state, and offers a brutal clarity and a tender nostalgia.

"We submitted a work in progress to Cannes. A little later, Dimitra Karya, artistic director of the Cinéfondation contacted me to share the great news."

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Actress Yumna Marwan in Submarine

What was the process leading up to Submarine being chosen for Cannes?

I started writing the script last summer in Lebanon, and continued writing in New York with the encouragement of my advisor at Columbia University and with my co-writer Clara Roquet. My producers Cyril Aris and Jinane Chaaya with whom I have worked since Beirut I Love You put up the team and produced the film with their usual magic. We shot for 6 days in Beirut and Tyre in January 2015 then divided the post production between Beirut and New York.

We submitted a work in progress to Cannes. A little later, Dimitra Karya, artistic director of the Cinéfondation contacted me to share the great news. The way she described how she felt about the film was extremely moving. I immediately shared the news with the team and we went out for drinks to celebrate.

Has the theme for Submarine been on your mind for a while? Did the garbage crisis then encapsulate the idea?

Yes it did. The development started before the crisis, but the real writing started during the crisis which I was living from within the city. The trash crisis made me rework an idea that was there. The story, this allegory, morphed and evolved with time, with the contextual changes, and with my own personal evolution.

The core of the film and its themes were present long ago, but the form evolved. The themes of stagnation, denial and hope: the eternal loop that my home often feels like.

Will Submarine become a feature length film? Are you in the process of writing it?

Submarine was actually born out of a feature length film I have been developing for a while. It goes beyond what the short film explores. I needed to dive into the world of the feature to explore its universe and its characters, in particular the lead, played by the incredible Yumna Marwan. Similarly, with the composer, Paul Tyan, this short allowed us to start developing the musical landscape for the feature. Same goes for my collaboration with the production designer Issa Kandil, and the cinematographer Joe Saade.

What are the main themes that are on your mind these days as a filmmaker?

I like observing the tools that we have armed ourselves with to fight time. I like observing how human beings react to the most desperate situations. Growing up, we were constantly in a state of "quasi emergency” and I was often surrounded by people in a vulnerable place. On a broader spectrum, for me, making films is about being witness to a time, a place, of one’s self.

Being Lebanese often means having a complex and constantly changing relationship with home. And what is home anyway? It’s a constant search. What I find myself most interested in is seeing the repercussions or effects of a certain societal structure on human dynamics. The bridge from the private to the public, the exterior and the interior, is often absent in Lebanon. And then on an even wider scale, Lebanon, as a microcosm of the world and vice versa.

Since Bookwitty is all about books, can you name some of your favorite films inspired by books?

The Tin Drum, Satatango, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Conformist, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly… To name a few.

Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.