From lectures to the Lido, Lebanese student takes graduation film to Venice festival

Leila Basma's short Sea Salt was selected for the prestigious event. She tells The National about her shock and why she chose The Swimmers actress as its star

The Swimmers actress Nathalie Issa takes the lead role as Nayla. Photo: Other Stories
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Lebanese filmmaker Leila Basma still can’t quite believe that her short Sea Salt has been selected for the Venice International Film Festival. “I mean, I’m still in denial,” she says with a laugh when we meet there.

“Maybe in a few months, I’m going to start to feel okay, the side effects of having this in Venice. But right now, I’m still processing.”

Due to be unveiled in the Orizzonti Short Film Competition on Friday, this elegantly made coming-of-age tale is also – believe it or not – her graduation film. That’s quite a way to announce yourself.

While Basma lives in Prague, where she’s been studying at the esteemed film school Famu, her film took her back to the Lebanese seaside town of Sour, also known as Tyre, where she grew up. “I really wanted my film to speak to the Lebanese audience,” she says.

The film follows Nayla, 17. It’s the summer and her brother wants her to move to Canada, where he lives. Meanwhile, Anthony, the young man she has a brief romance with, wants her to come to Beirut, which he feels will be best for her.

“It was a lot about my own experience and wanting to leave but also wanting to stay,” Basma says. “A lot about being pushed away. I feel like we experience it a lot in Lebanon, especially us young people.

"We always feel like we need to go somewhere else and move on but at the same time we’re attached to where we are. We love our country. Personally, I love the sea, I love my town. But it felt like everybody wanted me to leave.”

Sitting alongside Basma is her lead, Nathalie Issa, the Lebanese actress who shot to fame in last year’s The Swimmers, a drama based on the true story of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The dark-haired actress nods in agreement, recognising Nayla’s dilemma as symbolic of Lebanese teenagers of today.

“If they want to achieve what they want, if they have a lot of dreams, they have to make the decision to go away, unfortunately,” she sighs. Ironically Issa left Lebanon, aged eight and moved to France, but returned in her adult years and now lives in Beirut.

Her early experiences in Europe were another way she related to Sea Salt, with Nayla caught between the conservative elders in her town and more liberal youngsters around her. “She has a family who has some traditions, but also friends who live in a more progressive way,” says Issa.

“So you can find it a lot in Lebanon ... a lot of traditional people, but also a lot of people with open minds. When I go out, when I saw how French people live, I was like: ‘Oh, it’s a whole different life.’ And I had to choose my path.”

This sensitivity shows why she was the perfect casting for the film. “The role was very delicate. I needed someone who was very mature but at the same time looked very young,” admits Basma, who shot for seven days in Lebanon and one day in Prague.

Those were the toughest moments, with Issa weighted down in a pool for an underwater sequence. “It was quite stressful,” the actress admits. “But I love when movies challenge you and Sea Salt challenged me.”

Talking of which, Basma is now writing a feature script and also developing a feature documentary.

The latter is based on her Lebanese uncle, who moved to Los Angeles to become a belly dancer. She already captured him in The Adam Basma Project, which was shortlisted for the 48th annual Student Oscars. In the full-length documentary, she wants to explore how the family is dependent on him but unable to accept his choices. “Some of them are embarrassed that he’s a belly dancer,” she confesses.

Issa also loves the idea of non-fiction. “I also want to get behind the camera at some point and do some documentaries,” she says. “I don’t want to just stay in acting.”

Perhaps, that can be put down to her experiences in the industry already. Released by Netflix globally, The Swimmers did offer Issa the chance to get an American manager – although she clearly wants to act there on her own terms.

“The problem always with international projects is that they require always an American accent,” she says. “It’s really hard when you’re an Arabic actor ... it’s really hard for me still to find my path in the international scene.

"My challenge is to break the walls and to be accepted for my accent and just represent the world. There are a lot of people who have accents who come from different backgrounds. This is how the world is now.”

Updated: September 08, 2023, 10:42 AM