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Venice Film Festival: The Lebanese Struggles in SEA SALT

Sea Salt Film by Leila Basma
During 19 intriguing minutes Sea Salt follows 17-year-old Nayla who on a hot summer day and on the southern seaside of Lebanon, is faced with the same dilemma every Lebanese youngster is faced with today: to leave or to stay. Two men in her life have set ideas about it, but both might wake up to a surprise.

We spoke to director Leila Basma and lead actress Nathalie Issa about their Orizzonti-section nominated film.

AM: How did you prepare yourself for the film?
Leila: For me, the process was kind of long and had many phases. I had the idea of Sea Salt in 2018 and since then I have been constantly in a brainstorming phase; writing ideas, taking photos of my hometown, and keeping an eye out for potential casts. In 2021, I started working on the script as my graduation film for FAMU and was granted a script development mentorship from the European Short Pitch and Cannes Court M├ętrage. I tried to go as much as possible to Lebanon and write from there to maintain my inspiration.
Nathalie: I met with Leila in Beirut during pre-production. We took the time to read the script, we talked about how we feel about the character of Nayla as well as the other characters. We also shared our personal experiences. What I really appreciated about these meetings is that we mutually built a trust towards one another, which is the most important thing for the relationship between an actor and a director. And the fact that Leila really wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with everything. We rehearsed with the other actors which was really important since we were shooting on film. Leila made sure to take the time during two weeks to be able to spend it with the actors, which I respect so much, like there has never been a wall between us. I felt safe and happy on set.

AM: What are some of the main challenges you faced on set during filming?
Leila: The shoot was very challenging, we shot on 16 mm analog camera, which is harder to handle, is time consuming and expensive. We also had many underwater scenes or shots in the sea, which were so tiring and scary. The shoot also took place in Lebanon during the economic crisis, so we had to face a lot of physical and economic challenges, but the team was so admirable, they are the ones who pushed us forward. Without them we wouldn’t have overcome all these challenges and the film wouldn’t be made.
Nathalie: I think I won’t forget the underwater shooting. I had to learn very quickly how to dive in really deep water. I had to sink so they were putting heavy weight on a belt around my waist. I still don’t understand how I dared to do it, but I was surrounded by a great underwater team who was there to ensure my safety. At the end I was so proud of the scene.

AM: And how close to an autobiography is Sea Salt?
Leila: There are, for sure, autobiographical attributes to Sea Salt; it is inspired by my own experiences growing up and set in my hometown Sour, in the south of Lebanon. However, the story is also inspired by so many young Lebanese people I know, and by what most of the women in my life have gone through. It is mostly a story about women realizing they can take their own decision independently.
Nathalie: As a Lebanese girl who has lived her teenage years in France, I always felt torn between two cultures, and this was always quite hard for me. You go to school and you see your friends living in a specific way, then you go back home and your parents show you a whole different way of living. And you wonder what is the right way to lead your own life? What I find fascinating about Lebanon is that it’s such a small country filled with different traditions, religions, ways of living and talking. People there who cross each other's paths live their life in a different way. This is what is actually happening to the character of Nayla who resides in the south of Lebanon and tries to find her own way. She wants to be able to make her own decisions even though two different male characters try to push her to do what they think is the best for her. So, for people who face this struggle, especially women, it takes a lot of patience and courage to make your own decision and assume it.

Sea Salt Film by Leila Basma

AM: Nayla reflects the struggles of the new generation in Lebanon, would say this is a political movie?
Leila: I would say that Sea Salt is a feminist film, and in that sense, maybe a political film as well. Feminism is a political theme, especially in the current socio-political climate, and it is very important to have films promoting women empowerment to inspire not only women, but anybody interested in human equality. Sea Salt also sheds the light on the pressure most of the Lebanese youth is going through today and tries to share a piece of our dilemma. Not every youngster in the Arab world wants to leave, just like my friends and I, most of us are very connected to our families but feel pushed away to be able to follow our dreams and have better career opportunities.
Nathalie: Lebanon is rooted in politics. We can for sure shed the light on the struggle this generation in Lebanon is facing by not being able to study and work and make a living in a country that is actually falling into pieces. What I find interesting in the movie is that it showcases teenagers who wish to stay in their country, others who do not want to and lose hope, and some who are actually lucky to be doing good. Nayla wants to stay in Lebanon, she loves her country. She has the possibility to join her brother in Canada and study there and live a comfortable life, but does it mean she will be happy? It is a quite sensitive and complex subject. It’s not normal that young people are worried about leaving their own country to be able to survive. We deserve to live in a country that is capable of offering its people the luxury of staying and living comfortably surrounded by their loved ones.

AM: Representing Arab-driven cinema in Venice is a milestone, what do you expect this festival to add to your career?
Leila: I am still in denial that I was at the Venice Film Festival! But I hope this means that it will be a little bit easier to make my next film. I have so many stories to tell, and I cannot wait to share them with the world. I think that the Arab film industry keeps on thriving, there are beautiful Arab films in major film festivals every year and I am so proud to be part of this industry. I hope this inspires Arab filmmakers to keep doing what they do, because Arab cinema is what connects us all in the Arab world.
Nathalie: I am thrilled to be in a Lebanese project where I speak Arabic and where I represent my generation directed by a woman of my generation. And for it to be recognized in one the biggest film festivals is pure joy. There is nothing more annoying than seeing our culture and story being told by people who do not really know it; and who do not even speak its language. This is why it is so important for Arab cinema to be under the spotlight. I will never say it enough, but rare are the Arab actors that are recognized internationally. There is still a lack of representation on the international scene. I don’t know what to expect for my career but I wish I would be given the opportunity to do many more movies whether Arab, European or American and for producers to cast me even if I don’t have a perfect English or French accent.