Mounia Akl is a Lebanese director/screenwriter living between Beirut and New York. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Architecture from ALBA and an MFA in Directing from Columbia University. Apart from directing, Mounia has taught film at the NHSI at Northwestern University, Chicago and was a preceptor in Screenwriting at Columbia University, New York where she also co-founded the collective Breaking Wave Pictures .In 2017, Mounia was spotlighted by Screen International as one of the 5 Arab Stars of Tomorrow and was also one of the 4 Lebanese directors representing Lebanon at the 70th Cannes Film Festival’s Lebanon Factory with El Gran Libano, a film she co-wrote and co-directed with Neto Villalobos. Mounia was recently chosen by the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinefondation to take part in the 5 month residency for her first feature film script, Costa Brava which she is co-writing with Clara Roquet.
Hello Mounia! Where are you writing from? Where in the world are you?
I have been traveling a lot in the last 2 years with my work and for my shoots but I would say my base is between New York (where I moved 5 years ago) and Beirut, where I grew up and where my family and a huge part of my heart is.
Your short film “Submarine” was chosen for the Cannes 2016 Cinéfondation Selection. Can you tell us a bit more about how the idea for this project came about?
This story started with a feeling of frustration that was triggered by the garbage crisis our government drowned us in 2 years ago. For once, I had the fear that my country was in a dead end. I didn’t have hope, which was a very new feeling to me and not a very nice one. The movie is about this woman’s relationship to her country, yes, but the cracks in her society are no different than the cracks in her family or in her sentimental life.
We noticed that members of the crew come from different countries. In what ways has this multiculturalism impacted on the creation of the work?
I was lucky to be merging my two words in this film shoot. My NY/Columbia University family and my Lebanese family. My film family is composed of people from all over, and that has been a huge inspiration for all of us. It allows us to test the universality of the story, it allows us to create our own country, and it creates this constant excitement and curiosity, knowing how many different worlds are meeting in one place. This multiculturalism often helps the story transgress the boundaries of the locale it is set in. On a more selfish level, showing my Lebanon to my friends from Georgia, China, Spain, was important for me.
What was the best experience and the hardest challenge in shooting this film?
Making this ambitious story (production-wise) with the money and the time we had was the biggest challenge for me, the producers (Cyril Aris and Jinane Chaaya) and the crew. It was intense. But that was counterbalanced by the unmatchable energy of the group of people making this film. No matter what happened, we felt we were all working in one direction, and frankly, just having fun.
“I’m trying to be a witness of a time and a place, and I’ve chosen to do it with images, because this is how my brain works.”
You are based between New York and Beirut. What are the differences working in the film industry between these cities?
On set, I don’t feel the difference because there’s a lot of people in common in both teams, and in the end, the world inside the set is independent from the place. There’s no real difference other than the actual place and the flavour of it. NY and Beirut are very different, and that’s the difference. Each city gives me something different. In terms of the industries, Independant Cinema has similar characteristics whenever it is, I feel.
What is the message behind your work?
I wouldn’t say I have a message, I don’t think about it that way. I did feel the need when I started, to look at the society I grew up in, the family that brought me up and how these two communicated. I try to observe people with my films. I’m trying to be a witness of a time and a place, and I’ve chosen to do it with images, because this is how my brain works. It’s important to question the status-quo and that’s my way of doing it. I am also a frequent daydreamer, and my imagination takes me to places that only film can allow me to actually recreate.
Has anyone inspired you to become a director? If so, who was it and how have they inspired you?
The divorce of my parents was somehow a big trigger for me, and I am only realising this now. It introduced me to human complexity and psychology at a very young age, and I developed a fascination for human flaws, and people. This made me want to observe people more profoundly and look at their stories more in depth. This allowed me to maybe understand them (and the events they triggered) better.
What are you working on at the moment?
I recently completely a short film El Gran Libano. I was selected by the Cannes Film Festival’s Director’s Fortnight to be one of the 4 Lebanese directors to represent Lebanon at the Lebanon Factory. I was coupled with Costa Rican Director Neto Villalobos and we wrote and directed the film which opened the Director’s Fortnight and will screen soon at the Sarajevo Film Festival and the BFI. I also recently completely a couple of interesting collaborations, the last one being a collaboration with Fashion Designer Sandra Mansour, where I was given the fun task of interpreting her beautiful designs with images. We are in post production now.
I am also in the development phase of my first feature film. I have been selected for the Cannes Film Festival’s Cinefondation Residency and I will be moving to Paris from October to March, to work on the script.
Do you have any suggestions or advice to give to young people who want to become filmmakers?
I think surrounding myself with the right people was a big factor of why I am still in this industry today. They make it all worth it. Of course I have sometimes failed and had to face people with different ethics in the Lebanese or US film industry but that was fortunately rare. 70% of my crew are people I’ve been working with for years now. I love growing with them. I also have learned with age to catch people who are full of shit from a distance. I have zero energy for competitive or pretentious people, who think that there’s only one filmmaker than can exist and who are constantly in a cold war with other filmmakers. These people can potentially get to you, if you let them. This industry could be violent, but I created this bubble made with people who are generous, loving, and actually talented. Many of my friends are filmmakers and we constantly learn from each other, we give each other feedback on each other’s work, we collaborate. I have
learned more from them than in film school. They have made the experience worth so many of the risks I took.