Last year, Ely Dagher’s short film Waves ’98 walked away with the Short Film Palme d’Or, and in 2010 Lebanese director Vatche Boulghourjian picked up third prize in the Cinefondation Selection; and in testament to the award’s abilities to work as a launching pad, he is returning to the festival this year with his first feature as part of the International Critics’ Week. For Cannes’ 2016 edition, it is Mounia Akl’s turn with her film Submarine to compete in the prestigious Cinefondation Selection.
Mounia Akl, currently undertaking her masters degree at Columbia University, has been splitting her time between New York and Lebanon for the past four years. She has directed a number of short films including Stream, Christine as well as the web series Fasateen, which bagged a bundle of awards including the Outstanding Writing award at the LA Web Festival in 2014 and the Grand Jury Prize at Marseille Web Fest in 2013. New York has a rich heritage when it comes to have films made there, just ask Woody Allen, but despite Mounia spending a lot of time there she still returns to make films in and about Lebanon. “I think right now the people that inspire me are the people that I have grown up with, the places that I have lived in, they are all rooted in Lebanon, because that’s where they work. I do think that a film can be personal and not necessarily be made in the country that you were born in. But in my case these two are related” explains Mounia. Submarine is no exception.
Set in three years in the future, Submarine tells the story of a Beirut that is still dealing with a trash crisis. And as the city’s citizens are evacuated, one woman, Hala, must decide whether to leave or remain to try and fight the growing onslaught of garbage. As Mounia tells it “It’s the story of a character in denial about home being gone, and she’s not ready to let go”. A cursory trip around Beirut will remind you that the trash problem that the city is trying to cope with is still very present, and for Mounia, this provided an interesting backdrop to the feeling of the film. “Creating that visual was my DOP and my production designer; they made the very conscious decision of treating trash like a character. When you have a shot of the mountains in Lebanon, the main characters are the trees and the greenery. We wanted trash to replace that. We wanted the image to be dirty and rotten and we wanted it to stink. We wanted people in the audience to smell the stink”. “It’s really about this system that is constantly repeating itself. It’s the story of human beings who have been on some level victims of this societal structure, and who have realised it has become harder and harder to fight for something that’s almost not there anymore.” Mounia says the work of her Production Designer Issa Kandil really helped to create the world in which the film sits and the frustration that they both shared added a lot of passion to the project. The film’s different teams, from the DOP to production design to wardrobe were given the theme of ‘faded glory’ to work with.
The film was shot entirely in Lebanon and the majority of the crew was also Lebanese. Mounia describes her crew as being like a family, “We were working together when we were a bunch of kids…excited about film and playing with cameras, and we grew up a lot separately, as well as together, and meeting again after a month of separation is always magical, because we are so excited to see what the other has become, but at the same time it’s like a family. It’s as if we had never stopped working together.” For Mounia the portrait of the city and the country that was created was important and having a crew that understood both was essential. “A lot of decisions that were made were based on how we perceived the city.”
Films are expensive to make, even short ones. Submarine secured funding from three different streams: The first was from the James Bridges Production Grant that is awarded at Columbia University to a director that excels in working with actors. The second source came from the executive producers, who were individual private citizens and the final bit of funding was achieved through crowdfunding. Beyond the money, Mounia received support from the staff at Columbia University who helped her through the writing process and the residents of the locations that she shot in. “We shot in Sour, and wherever we went we were welcomed with a lot of love and a lot of generosity…Whether in Sour or in Beirut, they welcomed us in their town and made us feel at home.” The film did not receive any funding from the Lebanese state, due mainly to the fact that Mounia did not approach them, knowing that money is scarce and appreciating that they might not be particularly pleased about the subject matter of the film.
Submarine was screened on May 18, and competed against 17 other films. The top prize is €15,000 with a guarantee that the winners first feature length film will be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. For Mounia, a win would mean “that the movie is not just a provincial movie”, although she also admits that she is most looking forward to seeing her team again and getting acquainted with others at the festival, as well as watching the reactions, good or bad, of the audience.
by Hugo Goodridge