In Conversation with Mounia Akl, Director of ‘Submarine’

In the second installment of Hummus For Thought’s ‘In Conversation with‘, I spoke with Mounia Akl, the director of the award-winning short film ‘Submarine’ released in 2016. Needless to say, I recommend watching the film above before reading. I’ve made minor edits for reading purposes.


Joey Ayoub (JA): The activist says that ‘they don’t give a shit about us’ but also says that the elites have all left the country. If they have all left, why are the people following? Why, if the elites were the problem, was it not a chance to build something new?

Mounia Akl (MA): In the story, people have lost hope. Lebanon has become an unlivable apocalypse and the people are just left with no other option than to leave. Even the people who still had a bit of hope realise that it’s a survival thing by now. And whether those politicians that have been re-elected time and time again are here or not it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s not a tabula rasa. It’s the end.

Now you can ask me why create a context in the present where hope has been completely lost. I think that sometimes seeing the worst case scenario has a very powerful impact on the viewer and also just making that scenario a reality on screen is a way to express the fear of that worst case scenario. Let’s say my biggest phobia is like [Austrian director Michael] Haneke’s violence. He is one of the directors that has explored violence in one of the most gruesome ways and I think it’s his way of looking at violence in the eye. This is why I chose to place this film in the near future where no solution has been found, and even those who still had a bit of hope don’t have hope anymore. But the protagonist, Hala, is that person, the only person that hasn’t lost hope yet, and it comes in the form of denial.

JA: I asked my partner to watch it in case I missed anything, and she pointed out that there are so many plants in Hala’s appartment. Was that done on purpose? I figured it could be something like she’s using plants to filter out air pollution from the waste, but it’s also interesting that she’s watering the plants when everyone else has given up on the country. They’re the only real life in a land where everything is dying.

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MA: Yes of course. The first thing that I started developing was the character of Hala. Even before there was a story, there was a protagonist. Because I studied architecture, the first thing I imagined was her home because her home was a direct translation of who she was.

That home was divided in three layers. The first represents the layers of time because it’s the home that she inherited from her parents. It shows her attachment, her roots basically, because the different generations that have brought her here are the main reason why leaving is so difficult. The second layer was that of ‘Hala the activist’. We see gas masks in her house and signs from protests. The third layer was that of creating life, because Hala is a character who is completely refusing to accept that her home is gone so everything she’s doing inside her house is trying to create life and warmth and oxygen in a country that is otherwise in complete general asphyxia. So I wanted her to also create oxygen because it’s not gonna come from outside, to protect herself. But it’s to show that she’s also a person who, unlike her surroundings, is trying to recycle, to recreate life and to create a bubble that could be self-sustainable.

It was really important for me to introduce her home as the only living space in a country that’s drowning. To show her denial but also her love for this place, and contrast this with what the outside is like. That’s why her safe space is completely broken when the window breaks and the trash goes in.

JA: Was Hala imagining the dance scene where everyone is dancing around her? I was wondering if, when she started dancing on her own, she remembered the song sung by the old lady in the beginning and imagined a world where everyone was dancing and not worrying about fleeing the country, but I could be wrong.

MA: The interior of Submarine comes to life in terms of colors and lighting as soon as Hala enters it. The idea is to have Hala spread that, not in a ‘Amelie Poulain’ way but more in an unconscious way.

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I don’t necessarily want to answer the question of whether it happens in her mind because I wanted to blur the lines between memory and real time through the subjectivity of Hala, like in the world of Marquez (who is often an important reference for me). These moments where you don’t know if it’s a subjective escape from the protagonist or if it’s actually happening, these are moments I love exploring in general in cinema. So did everyone enter the room when Hala played the music to reminisce? Or did it happen in her head? Or was it a memory? I really wanted to blur the line because in Lebanon ‘past’ and ‘present’, ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, these are very merged notions. The power of Hala’s love for this place and these people brought them inside.

The reason why it’s not clear whether that scene is happening in her head or is ‘really’ happening is because of the way I directed it. It’s all happening in one shot. You enter Submarine and it’s completely empty. The camera focuses on her as she’s dancing alone. The camera dollies in on her and when it dollies out the room is completely filled. It was a very difficult shot to create, but one of the most powerful moments that happened on set.

JA: You said that Hala walks through a real dump in Nahr Beirut (Beirut River). Marquez famously used real life to show a world that is also ‘fantasy’. Do the real sites allow the viewer to also ‘escape’ alongside Hala?

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MA: The real dump is in Nahr Beirut and everything else is in Tyre/Sour. We had to recreate the garbage crisis in Sour using recycled trash because Sour was actually very clean. We cleaned everything after and because the people there knew what we were doing they were very supportive. They became part of the crew. It was a big family.

We mixed production design locations and relocations to work on that thin line between dystopia and present reality.

I don’t think I want the viewer to ‘escape’ because I don’t think Hala is escaping. What I really want the viewer to do is to observe and be a witness of this time and this place. I don’t feel that I’m here to teach a lesson. What I really want to do is raise questions and ask myself questions.

JA: One aspect of some of the most recent films that we’ve seen come out in Lebanon is the refusal to be defined by the past. I saw this when Hala’s uncle compared her stubbornness to her father’s and the aunt then telling him that he also acted like Hala in 1982. I understood this to mean that Hala is aware that Lebanon has already seen past crises which informs her desire to stay, even if it comes in the form of denial. Can you discuss the reference to ’82?

MA: The reference to ’82 wasn’t just a reference to past crises but also a reference to the circularity of Lebanese history, the repetitions that it is made of. It almost feels like Lebanon ten years from now is like Lebanon ten years ago. Hala is aware of that and her desire to stay, expressed through denial, I think is also her desire not to repeat history, not to repeat what previous generations did. I think it was important for me to portray Hala as a human from a leaderless generation. That was partly why her parents weren’t present.

Note: in between conversations the news regarding high-level of pollution in coastal water across the country made headlines.

JA: I’m fascinated by Hala creating her own space in the house and her ‘imagining’ the dance scene (whether it truly happened or not is besides the point as you said). It seems to me that this is at least partly related to the fact that postwar Lebanon barely has any actual public spaces left, especially Beirut. When we organised ‘You Stink’ for example, we had to meet up in some houses or some cafes because simply occupying a square (like in Tahrir Square in Egypt, Gezi Park in Turkey, Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, Homs Square in Syria etc) is just not feasible. There literally isn’t enough space even in Martyrs’ Square for proper mobilisation. So someone like Hala inherently understands the need to create ‘safe spaces’ even if in private. The layers in the house which you designed are one such examples, as well as her ‘imagining’ of the dance scene as well. I’m not even sure how to phrase the question here but I think you get what I mean? Would you reflect on this a bit? It doesn’t necessarily have to be related to You Stink or the Arab Spring. It could be more broadly about the need to create private spaces in the absence of public ones.

MA: A very important point we all discussed is the creation of public spaces within private ones because of the absence of these spaces in our cities. The creation of interiors that have the warmth and the life that is hard to find outside, especially in the context of the dystopia portrayed in this movie. So we really treated the interior as a direct contrast to the exterior, even in colors. For example take Hala’s house. I wanted her house to feel not just as a place of hope and ‘fresh air’ but also of repression and denial. So the house was worked in different layers [mentioned above]. It was also important to create this colorful bubble that feels nonetheless odd at the same time. In this film, the safe spaces are the ones inside, unfortunately.

And yes I think your examples of other protests are very revealing. In Lebanon, there isn’t enough space for mobilisation. It’s almost as if our spaces represent a time that we don’t want to remember, like they aren’t there for the people to use anymore.

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